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FOUNDATIONS for a 21st century enlightenment

Anthony Painter

Director of RSA Action and Research Centre


It is movements and ideas combined that secure lasting change

Hidden in the story of human progress lie acts of extraordinary collective leadership. Victories are hard earned and then the struggle is slowly forgotten. A residue of heroic figures, great discoveries, battles won and lost remains. Yet the human toil of many, their effort and bravery, fades from view. Enlightenment values of freedom, humanism and universalism advance when collective leadership is visible and recede when it is absent.

In times of confusion, much like these times of geo-political, cultural, economic and ecological tumult, we hope for saviour figures. Yet, the historical record suggests, it is movements rather than individuals that shift history. Perhaps we are seeking the wrong types of solution. These essays tie big ideas to collective action to change – the essence of 21st century democratic change. 

To take one historical example, when we think of the abolition of the slave trade, we immediately remember William Wilberforce - the campaigning MP who led the parliamentary movement towards abolition of the trade. Few will recall the name, Thomas Clarkson, who effectively devoted his life to ending the slave trade. Even fewer would cite Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who bought his freedom, then wrote an autobiography to tell the tale to rapt audiences across the country.

It was, in part, in the civic and intellectual cauldron of late eighteenth century London, in its printing shops and coffee houses (from which the RSA also sprung into life), that radical reform was fomented.  Even less is known of the enormous movement behind abolition – of trade and then slavery itself in British colonies. Mary Birkett, the poet, Hannah More, the poet-writer and Mary Wollstonecraft were all prominent in the early movement. Sailors and doctors who travelled on slave ships detailed the horrors of the trade, leading to opinion swaying pictorial portrayals of inhumane conditions. Josiah Wedgwood produced an iconic medallion with the slogan, “am I not a man and brother?” 


Enlightened change contains critical components, pursued relentlessly over time by multitudes.


By the 1820s, movement leaders such as Elizabeth Heyrick, were also asking, “am I not a woman and a sister?” Heyrick would publish the case for immediate rather than gradual abolition – from which Wilberforce recoiled. The women’s sections of the abolitionist movement were the most active, intellectually robust, and politically demanding. They canvassed almost every house in Birmingham with their abolition petition. The link between the attitudes that sanctioned slavery and the oppression of women and working people back home did not go unnoticed. Abolition would have been unimaginable in 1833 without the work of Heyrick – who did not quite live to see abolition - and many others. 

And, of course, there was the critical role of the slaves themselves. Resistance had become more frequent with riots in the Caribbean on several occasions. These riots created both an economic cost and a shock to the system – an ignition under the movement. Enlightened change contains critical components, pursued relentlessly over time by multitudes. And without such movements, change can be superficial, fleeting, and incomplete.

Abolitionist movements combined forceful aims, the diligent gathering of evidence not just of an oppressive present but a different possible future, and the spread of ideas and knowledge that could lead to real change. Of note was the ability of the movement to build smart alliances, sometimes with plantation owners themselves.

An early member of the Society of Arts and plantation owner, Joshua Steele, more advocate of amelioration than abolition it should be said, experimented with more humane treatment of slaves, and no slave purchases from trading ships. These experiments demonstrated the economic inefficiencies of the slave trade in the process. Ideas were combined with interests, pressure, moral suasion, resistance, experimentation and disseminated at scale. So it was that history was shifted.


The state of Britain - and a response

And what of our current times? This moment we are in feels like one in which a divided society is pulling away from progress. This is something that is picked up very strongly in a survey we ran to explore the thirst for new ideas to meet big societal challenges – such as automation, climate change, the ageing society, inequality, social isolation and intolerance. A strong sense of pessimism comes through in the results. Just 21 percent believe that Britain will be a better place to live in 2030. This is a bracing outcome. Over a third think it will be worse. The three most likely words to describe Britain in 2030? Divided comes out top, followed by diverse and insecure. This is not a moment where the nation is at ease with itself; quite the opposite in fact. 

Our survey found that remainers and leavers are at least united on one issue – Brexit is seen as a distraction for the big challenges society faces. Overall, seventy-five percent see Brexit as a distraction with remainers six to-one and leavers three-to-one in agreement. However, there is a positive story to tell from our data. Though survey respondents see citizens as the least influential group in society, they see citizens as driving ideas for the future. Sixty percent look to citizens themselves to come up with the right ideas for the future with public service leaders, academic institutions and thinktanks not far behind. It’s not quite the twilight of the expert that some have claimed – as long as they reach out to citizens and ensure they have voice and influence. It’s a less promising story for the major political parties – neither is seen as having the ideas for the future. 

They are not alone. Institutions and organisations of an array of forms are struggling to attain and sustain legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Facebook, a much-loved social platform enjoyed by billions, nonetheless finds itself at the centre of legislative and legal inquiries into political manipulation of its users through its data sharing and advertising platforms. Brexit is not even at the top of the EU’s agenda as the Eurozone, austerity and migration gnaw at its base. Public institutions from welfare to health systems struggle to meet new citizen demands from economic insecurity, ageing societies and distributional demands – of identity and class. 

Democracies everywhere face challenges from outsider, radical political movements – some authoritarian. Inequalities of wealth, power and voice that opened after the collapse of the Bretton Woods international system have become ever more opaque, impenetrable and consequential. If you are part of the majority on the wrong side of the wealth and income divide you are destined for relentless day-by-day insecurity. Global business and capital markets seem out of reach to democratic regulation. 

Is it any wonder that citizens feel excluded and want their voice to be heard? And there are no shortage of voices encouraging people to lash out. In opposition to such voices, there are Establishment respondents counselling moderation and continuity. Given the scale of the challenges modern societies face, incrementalism is insufficient even if it well-intended. But populism provides few ultimate answers even if it can provide a popular vent. Something more substantive yet bold is required to shift us towards a better place. And that is exactly what the slavery abolitionists achieved. We cannot look to expertise or democracy – both will need to operate in tandem. And that requires a very different approach to that taken in much of today’s politics, business, and global institutions. 

A fusion and interaction of expertise and civic renewal lies at the heart of the RSA’s model of change. As this essay collection shows, we see our role as spotting good ideas, often bold, and developing them with others, testing them in partnership and working with our network of Fellows and wider civic and practitioner networks to spread and develop them further. 

Future of Britain Survey 2018

Populus interviewed 2,096 respondents online to ask citizens about their vision for Britain's future.

  • Overall 75% of respondents agreed with the statement "Brexit is distracting too much attention from more pressing issues, like the NHS, schools, automation, and social care"
  • 60% of respondents agree ordinary citizens have the best ideas to tackle the challenges we face in the coming years. 
  • "Divided" was the most chosen word to describe Britain in 2030. 

Find out more

Future of Britain Survey 2018

These essays make no claim to being exhaustive in terms of the challenges they confront. Over the coming year we will have far more to say on the growing threat of climate breakdown – as evidenced by the warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” consequences of even a 1.5ºc increase in global temperatures from preindustrial times. Coming to terms with what this means for UK society and knowing how best to act to have a positive effect is, arguably, the most critical requirement of our time.

In the recently published Food, Farming and Countryside Commission Progress Report, Sue Pritchard sets out the Commission’s thinking so far, underpinned by a shared recognition that urgent action is crucial.  For example, the Commission suggests a ten-year agriculture transition plan to enable the UK to meet its Sustainable Development Goal commitments. Such a plan must be compiled with deep democratic engagement. Change will not come from technical fixes alone. 

The recently released RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission interim report argues for a 10-year transformational Agricultural Plan. 

Research backed ideas are just the start. We also seek to develop an understanding of change and bring a wide array of voices into our work.

In this spirit we took the insights developed in our report The New Digital Learning Age and worked with dozens of partners from business, school to university education, culture and arts, community groups and local authorities in Brighton, Plymouth and Greater Manchester to develop our Cities of Learning programme. Pilots will follow in 2019 which will aim to create a mass engagement with learning in a place and narrow learning inequalities. 

Inequalities of wealth, power and voice have become ever more opaque, impenetrable and consequential. Is it any wonder that citizens feel excluded and want their voice to be heard?


The Citizens’ Economic Council was so successful in breaking down the barriers between economic experts and citizens that the Bank of England took up the idea of citizen deliberation. The Future Work Centre blends cutting-edge research with sectoral co-design to help widen pathways to good work. And rather than sitting in oak-panelled rooms, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission has been on the road and working with communities to support them in imagining a more sustainable and inclusive future. We are also working in local communities in Scotland to explore how a Universal Basic Income can be integrated into communities thereby ensuring recipients receive additional support from business, services and voluntary action. 

This bridge between ideas, citizens, experimentation and change runs through all the essays in this collection. 

Ideas, people and change

In the field of education, foundational to a 21st century enlightenment, Julian Astle and Laura Partridge argue for a genuinely inclusive and expansive education for all grounded rigorously in knowledge with an eye to understanding the range of capabilities that the citizens of the future will require. This mission-oriented education challenges a system too bedevilled by narrow focus and gaming. But they see professionals, education leaders and communities taking charge of educational missions. A knowledge, ethics and practice rich education must be owned by communities rather than imposed from above.

Ben Dellot and Brhmie Balaram help us navigate a new wave of ‘radical technologies’ which, like previous technological waves, require a determined response if all are to share in the benefits. They caution against holding technology back and, indeed, advocate moving at a faster pace where economic, social and environmental benefits are to be harnessed. Yet, they argue that the adoption of these technologies must be ‘on our own terms’. In practice, this will mean the renewal of the ‘social contract’ to better provide people with the tools and resources - such as access to personal training accounts - to help them adapt and shape technological innovation.

Data rights must be more clearly formulated in a way that is of use to people as they, for example, engage with major platforms or new public services. In parallel, major adopters of Artificial Intelligence and automation should safeguard these rights for our individual and collective benefit. Ownership of these new radical technologies must be spread widely if they are not to divide further economically polarised societies.

10 foundations for 21st century enlightenment

  • Mass ownership of the assets of the new economy – and a Universal Basic Opportunity Fund to support economic security.
  • A national dialogue about expanding investment in the public services of the future after a decade of cuts.
  • A ten-year transformational Agriculture Plan to meet our commitments to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Pilot Universal Basic Income as a platform for real economic security and welfare.
  • New devolution settlement for the UK to empower neighbourhoods, towns, cities and regions to combat inequality.
  • Mission-led schools with the freedom to provide a more complete and generous education of the ‘head, hand and heart’ – a precondition for a 21st Century Enlightenment.
  • Devolve power to teachers, parents, communities and pupils to support a rich education for all.
  • A new social contract including Personal Training Accounts to help safeguard good work amidst widespread technological change.
  • Embed deliberative democracy in the UK constitution at national and local level.
  • A new data commons to ensure rights are protected and the benefits of the AI revolution are shared.

And Ed Cox argues, in similar vein, that a new settlement is needed to support people and places. Economic security could be enhanced by Universal Basic Income (the RSA supports the pilots which took place in Scotland) and a national debate is needed to see how to best support public services, starved of resources after almost a decade of austerity. But resources are not sufficient, voice is vital too. And, building on the RSA’s Citizen’s Economic Council and its chief executive’s advocacy of deliberative reforms to UK democracy, the RSA will work with others to see such innovations spread both at local and national level.

To support the former and make meaningful decision-making possible, Cox argues for a comprehensive devolution settlement for the whole of England and enhanced devolution for the UK more widely. 

These ideas reach towards an approach to change that is ‘of’ the people rather than simply ‘for’ them. In so doing, change becomes infused with the values of freedom, universalism and humanism. Change becomes owned by us all. A greater field of vision opens with more diverse voices and suddenly, rather than only 21 percent believing the country is headed for better times, many come to see the collective possibilities to confront enormous and multifarious challenges. 

To paraphrase Margaret Mead, never doubt that a movement of people, imbued with a sense of mission, knowledge, the willingness to experiment and share ideas and practice can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. As we face the daunting challenges of climate change, a technological transformation, an ageing society, economic insecurity and inequality, and a democracy and society that appears deeply divided, such a commitment to change – amongst many – now seems like prerequisite for the future success of our modern societies. Twenty-first century enlightenment, in its purest form, will be a mass partnership that can bring about lasting change. It’s been done that way before, after all – just look to the millions who in our corner of the world and its overseas territories fought slavery.


How do we achieve 21st Century Enlightenment?

Education for enlightenment

By Julian Astle and Laura Partridge

The teaching-to-the-test culture in our schools is failing to prepare pupils for the future they face.


Automation on our own terms

By Benedict Dellot and Brhmie Balaram

We need new rights, responsibilities and assets to help workers thrive amidst new technologies.


Britain's new Giants

By Ed Cox

We need new public service and democratic institutions geared towards tackling inequality, loneliness and intolerance. 







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