The two big stories that I have woken up to on my working holiday in Australia are connected to each other and to the core mission of the RSA.
The credit bubble gave policy makers, financiers and the public the illusion that through a sleight of hand they could accelerate the underlying pace of economic growth. Then the crunch hit and the clocks stopped. But in the years since it has felt like we have been trying to get back to the fantasy world of effortless growth. Now even that illusion is being shattered.
This is the great unwinding. Apart from exploiting natural resources (the basis of Australia's continuing strength), real economic growth relies on technological innovation, improvements in productivity and changes in the terms of trade. But we still haven't found enough ways to make new money out of the web (although, as we can see on our high streets, there is the steady displacement of old money), productivity growth is sluggish to non existent and about ninety percent of the world's population is willing to work harder than us for lower wages.
For many years to come it is unlikely economic growth will help much in bridging the growing gap between our needs and wants and what the state and the market are able to provide. This isn't to say we should ignore market-based innovation (the RSA will continue to explore ways of boosting entrepreneurship) but it does put an greater emphasis on social innovation.
This form of innovation is aims to improve the efficiency through which we pursue social goals. In seeking to do good for our fellow citizens (I don't think there is any fundamental shortage of goodwill in society) we expend three distinct but overlapping resources; money, time and effort (which is a trade off between how much energy we use and how much pleasure we get from doing so). A genuine social innovation will generate greater social goals from the same input of money/time/effort or use less money/time/effort to achieve better results. In my experience a lot of what people describe as social innovation fails to meet this criterion as it is in fact just a new way for people to use resources to generate outcomes and isn't necessarily more effective than existing ways.
Southwark Circle of Care is an example of social innovation. By combining private, public and voluntary resources, Participle (the consultancy which worked with local people to design the scheme) made it easier and more rewarding for older citizens to look out for each other and for younger citizens to help elders. Two social needs - addressing isolation and providing practical day to day support for older people living at home - are being met more effectively than could have been done by other private, public or voluntary sector methods. No wonder Southwark circles is being replicated in several other places and has received glowing endorsement from ministers and shadow ministers alike.
But with the formal economy going back to basics we are going to need a whole lot more social innovation in the years to come. Critical to this is to find ways for it to be easier, more pleasurable and even more prospect-enhancing to people to make a contribution to a better society. Which is why the issue of volunteer engagement, which almost all public services and far too many third sector organisations (whatever they might piously declare) treat as marginal, is in fact incredibly important.
Which is also why, despite my pride in RSA Animate, the RSA Academies, and our best projects, for me the most important work we do at the RSA is around mobilising our Fellows. This is not just about a better RSA; it is extremely relevant to the big challenge society faces in meeting needs in a slowly growing economy.
There has been real progress. There are more Fellows involved in the RSA's work than ever before. In most places Fellows work in more informal open and creative ways than the more hierarchical committee based ways of the past. The steady stream of Catalyst bids show that Fellows are keen to take up our offer to support their charitable endeavours. But still I think we are waiting for the great leap forward.
I felt this in Perth sitting in a room of great people, all excited about giving time and brain power to social improvement and all wanting to believe the RSA can be the vehicle for that aspiration. It's all there in the RSA: a wide but vital mission of enhancing human capability, some great research themes, the flow of new ideas we get from our speakers and contributors to the website and Journal and most of all our amazing Fellowship, but still what I find hard - if I'm honest - is working out how to make the ingredients gel.
The long term challenge in the wake of the riots and looting is the same as the one we identified at the RSA some time ago: how can we live better lives in a better world without relying on an unsustainable (in both sense of the word) model of economic growth? Musing away on holiday I feel even more certain that the RSA can play a really significant role in meeting 21st century challenges, but also even more frustrated not only that this potential is still to be realised but that I can't yet see the way we get from good to great.
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