Last year, I heard a number of very interesting speakers in Liverpool. Oliver James on a sane city (see earlier blog), Laurie Taylor on auto-didacts and Gary Younge on Obama. All were thoughtful, stimulating and offered interesting perspectives.
Yesterday, I heard Matthew Taylor speaking on the Big Society. He offered a brief review of the state of the world. We live in an aging society. Young people go through a more prolonged transition from school to settled life than in the past. We are not crudely self-interested but profoundly social animals. This is all well understood and the evidence is widely referenced.
So what? And this is where the disappointment comes in. He suggested then that we need to engage more actively and reflectively in debates about the society in which we live. And yet we heard nothing about how this might happen. Instead, we heard that institutions need to change, adapt, turn themselves inside out… And he could offer individual examples of how new ways of working/thinking have emerged in some instances. This is all rather disconnected from the evidence he started with. And he misses one key problem. While we are deeply social animals, the evidence suggests that, as such, we make poor decisions, are easily influenced etc. In fact, we are social animals and we are very bad at it. We are scarcely conscious of how we behave, interact, respond. And, in organisations, we introduce distorting and artificial frameworks that only make that behaviour worse. Whether it be BP in the Gulf of Mexico or Mid-Staffs NHS Trust, organisations do things that no one individual would decide to do.
What is missing from analysis like Matthew Taylor’s is a little humility. We do not know the answers and should stop trying to offer them. Instead, we should focus on the first part of the challenge – engaging more people actively in reflecting on the world we live in and searching for the answers. The process is, I would suggest, more important than the answer.