On the streets of London last month there was singing. There were choirs, there was music provided by rogue sound systems erected on London’s bridges and there was dancing. Images of police escorting a giant pink octopus puppet to Trafalgar Square in the centre of the city, while protesters performed around them, went viral. Similar scenes unfolded in many European capitals
This was an unruly, jubilant form of politics, but it was one born of frustration. The organisers and participants of Extinction Rebellion are demanding that the climate crisis be taken seriously and that political leaders act. They are responding with creativity to the fact that neither their voices nor those of independent scientists are being heard. We face, in the words of Ulrike Guérot, an ‘unbearable democratic deficit’. And all around us we see the responses to this deficit. Some of us sing, others take to darker methods, angry that our political, legal, financial and social systems seem unable to hear us, include us or rise to the many challenges we face.
What is the role of politics today in creating the good life? What can professional public servants offer with regard to the big questions we face: from climate change to migration; from the need for new economies to the creation of good work? How can we heal the deficit? The failure of our politics dismays not only the protesters.
It is also disorienting to those who have dedicated themselves to a life of political service yet find themselves unable to make change, reduced – in the words of the Brazilian political theorist – to humanisers of the inevitable.
This evening I want to ask you whether we can imagine a different role for politicians: as experimenters, connectors and designers of the new? Could we find new ways to connect to the energy that is, in fact, all around us and create a different form of relational politics?
I am a designer of future welfare systems. The same questions that face modern politics are those I must confront in my work. I must ask whether the role of modern welfare systems is to manage the needs and crises of those who inevitably fail to thrive in our divided societies, or whether we might dare to dream again and design new systems that would enable every life to sing.
Across Europe our welfare systems have been a source of pride, but today they appear tattered and out of step. Our services are sometimes able to manage a crisis but rarely to create lasting change. Let’s take work. Good work is at the heart of flourishing economies, communities and loving family life. We have always known this. It is why the architects of our welfare states designed their postwar systems around a core service of support: help to find work.
Today these same employment services are still on offer across Europe. If you are out of work, you can join a queue and access a service which would look familiar to a job seeker from 70 years ago. There are now computers on the desks and much of the work is done online, but underneath the service logic remains the same. It is remarkable in fact that these services, designed in the middle of the last century, also vary little between our nations. In Denmark, for example, the offer is more personal and better funded than a similar service in my own country, Britain. However, the core of what is on offer across Europe is the same: help with responding to job adverts and financial benefits.
When I spend time in these services, I meet people joining the queue for the second, the third and sometimes the fifteenth time. It is not surprising – the world of work has changed dramatically since the 1950s. Today, for most people, work is temporary and insecure. The chance to progress within work to a better position is vanishingly small. And there is something else too: most work today is found through word of mouth. Today, eight out of ten jobs are not advertised. The best route into work is something not available from our welfare services: a robust network of diverse relationships.
Some years ago, I wanted to see if it was possible to design an alternative approach. I set up a false door in an employment centre in South London where I live. ‘Get me Out of Here’ read the huge poster I put up on the door. I asked anyone who wanted to try a different approach to finding and creating good work to come through. I charged each person about €5, but so many people wanted to come through the door that I had to keep raising the price by the hour. Those queuing for advice and benefits within the employment service know the approach does not work and they are desperate to escape the shame and the humiliation and to try a different approach.
I work with people like Earl. Earl has trouble holding down any job and has a criminal record for petty drug dealing. He wants to be a chef, but the employment service thinks that’s impossible, in fact they think it’s a joke. They want Earl to take a cleaning job which he finds demeaning. I invited Earl and the many others that came through my door that day to help me design a new service.
Together we create simple tools to break down our problems and tell new stories. We organise social gatherings in public places to connect people in and out of work together. We don’t ask people about their formal qualifications, we ask them what they dream of and then we connect those who need support to others who might help them with the first step of the journey. Using simple digital devices – mobile phones and simple database systems – we can work with many at a low cost. Randomised control trials show our approach cost one-fifth of current services, fostered skills and enabled 87 per cent of members to make progress in or towards work.
I am describing a new approach to finding good work. But I have successfully used the same principles to design new approaches to old age, to support families in long-term crisis, to prevent and manage chronic health conditions and to enable young people to thrive. All these approaches are low-cost, they include as many people as possible, they connect people together in new ways and they seek to foster capability (as opposed to traditional approaches that manage need).
The capability approach is, according to one of its founders – the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a counter-culture. Nussbaum describes how we need a granular understanding of the lives of others if we are to lead effective change. And she contrasts this with the worlds of policy and politics that are governed by elites who rarely take the time to walk in the shoes of others. The result is that political visions (Nussbaum says biases) collide with the messy reality of our lives and failure is inevitable. The result is rage, not change.
In contrast, the ways of working that I am describing invert this perspective: starting from people’s lives and with the collaboration of Earl and others who are living with the challenges we are seeking to address. This is 21st-century welfare. It starts where you are and instead of commanding change or trying to fix you, it offers support to grow capability. The shift in power entailed not only creates lasting change in people’s lives, I think it also prefigures a new form of participatory politics.
We face three big changes in our societies. Changes that are rendering our current institutions and approaches redundant. The first of these three changes is the nature of the problems we face. Today’s problems, from the creation of good work to addressing demographic change, from preventing chronic health conditions to combatting climate change – require new forms of problem-solving. Change today requires our broad participation and the motivation of thousands of everyday activities. However, the systems we have inherited try instead to command change as they keep at arm’s length where – like Stan in the job service queue – it is believed we can be safely managed. Today, commanding change no longer works.
Secondly, there is a deep shift in our socio-economic structures affecting how we live, work and relate to one another. Our welfare systems, for example, were designed around concepts of a nuclear family with a male breadwinner and a housewife who would take care of the children, elderly relatives and if necessary the neighbours. Our political systems were designed in the same era, when occasional visits to the ballot box and a wide-spread deferential trust in a paternal ruling class was the norm. This world has gone and today the institutions it gave birth to seem out of step with modern lives, unable to care for us in the case of our welfare systems or represent us in the case of our political systems.
Thirdly, we face new and entrenched forms of poverty. In many of our nations, including my own, deep inequality is disfiguring our societies. This poverty is closely related to the challenges of work. In Britain, for example, most people who are poor are in work, but their wages are so low they find themselves still dependent on welfare systems.
And there is a new form of poverty that is strangling us – the poverty of relationships. We don’t know each other anymore. The digital economy is widening the economic gaps between us – between those earning the dizzying sums enabled by the algorithms of high finance and those doing the traditional work – of care for example – living precarious lives on low wages.
These gaps in income are reflected in chasms of geography – the wealthy are concentrated in a few neighbourhoods. Increasingly we don’t live near each other, join the same clubs or do things together. This matters because as social research shows – it is our relationships and who we know that will predict our life chances: what kind of job we will get, our health, our happiness and how we will age.
Technology sits at the heart of all these changes. We are in the midst of a technology revolution, one that started in 1971 with the development of the microchip and is now accelerating rapidly to embrace robots, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. This revolution is transforming our politics, our economies, our societies and our minds at unprecedented speed and breadth and in ways that we cannot juggle alone.
History shows us that technology revolutions create paradigm change – new ways of thinking, working, living and organising, new dreams and aspirations. Technology revolutions create new challenges and they produce new possibilities. In this context, tinkering with our political institutions, social frameworks or economic regulations will not be enough. Instead we must create anew the conditions for universal flourishing in ways that are generative for all people and for our planet.
The experiments and innovations of this year’s Innovation in Politics finalists show us what could be. From new forms of sharing to the design of new libraries and public spaces, from new approaches to learning to experiments in digital democracy, these innovations draw on what is abundant now: educated populations who want to take part, a new generation that wants to share and live together in new ways, a desire to collaborate and build the new. To create the systemic transitions we require, we need these and many more experiments.
And we need something else. We need four sets of actors within our societies to collaborate in new ways. The change we need cannot be oppositional – the challenges are too immediate and too big. Instead we need to weave new relationships between the organic intellectuals – those who can produce new ideas inspiring our imaginations; organised civil society – those who bring creativity, knowledge and above all lived experience of new forms of living and organising; new industrialists – those who, walking in the footsteps of their enlightened forbearers, will dare to challenge their peers, believing that a new era is only possible with the design of new social systems and norms for labour; and the state – a new generation of politicians and public leaders who will dare to forge new alliances and design the new frameworks within which we can grow and create.
Our postwar welfare systems of which we have been so proud came into being through experimentation and combined radical action in each of these sectors. Again and again, history shows us that all four sectors of society must step forward, but history also tells us that the most critical of the four is the state. The state is a convener – it can bring the other groups together and set the tone of the conversation that must follow. Critically, only politics can set the agenda. Only public leaders can be the architect of the framework which makes the myriad actions and experiments of others add up to something bigger and different.
However here we face the greatest challenge because we are reliant on a state and form of politics that too often struggles to make change because its own structures and cultures resemble the world we need to leave behind. Despite the efforts and intentions of many brilliant and committed individuals, our state institutions and politics are out of step.
Today state institutions and modern politics operate as stratified vertical institutions. Like employment services, our health services and our education services, politics resembles an industrial production line. The hierarchies and the mindsets are those of command and control. Citizens are held at a managed distance – we can be engaged with in episodic moments and in forms of performative politics, but we are not asked to make the rules nor are we invited to work together as peers.
Just as Stan cannot find good work in such a system, so we cannot build good lives. 20th-century industrial politics cannot tackle the challenges of today. And it cannot connect to the energy that abounds around us. Today we talk of constructing new forms of participative democracy, but when the young take to the streets, wanting to design and live in new generative ways, to be heard and to engage, they are dismissed as ‘anarchists with a smile’ or worse greeted with pepper spray and violence.
Our future will be created through human connection and through the design of new systems and norms that support this horizontal way of working. A radical politics would be dedicated to making this happen; to forging new forms of collaboration, to engaging with new forms of energy, facilitating those with different lived experiences to come together, to sharing their power in new, distributed ways.
How can we start to practice this new politics? Thousands of years ago, Aristotle was asked a surprisingly similar question. He suggested singing in a choir. Choirs, he argued, were a cornerstone of both a flourishing democracy and a sense of individual wellbeing. Being together, blending one’s voice with others, creating through committed practice. The finalists here this evening have, metaphorically at least, been singing together -they have not pontificated on a modern form of politics, instead, they have joined with others and practised something new. I am sure at times this new way of working has felt uncomfortable – sometimes in the choir we cannot quite reach the note or we lose the harmony, but through doing, practising and collaborating they have created examples of the new.
In the dark times, Brecht told us, there will also be singing. In many ways, our times feel dark, but the new is all around us – we can see it this evening in the projects of the finalists and in the new bonds we are making here. This is the start of a new form of relational politics rooted in capability and horizontal connection.