What really is the point of it all? I’m afraid that is the question preying on my mind on this grey in- between-time day. ‘But why the existential neurosis?’ I hear my imaginary reader ask.
It could be the time of year, or perhaps it’s the sapping effort of not getting depressed about another West Bromwich Albion slump in form (I have decided that it is pathetic for me, a fifty year old aspiring public intellectual, to have my mood affected by a football team, but as this has been a feature of my undistinguished emotional landscape since I was five years old I’m finding it involves a high degree of mindfulness).
But mainly it is thinking about my annual lecture. The chosen topic is ‘the 21st century enlightenment organisation’. It was, and still is, my intention to write some posts laying out a broad framework for the speech. But there are prior questions. Why am I doing an annual lecture, why on this topic and what can I hope to achieve from it for myself and, more importantly, for the RSA?
One self interested reason is to force me to do some serious thinking amidst all the more managerial and reactive duties of running the Society. Also, it may be trite, but if an organisation wants to be seen as a thought leader (whatever exactly that means) should, I guess, have a leader who gives the appearance of occasionally having thoughts. And, if it is at all successful, the annual lecture might help to frame and guide the work of the Society. This also explains the choice of topic.
Earlier this year the RSA launched the ‘21st century enlightenment’ strap line. The aim was to connect our past and future and also to have a mission which seemed distinctive while being open to a variety of interpretations. As I have written in other posts, the idea has so far been pretty successful. Active Fellows and colleagues among the Society’s staff refer to it, even, occasionally as the basis for decision making. As well as the 360,000 or so views of the ‘Animate’ lecture on line, I have been asked to speak on the idea in settings ranging from a local government conference to an independent girls’ school, and a number of people and organisations have approached the Society suggesting that 21st century enlightenment strikes a chord with their own work.
As these conversations with putative collaborators have demonstrated, the concept is open to many interpretations. This year I gave mine. In a nutshell this was to combine a practical argument for enhanced citizenship with the insights of behavioural science to provide a critique of contemporary interpretations of core enlightenment ideas. I suggested we need to think afresh about the principles of autonomy, universalism and humanism (or in their more everyday forms; ‘freedom, fairness and progress’).
The aim of next year’s lecture is more concretely to apply the idea by exploring what it might mean for the way we think about organisations. As all of us spend most of our time working in, dealing with or being affected by organisations of one kind of another, this is surely a pretty mainstream topic. There are also echoes here of something I began talking about in my first annual lecture, namely new forms of collective action. And, as the RSA is an organisation there is a reflexive element, exploring how the RSA could become ‘the kind of organisation the 21st century needs’.
So far, so good. But then, just as my mind was turning to a speech outline, I remembered a cause of dissatisfaction with previous lectures. It is what might indelicately be called the ‘who the XXXX are you?’ problem. I am genuinely pleased if those who attend the lecture enjoy it and it is gratifying that other people have wanted to watch or hear versions of last year’s speech. But, at the risk of sounding like deluded megalomaniac, I also wanted the idea to gain a wider currency so that people use it beyond the immediate context of the RSA. And here, I have to admit, 21st century enlightenment has been like a liquor discovered on a foreign holiday; fine in its context but not good at travelling.
The problem is my own lack of authority. I have had some interesting and reasonably important jobs but it’s not as if I’ve got a track record of personally achieving outcomes in the real world of people’s day to day lives. Although I hope I might be making some progress with RSA, I can’t pretend that my ideas have much day to impact beyond the small – albeit expanding – orbit of the Society’s direct influence. Not am I scholar whose views can be taken to stand for what other people might think if only they had the same deep knowledge. I don’t even have any new empirical research with which to anchor my thoughts to a real world phenomenon (I guess in desperation I could commission a cheap and cheerful opinion poll but, given my generally disparaging view of such exercises this would be more than a little hypocritical).
So is my annual lecture merely the oratorical equivalent of vanity publishing? Every week or so I get sent one of those books. Sometimes the reason why the author failed to attract a commercial publisher is all too obvious but, on other occasions, a dip into the text suggests that if only I had enough time and concentration I could get something useful from spending a few hours gleaning wisdom the author has spent half a lifetime accumulating. But I don’t and in large part because of the ‘who the xxx are you?’ problem.
We listen to ideas partly so that we might repeat them. But while we are happy to remark ‘apparently new research shows...’ or ‘as Michael Heseltine said’ or ‘as Martin Rees said’ or even ‘as the bloke who invented ebay said’, we are much less likely to interject a conversation with ‘as someone you’ve never heard of, who hasn’t done anything very important, said’.
So instead of outlining the five parts of the plan for my 2011 speech I find myself wondering how I can make the whole thing be more than simply the latest, moderately informed, moderately original, not terribly relevant offering by that bloke who used to work for Blair, now runs a Royal Society (but not one of the authoritative scientific ones) and is sometimes on Radio 4.
Maybe when the booze, mince pies and sprouts (do they agree with anyone’s digestion?) have washed through my system, and perhaps if West Brom pull something out of the hat against Man United or Fulham (bugger, back to the meditation) I will perk up and find some heroic rationalisation for the importance of my thoughts. But right now, I have to admit, I feel about as motivated as the bloke I saw this morning trying to flog Christmas Trees for £2.50 each.
Al Mathers, former RSA Director of Research and Learning, explores the importance of introducing reciprocity into the work of social change organisations like the RSA.
Tamsin Hanke Sash Scott
Super-nature was one of 10 commissions to feature in the 2022 global exploration research project, Collective Futures. Learn about the work and its outputs in this field note.