Every age has its institutional creativity. There are at least six that have emerged over the last two centuries:
i) 18th and early 19th century. Earl industrialisation including Enclosure and then the Poor Laws designed to move the agricultural labour force to the towns and cities. This was a time of dispossession and uncertainty.
ii) Mid to late 19th century. Legislation to establish private joint-stock companies leading to longer-term infrastructure investment and risk-taking: Joint Stock Companies Act 1844 and the Limited Liability Act 1855. Suffrage is also widened as capitalism spreads outwards.
iii) Early 20th. Teddy Roosevelt’s new welfarism and taking on the robber barons with anti-trust. In Britain, the early welfare state is formed. It is well behind Germany in this regard. Suffrage is widened further.
iv) Mid-20th century. The ‘New Deal’, Marshall Plan, ‘New Jerusalem’, and Bretton Woods. This is what Karl Polanyi has called the era of ‘embedded liberalism’.
v) 1960s. Social movements for change. Equality, student protest, and beginnings of green movements etc.
vi) 1970s. Disembedded liberalism. The collapse of Bretton Woods, monetarism, and ‘Neo-liberalism’.
The above gives us a short and by no means comprehensive account of institutional history. History change is a feature of changes in human consciousness and new technologies. History, technology and consciousness evolve (or regress) together. Where the old institutional forms struggle to accommodate this change, we often experience a crisis which requires a political response.
What is notable about the current time is that we are seeing this change of consciousness (what Moises Naim calls ‘mentality’) and pervasive new technologies and the old welfare, work, public, political and economic institutions are increasingly struggling to retain their legitimacy. Where is the real institutional creativity? It is one of the mysteries of our time. Institutional ossification has led to despair rather than the political creativity of previous time.
Increasingly, we are faced with a desire to cut out the middle man and seek convenors and platforms instead:
- In business, we share goods and services and deal direct. For example, the business crowd-funding service, Funding Circle, directly brings together investors and borrowers for mutual gain.
- In public services choice is being (very) gradually shifted. Just last week, Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England outlined a plan to devolve budgets to those with long-term conditions further (with support from 3rd sector ‘brokers’ to provide sound support and advance).
- In publishing, agents are now advisers/editors. You promote yourself directly to your readership and the same is true of journalists and musicians too.
- In politics, ‘we are the people we have been waiting for’ to coin an old Barack Obama riff. We are in the ‘Homebrew Computer Club’ stage of political change (H/T Adam Lent). It’s all very garage but it will increasingly become mainstream as people realise their newfound power. Watch out if you are a traditional politician or party.
The question is how people can find a place in this less mediated world. That's where the institutions of the age matter. The RSA’s vision, the ‘power to create’ (see Matthew Taylor’s talk on it here), which argues for a democratic, mass creativity, will relentlessly focus on how people can become authors of their own lives - collaboratively. That requires new, democratic, and creative institutions. This need is encapsulated by Walt Whitman citing J.S.Mill:
“[A great nation] requires first, a large variety of character, and second, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.”
Mass creativity requires everyone to be included in this endeavour. This is the essence of the ‘Power to Create’. And there must be creative institutions to make this real.
What are the types of institutions we will need:
1. Inclusive Growth. This means focusing on assets, advice, networks collaboration. People need to be woven into the system. There must be an embedding of the changes we are experiencing in the terra firma of people’s lives, values, and needs.
2. New welfare/work support around life stages including access to resource to re-skill/retrain *before* people find themselves out of work.
3. Civic supports. Democracy is absolutely critical to the Power to Create. Don't hide behind passivity. America is the crucible: see Cleveland, Seattle, and Buffalo. We need to think about democracy outside of rigid structures.
Ages have their institutions but we are stuck with institutions increasingly from a previous age. We are less creative than most generations in understanding this challenge. We are going through another great transformation.
Most crucially, institutional experimentalism requires a different form of leadership. The next generation of leaders must be convenors and teachers. Think Martin Luther King rather than more deluded ‘great men’ of history. The ‘power to create’ requires institutions that provide the security and support for mass creativity. Our choice is not creativity or not; it’s creativity for all or just, as has been the historical experience, for the very few.
The above is a summary of some comments I made in a panel session on ‘the great disruption’ which can be accessed here.