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I argued last week that an aspect of the 21 century enlightenment project might be to escape the cage of individualism; not to reject the powerful idea of individual rights and freedoms but to address the way we systematically exaggerate our own agency at the expense of recognising social agency (a contrast between personal optimism and social pessimism is a consistent finding of opinion polls).

If we are to overcome this dichotomy it will be in organisations. It is at work, in clubs, charities and community groups – not at the distant level of national society - that we connect to the idea of collective action. Which is why organisational reform and institutional renewal is an important dimension of 21CE. It is why I argue that the reform of the RSA, and particularly the way we think about and resource Fellowship, is not just a means of social progress but exemplifies the kind of progress we need.

With this in mind I was incredibly heartened by a recent visit to Scotland at which I met the Scottish Committee and a wider group of FRSA. Scotland introduced a small social enterprise seed fund a year or so ago and it has made a huge impact on the way the RSA thinks and talks about itself. Bureaucracy is kept to a minimum and there is little enthusiasm for wrangling with head office, instead the focus is outwards, celebrating the impact those small grants are making to the charitable innovations of Scottish Fellows and exploring what kind of new ideas the Society might back next.

Following discussion with Trustees and the Fellowship Council, in a couple of weeks we are launching a RSA wide version of a seed fund. I am hoping it can have a similarly inspirational effect on other parts of the Society.  

Although there seems to be no shortage of good ideas in Scotland, I am always on the look out for the kind of ideas I would love to hear Fellows developing. This morning – speaking at the South West Observatory in Bath – I heard a great example.

Tom Schuller, co-author of the recently published NIACE Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning, was talking about the role that learning can play in improving life for older people. Tom cited a residential home in Cardiff whose manager had decided to be more ambitious than sitting people in front of a television screen all day. The informal curriculum that was introduced included an 83 year old woman learning Welsh from a man sixty years her junior, a 79 year old finding out how to use Skype to get in contact with relatives and a group that took up arts and crafts. The outcomes were stunning. As well, predictably, as higher reported well-being, the use of drugs declined by a half and incontinence pads by two thirds and a resident who had never once before uttered a word asked his neighbour at the painting table what she thought of his plant pot design. And staff turnover also declined significantly.

This was a single case and Tom admitted that there wasn’t enough evidence to know whether the impact could be replicated. It would be fantastic if RSA Fellwos backed by HQ developed expertise in the designing and delivering learning and so transformed the too often deplorable quality of much long term care.

The amount of money and staff support we have set aside for the seed fund is relatively modest at this stage. We simply don’t know what the level of take up will be. But I am crossing my fingers that the problem we are facing in a few weeks will be how to respond to all the brilliant ideas Fellows are developing. This way when it comes to 21st century enlightenment we can truly say we are walking the talk.


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