Archive | May, 2017

Community Cohesion

28 May

In the aftermath of Manchester’s terrorist outrage observers the world over have heaped generous praise on the way the community ‘came together’.

Some even went so far as to regard Manchester as exceptional: “a sense of identity that you don’t find elsewherealong with a hint of already being case-hardened – There is a deep resilience in this city and it’s kept people going in the past “.

What has certainly been evident over this last sad week has been excellent leadership – not just from the City Council Leader and the newly elected Greater Manchester Metro Mayor but also across the wider community from leaders in Police, Health, Education, Religion, Business and Sports.

That sense of ‘community cohesion’ should hardly be a surprise given such extreme provocation and intense media scrutiny. Yet in some sense it is instructive that the media should marvel at this combination of grief, steely determination and a proud local identity.

Community cohesion rarely gets the media spotlight and yet it doesn’t suddenly spring into life; the seeds are being constantly sown and nurtured in all communities. Communities – the tribes we work with, the crowds we shop alongside, the after-school clubs the children attend – are all part of a rich fabric that so many economists, policy makers and news reporters fail to notice. These things don’t get routinely measured and, from a distance, are rarely valued in the way that GDP, RPI, employment and consumer borrowing statistics are subject to intense scrutiny.

Why is so much attention paid to dismal national average data when so much of what makes life worth living is all around us in our multiple overlapping communities? Why should the central management prioritise policies that ignore the stuff of life? The answer, of course, is that with their merely average understanding they should not be worrying themselves about matters beyond their comprehension.

If Manchester is different it is because for years, like many other great cities, it has banged the drum for freedom to manage its own affairs. This is the essence of what is now called ‘place-making’ – determined locally directed leaderships that have transformed London, Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow and umpteen others, often in the face of central governments reluctant to relinquish control.

Many of the levers of community cohesion and wellbeing are well known. If those levers are not being used it is entirely down to local leaderships who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have not been empowered to take action. All communities are different and have different priorities but there’s a strong body of research that has probed how best to assess their economic and social fabric. And that assessment ultimately is a measure of local projects that determinedly cut across the silos of top down management.

This is what some call ‘mission economics’ or ‘policy with purpose’ but down in this neck of the woods we just call it Community Cohesion.

_______

 

Reviewing the situation . . . .

19 May

Ofcom’s recent ‘separation’ stricture has ensured that BT Group’s annual results presentation to the city gave greater airtime to the leadership of its now semi-detached property, Openreach.

Investors need to understand past performance and assess the forward risks and opportunities.  The bigger picture – mighty ships battling against headwinds – was roundly ridiculed as thin cover for self-induced blunders rather than unknowable forces of nature.   Could that overall decline, investors might ask, be offset by Openreach’s discovery and ultrafast colonisation of new Gigabit lands?

Last week, the captain of BT’s Openreach gave his crew early warning of a new direction. But his ship’s crew comprises far more than loyal employees – it’s a complex weave of stakeholders including investors and wholesale customers (Communications Providers – the ‘CPs’) – so the occasion provided anxious risk-takers with opportunities to read the runes.

Openreach chief exec Clive Selley was reported as saying; “So it is my job to collaborate closely with all the other CPs to figure out at what pace we roll out the ultrafast platforms. And we are going to do that hand in glove with the CPs, because ultimately they are the ones that are going to have to compete and beat the alt-nets in the market place.”

Inevitably the tech-media headlines shouted ‘Fibre Rethink‘. But the espousal of an enhanced collaborative credo suggests more than relationship counseling. Was this a concern to nip in the bud any hint of a wholesale mutiny or jumping ship? Why so? It’s a reflection of finding a radically different market situation to that for which the CP crew had first been recruited. They signed up to flog phone-lines and ‘leased lines’.   Now they need to shift to new services that need far greater reliability and capacity and have little in common with the old voice telephony. The CPs have laboured long with short-term fixes and unlikely performance claims. Now they are increasingly attracted to work with those alternative network pioneers and are held back only by the rate of pure fibre deployments.  Meanwhile Openreach still holds to seeing those very different, vastly superior and ‘fit for future’ networks as direct competitors rather than contributors to the greater good.

Other (imaginary) voyages of discovery

Imagine if you will, dear readers, that this is the year 1500.

The good ship Openseas is sailing nervously towards the previously presumed precipitous edge of a flat world – and the crew are mightily troubled by the rumoured fate of earlier voyagers who did not return. On the bridge the captain anxiously scans the horizon but he and his crew are alone. Their resolve to push on can only come from an inner determination. These are complex and confusing seas with shifting currents and a need for confident navigation. With no hope of external assistance they must overcome fears or resign to their fate but they will earn (eventually) the accolade, ‘pioneer’.

And now, friends, imagine that we are in the year 1839.

In the latest episode Dickens’ Fagin is casting around for a way out of social storms on all sides to secure his survival. Desperately he considers the alternatives:

“This rotten life is not for me.

It’s getting far too hot for me.

Don’t want no one to rob for me.

But who will find a job for me,

There is no in between for me

But who will change the scene for me?

…I think I’d better think it out again!

Hey!”

There is, of course, no one to ‘change the scene’ – he alone must choose a new path. To survive, his enterprise must think again to find a new re-formed direction that rejects all previous convictions and missteps along the way. That resolve may be prove to be beyond his reach.

And so, back now to 2017.

Is it any wonder that Openreach is ‘Reviewing the Situation’? Is this the end of ‘the line’ or is this, beamed through pure fibre, a new, low energy, low maintenance, high performance, enlightenment that costs far less and shines far brighter for his enterprise and for the for the entire economy?

So, let’s wrap up this reflection with the answer to a light-bulb joke. It takes only one psychotherapist to change a light-bulb but that light-bulb must really want to change.

 

___________

 

Knowing Your Place – part two

5 May

Knowing Your Place was originally written to support a proposed event in 2018. In that brief note I reflected on the new meaning of the phrase. Once it was just a parental demand for subservience and ‘not speaking out of turn’.   Now it’s a Place-Maker’s celebration of Open Data and a vastly greater understanding of the local economy and community needs.

In Part two my attention turns to the wealth of fresh economic thinking. I say ‘fresh’ but it’s evident that ideas currently regarded as radical or outside of mainstream conventions have been around for decades. The puzzle is to understand why these commonsense ideas have struggled to be accepted.

This resistance to fresh thinking is not uniquely British. Deeply embedded but demonstrably errant economic dogma is a global concern. That in large part reflects an intellectual legacy underpinning the formative education of folk who now govern or influence policy. The re-education process will take a fair few generations to resolve.

In the UK, however, we have a particularly virulent strand of dodgy economic dogma that thrives largely because we have a very very centralised economy. In other countries with a more federal approach there is greater scope for economic diversity and experimentation amongst regions or municipalities. But before that thought distracts you, let’s review a few of these ‘fresh’ thinkers.

Throughout the profession there are economists who understand that things are not quite right. Not surprisingly these thinkers often try to differentiate their ideas. Those alarmed by widening inequalities – for example Stephanie Flanders – would prefer Inclusive Growth.   Similarly we’ve had mechanistic approaches, Economic Sciences, Positive Economics, Humanistic, Social, Monetary and umpteen other variants. All these attest to the diversity of thought and their advocates’ desire to avoid (or downplay) addictions to never-ending growth, over-simplistic price/demand graphs, supposedly free & efficient markets or fully informed rational actors.

Others come to the field with environmental and sustainability perspectives. The Circular Economy notion – regenerative to minimise waste of natural resources – has given rise to ‘systems thinking’ as expressed in Ken Webster’s ‘A Wealth of Flows’. This exposes the complexities of our interconnected world and takes on board the feedback loops that old-school economists might too easily dismiss as irrelevant externalities – leastways until they show up during investigation of ‘unforeseen consequences’.

Yet others take exception to simplistic political notions that government is bad and only private enterprise is to be valued. Leader of that rebel pack is, without doubt, Mariana Mazzucato and her work on The Entrepreneurial State where she lays bare the vital contributions of state-led investments subsequently exploited by the private sector with insufficient returns to the public purse.

And then we come to Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’.   Kate’s economic map is not of the sugar-coated variety with jam in the middle. This doughnut looks to lift folk from social deprivations (visualised in the central hole) whilst curbing the tendencies to reach beyond the outer edge of the ring where collectively we might threaten the ecology. Far from ‘deregulation’, Kate speaks of ‘re-regulation’ to better align policy with purpose and operate within the ring. Here’s an attempt to marry ‘redistributive’ and ‘regenerative’ policies – tackling both inequalities and wasted resources.

Kate’s work is hailed as ‘fresh’ but it takes years to be recognised as an ‘overnight star’.   Her ideas have been articulated for nearly two decades. Much of her research highlights the way that in recent times mainstream economists have been highly selective in their references to early thinkers such as Adam Smith. Understanding those dogmatic distortions is helpful but what is new is the power of visualisation. The ring doughnut provides a handy graphic that helps frame policy debates but is not pretending to be a pseudo-science.

The common theme amongst all these works is that they are directed towards the State – national governments and the establishment. They come across as grand top-down ideas; yet more supermodels. Not surprisingly it is painful to bang heads on brick walls that are reinforced by decades of dogma and where radical change seems unimaginably complex without some miraculously orchestrated global enlightenment.   The exception to that general top-down prescription is, perhaps, amongst advocates of the Circular Economy where some demonstrable progress has been made by careful evangelisation amongst a few global enterprises.

So perhaps an alternative approach to implementing these ideas is to take a leaf out of Ellen MacArthur’s Circular Economy Foundation. They have identified large enterprises (like Phillips or B&Q) as business communities where ideas can be worked out. Why not then start by applying the ideas, not at central state (national) level, but in cities and communities where local needs are diverse and the appetite for fresh thinking is strong? Do not imagine that there is some perfect model – a panacea – but understand that these works provide great scope for stimulating local leaders, communities and citizens to envision a brighter future with all manner of local enhancements to wellbeing – be they economic, social or environmental – in this era of rapid digitalisation.

Which thought brings me back to ‘Knowing Your Place’. Only by understanding the real needs – the locally diverse requirements that fall outside of standard economic models – are we able to address the ‘real’ economy and leave behind the rough average approximations of theoretical economists in high (and often distant) places.

There’s a time (which is now) and a place (near you) for every purpose. Let’s not delay and let’s not direct our efforts towards the centre when all about us can be transformed. These are ideas that need to find their place.

­­­­­­­_____________________________

References:

Inclusive Growth Commission – RSA Report:

https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/final-report-of-the-inclusive-growth-commission

Ken Webster, ‘A Wealth of Flows‘: ISBN 9 78099 27784

Mariana Mazzucato, ‘The Entrepreneurial State‘: ISBN 9 780857 282521

Kate Raworth, ‘Doughnut Economics‘: ISBN 9 781847 941374