The Imaginary Crisis (and how we might quicken social and public imagination)

Geoff Mulgan – Demos Helsinki

If we cannot imagine a better future, we cannot hope to be able to create one. And that’s a problem if

few in politics can articulate in any detail a world in the not-too-distant future where society would be better. There are policies; soundbites; vague aspirations: but nothing remotely at the level of ambition of the past.

This post and the much more detailed paper which sits behind it tackle the problem – or the crisis – of insufficient social imagination. Social imagination – variously abstract, practical, theoretical and tangible – has been a dimension of human thought and activity throughout history. But somehow our collective ability to sustain and such feats of of imagination fall short or what they once were and now need to be.

As many of the examples cited in the paper clearly show, it can take a very long time for ideas to permeate from imagination to reality and many never make it. We do not read More’s Utopia as either a description of the society he lived in or as a prescient account of the times which were to follow. Hari Seldon has no place in this story (though the world-building techniques of science fiction writers may do). The recognition that ideas which subsequently become central and powerful start on the periphery certainly shouldn’t surprise us and probably shouldn’t worry us either. There may be a need for greater concern that the mechanisms by which those ideas get closer to power and are adopted and incorporated have somehow become attenuating as a by-product of wider political and institutional changes.

But the positive message here is a really important one. Imagination is at once a powerful tool and part of the essence of what it means to be human. We should cherish it, nourish it and respect it.

Government and politics Systems

Introducing a ‘Government as a System’ toolkit

Andrea Siodmok – Policy Lab

This is the framework for Policy Lab's new Government as a System toolkit.

It’s been fascinating to watch the iterative development of Policy Lab’s synthesis of how governments get things done. It has now mutated into something bigger and more ambitious, nothing less than a toolkit for developing and managing government as a system

Its centrepiece is a grid of 56 actions, mapped by approach to power and by position in the design cycle, There’s a huge amount of thought and experience baked into it, giving the potential to be a really valuable tool for framing issues in systems thinking terms.

This is an image showing how the Double Diamond innovation process maps across the whole system of government action.

From that perspective, there may be almost equal value in a second diagram, which expands the double diamond model into a chain of gems which map to the columns of the action grid.

But it’s important to recognise what this isn’t as well as what it is. It is a toolkit which is helpful in thinking about government as a system, it is not itself a depiction of that system. The grid is not a map, as the post at one point implies; rather it is a key to system maps as yet largely undrawn. An atlas of those maps, of various scales, complexity and precision would be a thing of wonder, but it is not an atlas we yet have – or probably could ever have, bringing to mind as it does Borges’ one paragraph short story, On Exactitude in Science. That’s not to diminish the power of the key and the approach, but it does very much reinforce the point that this is a toolkit, not a solution.

It will more interesting still to see where this might go next. This version is government as a system. The direction of travel points to a view which will increasingly be more about government in a system.

Democracy Systems

Taking a systems view of democratic design

Catherine Howe

Catherine Howe applies systems thinking to democracy in seven short sharp minutes. Don’t watch this for the production values – there aren’t any – but for a lot of thought neatly packed into a rather small space.

Democracy is

us figuring out as humans how to make the least worst decisions collectively

That definition combines extreme modesty with extraordinary ambitions, and very deliberately says nothing about democracy as representation. This is the broader, systemic view, built round three themes – networks of different scales (and so the network of those networks, and how people participate in them); design, of processes and structures; and the central importance of power and how it is distributed.

There’s no attempt to offer a solution. But better questions are always a good step towards better answers.

Policy and analysis Service design

A catalogue of things that are stopping change

James Reeve and Rose Mortada

Following Simon Parker’s challenge that nothing can change until we change the rules inhibiting change, along come James Reeve and Rose Mortada drilling down a level to explore how policy, politics and delivery come together in fundamentally unproductive ways to make change harder. The intermediate output of policy is neither good policy (because it hasn’t been tested against reality) nor a good input for delivery planning, because too often the elements which make policy work good – not least imprecision and uncertainty – are stripped out before a delivery team is asked to make sense of them.

This post focuses on the civil service, but the issues are much wider ones (though the political yearnings for certainty do tend to make things harder). And in one sense the answer is trivial: blend policy and delivery together, build shared respect for different skills appropriate to different problem spaces, resist the temptation to wish away politics, and perhaps above all:

the policy should never be considered done until the outcome has been achieved

Trivial does not mean easy, of course. There’s nothing new about the problems described here and there are no glib solutions on offer. But there are great insights from the lived experience of trying to do it better infused with realism about the scope and pace of change.

This is the first of a three part series – part 2 and part 3 are well worth reading as well (with an interesting difference of tone between the first two, written pre-COVID-19 and the third written while it is in full spate).

Social and economic change

Nothing can change

Simon Parker

Nothing can change. We have huge systemic problems, but many things are as they are, and it is foolish to assume that intentional change will deliver intended effects.

But of course that’s not true. Things can and do change. Things are as they are because it suits enough people, with enough power, for them to be that way. Change is fundamentally a political enterprise.

What’s inadvertently interesting about this post is that it was written at the beginning of March and already feels like something from another age. If anything, the assumption in public discourse has flipped. If it is possible to create a hospital in days, if it is possible to change patterns of work and life radically and rapidly, if it is possible to bring national and international focus on a common overriding goal – what then can there be which is not possible?

But the answer is still fundamentally the one underpinning this post. We can do those things. We could do many other things which are radical changes to the way things have been done – but only if the assumption of insurmountable complexity is broken. A month on, that suddenly seems much more possible. But so it has seemed in other crises, there have been other dawns beyond other darkest hours. There will be unprecedented opportunities ahead, but they will need to be seized if they are not to fade away.