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The RSA participated in the Political Symposium at the European Forum Alpbach this past August. During this year’s symposium Markus Kanerva FRSA, Director of Tänk, along with other RSA staff facilitated a session on the role of Basic Income in the new digital age. Markus offers his insight below on participating in this year’s EFA.

“Experiments are fine as long as you don’t use citizens as guinea pigs” was not the comment I was expecting to hear. It came from an honorable and seasoned politician after I had briefly explained the idea of studying the behavioral effects of basic income in a Randomized Controlled Trial, or an RCT.

I was invited by Anthony Painter, Director of the Action and Research Centre at RSA, to join him and his colleague Nathalie Spencer to facilitate a break-out session at the European Forum Alpbach (EFA) at the end of August this year.  The EFA is a two-week long socio-political seminar - or an interdisciplinary platform for science, politics, business and culture as the organisers call it.  The event has brought Austrian politicians and policymakers together with their international counterparts into the tiny alpine village of Alpbach since 1945, but I hadn’t heard about it before.

The EFA aims to address relevant socio-political questions of our time - which probably explains why the organisers approved our pitch for a breakout session on basic income as a possible solution to the increased uncertainty we are all facing today. My role during the session was to tell about the experience I have had in the research group preparing the Randomised Controlled Trial on basic income in Finland during the past 12 months].

We prepared for our session rigorously during the summer and delivered what we had planned when our turn to present came. The formal Q&A discussion didn’t bring me any surprises: I had had the same questions and comments many times before about the design of the Finnish experiment.  Yes -  we will randomly select from a group of unemployed people who will get the 560 euro monthly basic income. No - there are no similar experiments taking place at the moment in other countries.  Yes - I was obviously surprised that our Prime Minister took up our think tank’s proposal to include the basic income trial in his governmental programme.

Relieved after our time on the podium, we went on to listen to some of the other sessions. When I finally sat down for dinner with some old and new friends at the end of the day, I started to question the whole point of seminars, keynotes, panel discussions and such (from a think tanker, this is quite something!) In this day and age, I sighed,  it is very rare to learn anything new that we haven’t read somewhere else already or couldn’t access more efficiently online, rather than travelling halfway through Europe (or to the other side of London or Helsinki for that matter).  I complained that rather than at the other sessions that I had managed to attend, my most enlivening conversation so far had been with the 20-something chauffeur arranged by the organizer who had taken me from the Munich airport to the village, our discussion ranging from the perceived resignation of Austrian youngsters  to keep up with the rest of the world, to the lack of physicians in the country, to what’s wrong with the higher education system and where to ski in Kitzbühel.

 The people I was breaking bread with suggested that perhaps it is not the content of these events that matters but the context that brings people together. I agreed. Even though the planned programme itself didn’t manage to give me any ‘eureka’ moments or open my mind to baffling new perspectives, real-time, face-to-face social interaction is still unbeatable in facilitating instant exchange of ideas and sharing reactions. Despite feeling slightly weary with my conference travels, I had to admit to having often found myself in enlightening discussions and unexpected, delightful encounters at events that otherwise may have been a bit of the “same old same old”.  Without painstakingly organised fora and carefully chosen speakers such motley groups would not easily convene and there would be none of the positive spillover effects I too was enjoying at that very dinner.

After the dinner I managed to crash the EFA party for partner organisations. All of the most prominent figures visiting the alpine village that day seemed to be there.  That’s where I heard the concerned comment on using people as guinea pigs by this aging politician. 

If the old school of doing politics is about figuring out a solution to a problem, muddling it through the decision-making process with all the relevant stakeholders and then applying what is left of the original solution to the whole nation, it certainly can seem strange to test a policy first with a small number of people – even if this would require treating people unequally for a limited time period. Weighing these two options, I wonder how we have ever accepted to expose (and still do) millions of citizens to untested policies. 

As many people at the EFA still saw experimenting with policy ideas as a radical social innovation, I was reminded that there are still many minds to open up to the possibility of evidence-based policy-making through Randomised Controlled Trials. It was an insight that I wouldn’t have gained had stayed at my desk in the office.  


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