The message of today’s post is that we shouldn't always assume a fit between a type of problem and a type of solution.
It’s an idea which features in Timothy D Wilson’s book ‘Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change’. In his first chapter he shows how simply spending a few minutes a day writing positive narratives may be more effective than intensive psychological counselling for victims of traumatic events.
I too have seen prosaic solutions to long held concerns. As I can’t actually remember anything about it, I have always assumed that the year of my infancy spent living in a council house in Leicester was not particularly joyful. The absent memories have left me feeling an entirely irrational dread of the city. As it turns out the solution was not to relive childhood anxieties but simply to go the East Midlands and be impressed.
On my visit yesterday there were Fellows Richard Brucciani and Neil McGhee telling me about their plans for a second and even more ambitious RSA-backed civic day in in September. There was Sue Thomas and her colleagues from De Montfort University extolling the virtues of 'trans-disciplinary' research and innovation (my talk was in the newly established Trans-disciplinary Common Room). And there was Dr Jason Wood talking about the university's impressive square mile initiative through which staff and students are working with a disadvantaged local community on a whole variety of interventions.
The main reason for my visit was to give a talk. As I like to whenever I can, I returned to my core script about 21st century enlightenment (animated twelve minute version here). Repetition not only cuts down preparation time, it also means I have a reason to return to the core ideas. Each time I try to add some new dimension or nuance.
Regular readers may recall the argument (which I first surfaced way back in 2007) that tomorrow's citizens have in aggregate to be more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social if we are to close the growing gap between our needs and aspirations on the one hand and, on the other, the trajectory on which current ways of thinking and behaving have set us.
Previously I tended to describe the ‘social aspiration gap’ in terms of material needs such as for elder care, jobs or environmental sustainability. A development of the argument is to add values to the gap. By this I mean the gulf between the kind of society our values suggest we want and the one we seem in fact committed to creating. Perhaps the most stark example - and one I have referred to several times before - concerns the life chances of children. Opinion polls suggest that most people subscribe to the principle that all children should have reasonably equal life chances at birth. However, politicians and policy makers have failed to persuade us to support ideas and interventions which might credibly meet this objective.
Another new thought about the social aspiration gap concerns the principle methods needed to close it. Here I find myself with a counter-intuitive thought.
If closing the gap requires more engaged, resourceful and pro-social citizens and I was to say that the main barriers were human development, organisational innovation and ethics you might imagine the lists of three correspond, for example that we need to be more ethical if we are to become more pro-social. But I'm not sure they do.
In fact an ethical deficit may be the main barrier to engagement. It is only if we are in principle willing to put the good of society ahead of our own immediate interests that engagement can ever work. The main barrier to resourcefulness may be human development in that more of us need to reach a higher level of mental complexity if we are to have the capacity to be more creative in meeting our own and each other's needs. And the main barrier to pro-social behaviour may be organisational in that - as I have suggested previously - we urgently need new ways of bringing people together, developing ideas and carrying those ideas into action if we are to translate the public's willingness to contribute into action (this is the hypothesis being explored in our efforts to enable the RSA Fellowship to become a network for social innovation).
Generally my ideas have the lifespan of a mayfly and this could be the case again. But I wonder if there is something worth exploring in the thought that we too often assume solutions will emerge in the same domain as the problems they are intended to solve? An organisational problem may need an ethical solution while a problem about values may actually be solved through a new strategy or design.
Thank you Leicester. I now associate you with great people and food for thought.
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