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We have recently seen some vivid illustrations of how small groups can struggle or succeed to achieve great things. On the one hand the anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation reminded us of the power of the “small platoons” in times time of crisis. On the other, people in pubs and living rooms around the country have groaned and gurned at the England team’s early struggles to remain in the World Cup.

Such things naturally prompt reflection about what makes for human efficacy in the face of adversity, and the kinds of conditions we need to foster to help people make the most of themselves both individually and collectively.

Such reflections depend in part on our beliefs about the prospects for human progress. Should we boldly encourage people to feel that the world to which they aspire is within their grasp - to “dream big” and act accordingly - or counsel humility and pragmatism in the face of seemingly daunting challenges?

These questions, so central to our current political and socio-economic (as well as sporting) predicament, were explored last week by the RSA’s Chief Executive Matthew Taylor. At the heart of RSA’s argument for a 21st century enlightenment is the belief that we might realise a better world by harnessing the better part of ourselves. The model he outlined for an enlightened approach to our collective future rests on three propositions.

Firstly, that we need a more nuanced understanding of our autonomy; one that draws on our social instincts, automatic processes, connectedness and relational ties, not just our rational, conscious judgements and individual motivations. Secondly, that our best hope of realising shared aspirations (such as good stewardship of our environment) is to cultivate an underlying sentiment – empathy – that enables us to identify with other beings and find common cause. Thirdly, that it no longer seems justifiable or sustainable to plough relentlessly ahead with the market systems, scientific advances, and institutions that have brought us this far – albeit with immense benefits - without asking ourselves far more often, and far more searchingly about the ethical basis for our action.

Of course the critical question for the RSA, and organisations like it, is what this means in practice. The RSA’s lectures, events, pamphlets and commissions provide a flow of rich ideas and inspiration for what might be realised in a more enlightened world. Such ideas are absolutely necessary to progress, but of course insufficient without action.

So how do the RSA’s Projects and Fellowship ensure that rhetoric turns into reality?

We certainly have a long (if variable) track record in doing so, with initiatives and projects of many kinds going back over 200 years. Our projects today share at their core a simple imperative: to enhance human capability and encourage the release of untapped human potential for the common good. We strive for a society of inventive, resourceful and fulfilled people, that are galvanised by shared ethical principles.

We draw on research, ideas and experience from events speakers and external experts, partners, Fellows, staff and - most crucially - the public. We also look to identify those in society whose need for support is greatest, and/or whose ability to realise their potential is compromised, such as the marginalised, stigmatised or deprived communities, the very young or old, and those struggling with mental and physical infirmity. It is to such people that our Projects are typically directed.

We define our response to social problems via expertise from a range of disciplines and traditions, such as enterprise, the arts, education, design and technology, community development and public participation, most of which have been central to the RSA’s approach since its earliest days. Each of these approaches holds particular keys to unlocking human potential, and we find that working in tandem they deliver maximum benefit.

Our projects tend to bear other hallmarks which increase our chances of success; employing mixed-methods research; taking a modular and participant-led approach to project design; building prototypes and proofs of concept; providing opportunities for reflexive learning and action; and providing a legacy in terms of new institutions, tangible materials, competencies or enterprises.

The resonance between existing RSA Projects and the thinking behind the organisations’ new strapline - 21st century enlightenment  - is strong. For example, our three year Connected Communities programme aims to map the web of social networks that exist in a deprived community and use this map as a tool to help local people forge stronger, denser links and grant them new power, efficacy and resilience. The collective self-awareness that comes from visualising community assets in this way clearly resonates with our enlightened account of self-awareautonomy. In a similar vein, our Social Brain programme has recently published a new account of behaviour change – “Steer” - which helps people reflect and act on their unwanted habits and behaviours.

The extension of empathy is central to the design and implementation of our user-designed Recovery project. This initiative seeks to change the way support is understood and provided to those struggling with long-term addiction to drugs and alcohol. It draws on a richer set of community assets and sentiments to help people shift from a vicious cycle of addiction into a virtuous one of recovery.

The ethical dimension is integral to our education programme. From the Whole Education Alliance, to our strands of work on curriculum innovation and social justice, the RSA is playing its part in broadening the definition and scope of education beyond narrow bureaucratic logics. The same kind of questions underpin our emerging work in the enterprise sphere, inwhich we are proposing routes towards a more ethical and equitable pensions system, and a more ethically oriented model for collaboration between small businesses.

Our two year Citizen Power Peterborough programme promises to bring all these elements together in one place. The RSA wants to play its part in helping the city realise its potential as a place with healthy community relations, strong enterprise, arts and cultural activities, environmental sustainability and good public services.

Projects involve collaborative working between Fellows and staff members. Ultimately we aspire to do so in a fully networked, collaborative basis, harnessing the power and talent of many of our Fellows. Given our emerging knowledge of network effects such as contagion this could have a much more pervasive impact on society over the long term.

I write this as we nervously approach England’s rendezvous with Germany in the World Cup. To return to our sporting problem (and perhaps stretch the analogy too far) how might an “enlightened” England play? Perhaps with a focus on what they can achieve playing as a team rather than a collection of individuals; with empathy for their supporters and passion to play for them as much as for themselves; and with a deeper self-awareness that their ethical conduct and demeanour affects wider society as well as their chances of success. Fabio Capello seems almost to hint at this uncharacteristically exuberant response to the victory over Slovenia. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go to penalties.


Julian Thompson FRSA is the Former Director of Projects for the RSA.

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