As I prepare some slides for an RSA fringe presentation at the Party Conferences, two recurring thoughts pop up. How much of what we claim to have discovered is really new? And do our visions of the future just reflect our longing for a romantic past?
One of our slides sets out a number of major social and economic shifts that we expect to occur in the years to come. A synthesis of various trends identified by the RSA and other organisations, it describes a political shift towards hyperlocal and diverse sources of public services, power and voice. A smaller, ‘leaner’ state aims primarily to manage or reduce demand, and safeguard minimum standards, rather than provide for all.
Meanwhile, our economy shifts from being transactional to relational, with a focus on consuming experiences rather than ‘stuff’, and the exchange of personal services, mediated through rich social networks of care and support.
Work is re-localised, largely through technology-enabled flexible working, but also increasing transport costs. People customise, or “make do and mend” their products and materials rather than throw things away, encouraging the growth of a more circular economy.
Micro-entrepreneurs and freelancers juggle patchwork, portfolio careers where they might be creating and sustaining multiple jobs or ventures at any one time.
If you go to enough think tank and policy wonk seminars, or listen to political speeches these days you’ll often hear one or more of the same themes in some form or another. It might be the Big Society, some variant strain of social entrepreneurship or the much vaunted, and catchily-named Collaborative Consumption.
But beneath all the visioning and neologising, it sometimes strikes me how nostalgic all this is, and also how commonplace it must seem in other parts of the world. These techno-communitarian ideals either hark back to a romantic ideal of pre-industrial society (Saxon Wessex with Wi-fi?), or a more metropolitan and palatable version of life in poorer developing countries (Bhutan with Blackberries?).
How much of what we hold to be visionary, bold and new is merely the recasting of enduring human instincts and deeply ingrained ways of living? Or is it perhaps more accurate to think of them as psychological defences against the reality of our declining standards of living? I wonder how long the current fascination for these ideas will survive contact with newly invigorated economic growth. Will we dump the dowdy sharing economy and fall thankfully back into the arms of a sexy, but trashy economy based on cheap credit and deficit spending?
Perhaps Mahathir Mohamed had it in a nutshell. We Europeans simply have to re-learn how to live within our means.
It’s understandable, given our absent minds and narrow blinds that old ways of doing so are forgotten, and presented as new.
It’s little wonder then, how rare it is to find historians, anthropologists or citizens and development workers from poorer parts of the world coming to think tank seminars or Party Conferences to remind or teach us how to live better, and well, with our new found poverty.
Any takers? The floor is yours.