Although I can no longer seem to find the quote, James Baldwin once wrote something like this: "people can cope with almost anything once they know where reality is".
The apparent inability of our leaders and institutions to cope with the challenges our country faces is reflected in the willingness of the public to completely deny reality.
We can see this in how the leadership contest for the Conservative Party - a party which once prided itself on pragmatism and responsibility - has turned into a unicorn auction.
To the question; ‘what should society’s top priority be?’ there are many possible responses. Some might emphasise the pursuit of social justice. Others the need to modernise our economy and increase productivity. A growing number would point to the climate emergency. My answer would be: getting people to engage with reality again at a time of complexity and change.
Our politics encourages denial and illusion
In our world, many things have got a lot better while some have got worse. In most ways, we are more progressive and tolerant than previous generations, but we are also more prone to anger and harsh judgement.
Almost all the important things we want to improve about our society will take time and involve difficulty, especially in the short-term. As Michael Blastland argues in his new book The Hidden Half, not only do we know less about how nature and society work than we think, but much of it may be impossible to know. For example, policies and ideas that have worked in the past may start to fail for unaccountable reasons.
Whatever we do, we will encounter new problems. Nothing we do as a society will relieve us of the existential challenges of mortal human existence. Of course, a moment’s reflection tells us all this is true.
But how do we respond to it? In the modern world, instead of religion (which for all its faults, could make reality bearable and humility commendable) we have a political discourse which encourages denial and illusion.
In the face of adversity and big challenges, it is human to want to blame others. It is tempting to imagine the solutions are simple. Instead of mainstream politics challenging these human weaknesses, it preys on them.
It turns out that when politics becomes about simple solutions and apportioning blame, the populists are much more skilled and ruthless at playing that game.
To deal with our problems we need to talk and engage with people, not lecture
How can we fight back? As we have seen from the tragic-comedy of Brexit, people can’t come to terms with reality simply by being told that things are complicated.
It’s too easy to blame the education system. Engaging with different people and difficult ideas takes time and commitment. Most of all, it requires the right process.
I increasingly find the most credible and impressive social change organisations have something in common: they put considerable time and effort into developing the right methods and processes. Examples include the Innovation Unit and the Forward Institute.
These organisations know that to engage people in ways that encourage them to open their minds and their hearts, to grow their capacity to develop and apply solutions together, takes great skill and continuous development.
This is certainly a shift that is taking place at the RSA. For a long while we have been contemplating our approach to progressive social change, with the view that we should care as much about how we achieve change as the goals we pursue.
Traditional think tank logic suggests that by developing evidence-based policy options, progress will follow. But this focus on policy relies too heavily on the big levers of Government - legislation, tax and spend and earmarked funding - as the tools of change. With the technological, social, and political change we are experiencing, this slow and mechanical model is increasingly ineffective.
How the RSA Lab uses ‘design thinking’ to find new ideas
To address this, the RSA Lab has built an approach based on understanding the systems around societal problems and why they are hard to address, then identifying and testing the best ways to solve them.
Our programmes draw together those affected by a complex issues to help understand them in a systemic way, and help facilitate the co-design of responses and experiments.
To do this, we use our research insights and convening power to bring together a range of people. We encourage them to use ‘design thinking’ to try and solve problems by experimenting.
The other day I asked a new colleague, recently arrived from a think tank, how things were working out. He told me he had been particularly impressed when his first workshop hadn’t simply been a conventional seminar or roundtable, but a carefully structured and designed engagement process.
The way we find solutions is as important as the solutions themselves
As an advocate of deliberative democracy, the thing I find hardest is to get people to understand the importance of the proper design of deliberative processes. They are not just long-winded forms of consultation. From the selection of the participants to framing the issue, from the quality of moderation to the link into decision makers, many vital elements are necessary for them to work.
Priya Parker recently spoke at the RSA and reinforced the point that engaging people in the right way is vital to the institutional renewal and reinvention society urgently needs.
The environmental movement seems to be grasping this too. Extinction Rebellion advocates a citizens’ assembly on climate change as one of its three core demands. (Like the one that Parliament is now establishing.)
In his book There is No Planet B, Mike Berners Lee dedicates a chapter to new thinking skills – including ‘complex and complicated thinking’ and writes:
“we urgently need new problem-solving methods…but changing the way we think isn’t simple because we are dealing with grooves of habit worn deep over the centuries.”
The problems, however, are money and attention. Good process and method are expensive - and are of almost no interest to most people, including politicians. A nationally respected journalist and broadcaster freely admitted to me she is a sceptic about deliberation simply because it is ‘all just too boring’.
Somehow, we need more people – decision makers, funders, organisational leaders, the public – to see that how we find the solutions to society’s problems is just as important as why we are looking for solutions in the first place.
If we can’t will the right means, we won’t will the right ends.