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Earlier this week I spent the first hour of my working day at a breakfast audience with the founder and global director of Ashoka, Bill Drayton. Ashoka is a big and important organisation that has helped to support thousands of inspirational social entrepreneurs all around the world. Bill Drayton has achieved more in his life than I am ever likely to achieve in mine. I was looking forward to hearing him speak.

Bill’s comments ranged wide but the following points stood out:

  • Everyone can and should be a change maker (this is indeed a version of Ashoka’s motto)
  • This is ever more necessary because the world is changing ever more quickly
  • In particular, children should be educated to be change makers but fortunately this is very easy to do (I think Bill said he could do it in thirty minutes)  

Most people in the room were Ashoka staff, Fellows or mentors so I felt it lay with me to offer a bit of challenge. This – in summary – is what I said:

  • The problem with the idea that everyone can be change maker is that it speaks to a very individualistic idea of change ignoring the evidence that barriers are often deep, structural and complex
  • While the world may be changing faster in some respects, technology being the most obvious, in other important ways it is not. Compare the remarkable progress made in Western living standards, welfare provision and social mobility between 1945 and 1965 with the progress of Britain in the two decades since 1997, a year when public services were crumbling, our streets were full of homeless people, and key public concerns included social inequality, government competence and Britain’s diminished place in the world (need I go on?). To put it another way, in the post war decades, in the wake of the catastrophes of the preceding years, our leaders had the determination and confidence to work with us to solve a big problem – how do we reconcile capitalism and democracy. Sadly, the leaders who presided over financial globalisation largely failed to recognise, let alone solve, a similar problem. The danger with technological change is that we fail again to balance the interests of big business and ordinary citizens.   
  • In terms of the growth of change makers, as this article argues, while there may be more and more people out there who call themselves social entrepreneurs, the evidence of their aggregate impact is far from clear.
  • It isn’t easy to educate people to be change makers. We don’t really know what the skills or competencies are and we don’t really know how to teach them. Furthermore, what most people learn about change is what they acquire through their lives by trying and generally failing; that’s certainly been my chastening experience.

None of this is to argue against encouraging and empowering people to change the world (which is why I’m sure Ashoka is a force for good). After all, we have spent ten years increasing the support we give to RSA Fellows to do just that.

The problem is that when the heroic story of individual endeavour gets detached from the realistic understanding of the barriers to change we are, at best, promulgating  a myth and, at worst, implying that the only reason people can’t change the world around them is they lack the right attitude. It’s one of the reasons why we at the RSA advocate the approach of ‘thinking like a system and acting like an entrepreneur’; action without analysis risks ineffectiveness, analysis without action risks futility. Or, to paraphrase Marx, ‘we make our own history but not in circumstances of our own choosing.'


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