As UK employment continues to rise and unemployment continues to fall, it might be expected that – through greater availability and access to work – more people feel able to improve their lives and make a positive difference to society. As Anthony Painter and Louise Bamfield explain in the first RSA Power to Create paper, ‘The new digital learning age’, it isn’t that simple.
Of those in work a significant minority (20%) feel ‘held back’, disempowered and dissatisfied; they are entrepreneurial minded, but feel constrained in their ability to create and contribute. For this group, power seems concentrated in the hands of big business, the wealth and the media. While they are technologically savvy, this group doesn’t feel able to utilise the potential of the internet to break down barriers. For the ‘held back’, creativity isn’t the problem – it’s having the power to translate ideas into action.
Falling unemployment does not necessarily equate to rising ‘inclusive social mobility’
On a personal level, I can relate to these findings. I took the RSA’s quiz, ‘Which digital tribe are you?’ and came out as ‘Aspirational’ - “eager to reclaim power from big business, the wealthy and the media” and “to have a greater degree of control on your ability to create”. The new digital learning age argues that if you can unlock the creativity of my fellow 20% then we start to see a real shift in economic and social prosperity.
To achieve this shift, the papers calls for a significant system change in education, work and wider learning. It raises three important questions:
How does the system capture informal learning and skills development, not just those assessed by the state (e.g. in academic exams) or other institutions (e.g. formal Apprenticeships)?
What role for technology in widening the space for new and informal skills development?
How can the education, skills and careers guidance services integrate some of the emerging ways of online peer validation (e.g. open source, open standard badges) to ‘measure’ learning outcomes and credibly signal to employers?
In her recent blog, RSA Associate Abigail Melville similarly argues that we need to allow for flourishing and creativity in public governance more broadly. The blunt tools of New Public Management, dominant since the 1980s in its style (albeit evolving) of accountability and management, are not easily reconciled with ideas such as innovation, social value and creativity. We need a new framework that speaks to real outcomes, not crude proxies where organisational boundaries and financial incentives drive behaviours.
Challenging the existing paradigm, 'The new digital learning age' calls for a ‘spontaneous shared learning economy’ alongside formal education and training, such that employers recognise skills acquired in a range of environments, and young people are encouraged to keep learning in ways that work for them. As the authors put it, “The point is that people are engaging in the informal learning economy en masse”; the question is how we make more of this as we look to support people into work and throughout their careers.
Open data and the ability to securely link and share datasets between organisations offers considerable potential to change how institutions define their objectives, pool budgets and share accountability. As I’ve argued previously, it also allows for a more just distribution of information, power and a sense of individual and collective agency. It is this sense of agency that underlies the Power to Create, and the RSA has referenced, in 'The new digital learning age' and elsewhere, a broad base of evidence that it is critical for enhancing people’s life satisfaction.
It seems some progress is already being made in the pursuit of inclusive social mobility. Only in the last few weeks PwC, the accountancy firm, announced it would stop using A-levels as part of their graduate recruitment process as they unfairly disadvantaged talented candidates from poorer backgrounds. Citing the US Cities of Learning programme, it is one way of enabling “Youth from all backgrounds [to…] begin to see how they can apply their talents in the real world.” 'The new digital learning age' is about how this sense of self-belief can be enhanced, coupled with a system geared to embrace skills derived and verified in a myriad of technology-enabled ways. It is about unleashing the Power to Create.
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