Notwithstanding my Kerry Katona like mood swings, I find myself increasingly convinced that the economic downturn is going to be very, very bad; so much so that our lives and our country will never be the same again. Even if we have seen the beginning of the end of the problems in the financial sector (and there is still a huge amount of leveraging to unwind), and even if the economy starts to pick up slowly towards the end of next year, we then face severe cuts in public investment. On the one hand, this could kill off any recovery (as we now know, much of the job creation of the last decade has been in the publicly funded sector) while on the other, we will all suffer diminished public provision and many will face real hardship.
As the Conservatives inadvertently underline every day, there is no alternative; things are going to be grim. What we must do – the ‘we’ in this case being society in general and organisations like the RSA – is make better use of the under-used capacity which exists in society.
Innovation is very often precisely about this mobilisation of capacity. So, as I was saying to Leonard Cheshire Disability this morning, individual budgets for social care work in part because they tap into the previously unseen and unused capacity to manage their own lives and services which exists among social care clients and carers. Another example, which I heard in Leicester from a Fellow called Nigel Lothrop, is a successful scheme in which young people who have been in trouble or have dropped out of school clear and maintain the gardens of people unable, for one reason or another, to do it themselves. Using a time bank mechanism the young people then trade the hours donated to the gardens for time getting one-to-one tuition in the basic skills they often failed to pick up in formal education. Apparently, the scheme is proving too successful in that the barrier to it now is not the need for or supply of volunteers but the capacity of the local authority and third sector to manage the scheme.
If we are to improve the quality of our lives, protect the most vulnerable and strengthen communities we need these kinds of experiments to be taking place everywhere. However much capacity we are going to lose in the private and public sector, it is dwarfed by the unexploited potential of civil society. Mobilising this capacity should be a priority for policy makers and a new raison d’etre for the RSA Fellowship.
A return to the past seems implausible. Exhausted as we are, a dash to the future seems unlikely. Nonetheless, however weary, we cannot stay rooted to this moment.