Time flies – it’s already been two weeks since nearly 100 people from various backgrounds (doctors to teachers, entrepreneurs to admen, and many more besides) joined us for our launch event at St Mary’s Church in Putney – we learned a lot, met some new friends and were re-acquainted with old, and the story we were building together on the day has started to spark some very influential interest across media, business and government. The next few months for us are going to be about digesting some of this input and delivering a few projects while we work on our strategy for the first major phase of the New Citizenship Project. We’ll be putting this out in draft to anyone who joins the LinkedIn group over the summer, so if you’d like to help us piece this all together, please do sign up. Now, to the highlights…
We kicked off the afternoon with some startling new research (available on request) conducted for and presented to us by YouGov’s Laurence Janta-Lipinski, looking at the effect of priming people as consumers on their motivation to participate in society or their local community. It turns out the effect of even ultralight priming makes people less likely to see participation as important – merely exposing people to a statement like “It’s important to find brands that fit my personality”. This framed the day for us – people do seem to want to be involved, even if consumers may not…
Paul Cartledge, Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University, led us into the meat of the day with an overview of the history of democracy and by challenging our imagination on what democracy might mean far beyond the current limits – not just thinking about what party we should vote for but perhaps even questioning if we need parties at all. From the floor we heard about the developing initiative ThinkAct, a sort of TeachFirst for politics, and there was a definite sense in the room, highlighted with our bespoke voting cards, that the current form and state of democracy in Britain leaves a lot to be desired.
- Key speaker’s provocation: “Our western tradition of democracy is in many ways inherently anti-democratic”
- Key contribution from the room: “Are elites inevitable? If they are, what’s the best role for them?”
Paul Hilder, Change.org strategy supremo, explored the power dynamics in the digital age with some fantastic stories of real change. We particularly appreciated the point that it is not necessarily the first petition (e.g.) Maria Miller), but those that follow (e.g. a 17 year old starting a petition for systematic expenses reform). Opening to the room brought some healthy scepticism about whether petition-based approaches really represent the change we need; whether what we should be aiming for is simply direct democracy or needs to allow more deliberation; and whether one is the road to the other. There was a good deal of hope in the room that the digital age would herald a new era of people power – but some healthy skepticism as well.
- Key speaker’s provocation: “Power in the digital age is increasingly becoming horizontal and social, rather than vertical and dominating”
- Key contribution from the room: “There is no shortage of opportunities to ‘have our say’, but what commitment do we make to listen to others?”(@andy3martin via twitter)
We then had a bit of a gear change – and a real experiential learning for us and I think for many in the room – when Nadja Pass from the Danish social enterprise Borgerlyst (Civic Desire) took the stage to explore the role of humble conversation in changing what is possible. She made her case with a Borgerlyst-style conversation salon experience which, we think, completely changed the feel of the room. Individual conversations kicked off and we got great feedback at the end of the day on giving people a push/chance to talk to each other.
- Key speaker’s quote: “What we need to do is move the needle – instead of playing the same old track when you meet someone, skip to the stuff that matters”
- Key contribution from the room: “Can conversation really be a good thing in itself? Doesn’t change happen through struggle not just talk?”
In the second half of the afternoon, things started to get a bit more practical…
Catherine Howarth, the CEO of ShareAction, made the case for expressing our individual agency through our investments – particularly through the pension system. We think the idea that our finances can and should be an expression of our values is one of the biggest mind bombs waiting to be exploded in the new age of citizenship – imagine the systemic change that would result if shareholding was genuinely taking ownership of a company, not just putting your money into a black box and expecting it to come back bigger with no questions asked…
- Key speaker’s quote: “With automatic enrolment, the vast majority of the population actually do have power in the financial system”
- Key contribution from the room: “Given that lots of people already express their values through the food and clothes we buy, why don’t we do the same with our investments – when much more money is involved?”
Rachel Roberts, Director of the Phoenix Education Trust, not only told an initially skeptical audience that kids can run schools but that they have been doing so for many years. From Yorkshire mining communities to art rooms in Scottish primary schools, she showed that taking a role in shaping the context of your own life can be for everyone, no matter what age – and in doing so highlighted the idea that true democracy is not so much about making demands, but about working together.
- Key speaker’s quote: “Democratic education isn’t about forcing every child to be a leader; it’s about letting every child be the best of themselves”
- Key contribution from the room: “Why does this sound like such a radical idea when it seems like it should be mainstream?”
We closed with inspiring contributions from National Citizen Service graduate Dan Slade – whose initiative to run Mad Hatter’s Tea Parties in care homes is something we’re in deep awe of! – and the launch of Huffington Post UK Entertainment Editor Caroline Frost’s new ‘Culture of Kindness’ initiative. These two examples of individuals in very different places claiming their agency offered some great last inspiration before we went our various ways, some of us upstairs to chew it all through over a drink, or straight to a well-earned weekend. All in all, quite an afternoon – and with huge thanks to the team at St Mary’s Church for their efforts. We’d like to think we did the place justice!