Rural Transport: Planes, Trains and Automobiles transformed

This provocation was written for Snook.

In “The Village” — the BBC drama by Peter Moffat, starring Maxine Peake, the modern age is ushered in by the arrival of a bus for the first time to the eponymous village in the Derbyshire Dales. My own grandmother cycled everywhere in rural south Armagh, on the Irish border, including a gasp-inducing 2-mile cycle whilst in labour — hours before giving birth to my mother. For many rural areas, transport has never really worked. For those who could afford cars, it might have been ok in the 1990s before the huge increases in insurance costs. But for those who can’t drive — and that’s both young people and many older people who didn’t learn — it excludes them from access to health and educational opportunities, jobs and society more broadly.

We have never created the rural equivalent of Mass public transport systems. As transport became more available to the working classes in cities, most people outside cities did not have access to that sort of transport. And when we came to design rural transport systems they were often done on urban models. All too often rural transport was designed by people with little experience of living in rural areas. This meant that as urban communities enjoyed growing connectivity, many areas outside our cities were left behind. The volume of passengers was never enough to sustain regular bus services, and sharing lifts went out of fashion in the 1980s, amid growing individualism and fear of crime.

We are now at a turning point. The rural bus is becoming endangered, and at the same time technology is changing how we move around. That creates the opportunity to replace a system that has worked for the few, but failed the many. Snook is interested in making sure that we put design principles at the heart of these changes, and that technology becomes a solution to the existing problems, rather than adding to those problems. We want to take an asset-based approach that knits existing social relationships with new technology to build an infrastructure that is a techno-socio-physical hybrid. That is, a new way of rural living that builds on existing connections to harness technology and overcome transport problems.

There are approaches like “Mobility as a Service”, which sees transport, not in traditional infrastructure terms (road building, buying new vehicles), but rather as a way of allowing people to do everyday things they need to do. By getting to work, educational institutions and health providers it helps people to be a part of society, and that’s what Mobility as a Service is all about. Improved accessible transport services can help us reduce isolation and loneliness. This is an important shift in focus and should inform how we adopt new technology. It starts with identifying where people need to travel and identifying how that need can be met. This is particularly important as it will allow us to build inclusive transport systems that accommodate people who can’t drive a private car — because of age, disability, or wealth. We need to replace dysfunctional transport systems with transit that works for all.

Here are four speculative scenarios that might transform rural transport, we are keen to work with you to help make these possibilities realities, delivered through human centred design:


Platform-based lift sharing

The first shift that could happen is the development of an online or app-based platform for lift sharing. This would allow people to share journeys they are planning to take, or were taking, and they can pick people up on the way. This could also allow for mileage to be recompensed — this is in contrast to the Uber model of replacing taxi drivers. It’s about creating an exchange economy, rather than turning over existing jobs to big corporations.

This is both eminently doable, and something that is closely aligned with existing apps like Uber. The real question is — why hasn’t it happened yet?

That might be because the money behind Uber is massive, and no ‘not for profit’ provider has the marketing budget to embed itself in people’s travel habits.

However, by using behavioural science and working with big institutional partners we could get a platform to scale. By bringing together all the public agencies working in an area like Dumfries and Galloway, or one of the national parks, we could align commuting data and allow drivers to share their travel information with others. This could create the basis for a working rural version of demand-responsive transport. By mapping routes and getting public sector workers to explore whether they could offer a lift, we could begin to build a culture of lift sharing again.

This could also help people with picking up prescriptions, groceries and other helpful acts. The overspill benefits may include stronger relationships and better connections, with more reciprocity. We may see the emergence of shared electric minibuses doing shorter commutes that are no longer being served by buses. This looks like a 21st-century reinvention of the bus.


Big technological shifts in electric vehicles and automation

We seem to be on the brink of a transformation in engine technology and automation. While it seems that full automation may be some way away, there’s a real chance that the task of driving will become much simpler over the coming years. Especially in the UK, the opportunities for energy generation in rural areas will also create opportunities.The Isle of Unst in Orkney has created a hydrogen economy making zero-emission transport the norm both by car and (soon) ferry, using surplus renewable energy. When there is more energy than is needed to power the island, it is used to create hydrogen, which then provides zero carbon transport. As renewable prices plunge this will become a more frequent approach — especially in wind and wave-rich rural areas.

The emergence of electric bikes and scooters with substantial ranges — often of over 20 miles, also gives us the opportunity to think through how we can do that tricky last mile of transport or even the sort of journey my grandmother did every day! At a lower price, and less maintenance than a car, and with very low running costs, these products may be transformational for rural areas. Bike sharing like the Santander sponsored scheme in London might make sense with electric bikes in rural areas.


Changes in work make transport less necessary

We know that work is changing rapidly. Working from home is becoming more common. There are more co-working spaces, and an increasing list of tasks can be undertaken remotely. That’s mostly the case for what are (or were) office jobs, but it may become more widespread as small scale manufacturing using digital looms and 3D printers becomes more prevalent. This will create a repair economy, where fixing broken items becomes more common. The repair economy may be further facilitated through open-sourcing of plans for physical objects.

We won’t have to get in a car to get furniture, or a new fridge, we could get them manufactured locally. This will relocate jobs and reduce travel miles.

In some, cases drones will replace delivery journeys, and there may be an interesting reshaping of the nature of some rural journeys. There is the possibility of a ‘just in time’delivery approach (using drones to deploy parts as they’re needed) developing in rural areas, which will accelerate the move to small-scale local manufacturing. It’s possible that rural mail deliveries will be carried out by drone in the very near future. This will lead to the development of distributed manufacturing, much of which will be in rural areas.

Office jobs will be transformed by advances in teleconferencing, incorporating virtual reality and augmented reality. Co-working spaces will replace the office as the normal place for office jobs. Meetings will happen in salons where full interaction with colleagues in other locations will happen through virtual reality. 5G mobile phone technology and broadband rollout will need to keep pace with this, and that will be a vital pressure point for government and service providers.

If you don’t have to get in a car or bus to go to a manufacturing job, if you are going to a local coworking space for your office job, then your need for transport reduces substantially. This aligns with some of the Scottish Government’s Manufacturing Action Plan to grow smart manufacturing through optimising supply chains.

Rural transport will be best transformed by the human-centred adoption of technology

We know that technology will disrupt transport as we know it. We also know that if we don’t make the change in transport human-centred, it will fail to meet the needs of rural communities. That’s why design is so important. We need to use design principles to make sure that technology solves the vital problems facing us. By identifying where it’s is necessary, shifting the incentives for different types of transport and matching supply to demand; we can create inclusive rural transport. And that will help to end depopulation and keep vibrant communities in rural areas. If we get it right, the advantages enjoyed by rural areas may make them the preferred spaces to live.

If you’re interested in discussing how we can prepare for more effective use of new technology get in touch. I’m really keen to work with others to make sure we put people at the heart of adoption of new transport technologies.

You can visit the Snook website here: Snook. Illustrations by Isabella Bunnell.


If the free market is so great why don’t you go and live there?

Anyone advocating alternatives to free-market capitalism will soon find themselves challenged to back their beliefs by moving to a socialist country. When I was younger it was East Germany, I think it’s now North Korea. “If socialism is so great, why don’t you go and live in East Germany” articulates two things, firstly the failure of actually existing 20th century ‘socialism’, and the perceived hypocrisy of those advocating alternatives to the free market as a way of organising society.

But interestingly those who argue for the free market as a the way of organising society are strikingly reluctant to run their own businesses in these ways. When they do try to run companies on the principles of the free market, they fail.

This is exacerbated by the erasure of ways of talking about the world that aren’t about the free market. When we discuss how the world could work in different ways we have no vocabulary at either conceptual or linguistic level to describe alternatives to the free market.

But the fascinating thing about the free market is that it isn’t really the guiding principle of any of the big organisations whose leaders are its greatest cheerleaders. Almost every big corporation operates through information-rich planning processes.

Most don’t operate internal free markets, because they’re wasteful, inhibit innovation and promote damaging competition. In almost every circumstance they’ve been tried they result in gaming the system, rather than improved results.

It used to be the case that our economy was incredibly information-poor. When Chile tried economic planning in the 1970s they used telex in a fascinating experiment called Cybersyn. It didn’t really work.

But information technology is totally unrecognisable today, and could easily be deployed in developing economic plans in a way that was unimaginable in the 1970s. In fact, it’s this form of ‘information capitalism’ that made Google a trillion dollar company.

Sears, the US supermarket company, is probably the most notable corporate attempt at internal free markets. Sears filed for bankruptcy last year.

Yet we continue to use the free market as the sole guiding principle for our society. Time to think again.

On doing referendums well – the way forward for Brexit?

For historical reasons we need not go into, Ireland requires agreement through a referendum every time the government signs a treaty. In 2008 Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. The Lisbon Treaty was a complex arrangement that changed the nature of the EU in a number of subtle ways. The referendum campaign was a farce. The then Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, admitted he hadn’t read the Treaty.

In the vote there was a narrow (53%-47%) victory for the “No” side. Which was embarrassing, and resulted in a second referendum (which resulted in a clear victory for the Yes side).

When Irish Labour became junior coalition partners in 2011, they wanted to change the constitution to create equal marriage. In a country that had been hostile to gay rights until the mid-1990s this was seen as difficult and controversial. A change to the constitution required a referendum, which was an even greater barrier than existed in other countries.

More out of fear than optimism the conservative Fine Gael-led government allowed the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly, which drew a roughly geographically and demographically balanced section of the Irish citizenry. These 100 people were charged with considering how equal marriage could be implemented.

The result was a national conversation about the changes that led to an extremely successful referendum. And successful not just because the right decision was reached. Successful because it received almost complete “losers’ consent” – those who lost haven’t sought to undermine the result.

Ireland isn’t good at referendums because its political culture is better than the UK’s. Ireland has simply worked out how to have a good referendum. We should learn from them.

A similar Citizens’ Assembly led to the legalisation of abortion last year in another referendum. And again there was almost universal losers’ consent.

The reason this works is that it allows thorough consideration of the proposal at hand, that isn’t susceptible to the sort of misunderstandings that so often dog public debate. And the creation of a consensus around the way forward offered by the Citizens’ Assembly paves the way for a successful referendum.

So now may be the time to have a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (like the one already undertaken by UCL Constitution Unit. It should be on a statutory footing and should consider the various ways forward, suggesting 2 or 3 to be put to a referendum (or preferendum) that might just gain the losers’ consent we need to get out of this mess.

Planning better communities

A version of this blog first appeared on the Snook website:

I come from Ireland. Irish villages used to grow laterally. When the time came to build a house, the builder would go to the last house in the village and throw his hat. He would build his house where his hat landed. The result is sprawl: fine in the 19th century. A real problem now. It’s not good for transport, and with larger populations, it results in people living too far from shops and facilities to make strong communities. It creates huge problems for health services and for delivering amenities like electricity, water and sewage.

Our planning system exists to avoid this problem but it’s not without its problems. On the one hand, there is the need to provide housing, shops and services for communities. On the other hand, there are people whose communities are under threat from those developments.

The town and country planning system in the UK dates from the 1940s, when communities gained the right to determine how land was used. Community interest was represented through local authorities, who ran a process through which people or companies could be granted or denied permission to build on land. The system involves zoning for different uses such as industry, commerce, or residential, but each development needs planning permission.

The planning system often tended toward elite control, with grand plans being created by city fathers (because they were, almost without fail – men) and foisted on communities. During the 1960s and 1970s resistance grew to this approach. People – who were better educated than ever before, and who wanted more choice – made sure that the plans suited them and their communities. However this has gridlocked the system and made planning confrontational. For some organisations, the planning system lies at the heart of all that is wrong, to the extent that they believe sorting it out would solve all our problems.

Planning the future

This system was great in it’s time, but it’s time has now passed, and we have the opportunity to create something much better.

By necessity, the planning system we have is one that is adversarial and we should create something based on the principles of co-design. We need to put communities at the heart of the process and changes in technology will make this much easier.

Organisations like Snook have been working with Hackney Council to build on the work that Future Cities Catapult have been doing on transforming the planning system. Separately, the Scottish Government is running a process that harnesses technology and participation to make planning better. We believe now is the time to make this work, building on the foundation of a new planning system, with data informing community-led decisions.

We’ve moved from a world where people needed information brought to them to make decisions. Those city fathers were the possessors of enormous accumulated knowledge that allowed them to make decisions. But that has now changed. We’re now in a world where the information is mostly out there already. The internet was designed to keep communications alive in the event of a nuclear war. It distributes information to protect it. But this has a huge additional benefit: it means we can all access that information.

Over the past 10 years, networked approaches to information in public services have begun to emerge. These include crowdsourcing information and citizen science. This is good but still isn’t at the heart of how public services work. Leading businesses in the private sector have data at the core of their operations. We need to identify new ways to harness the data that we now have access to, to deliver better public services, and we need to increase the role for communities in those services.

So what does this look like?

We should replace the current planning system that sets developers and communities at loggerheads with one that co-designs with our communities.

Imagine a community event where we use inclusive design and participatory processes to identify what a community actually needs. Add to this skills in urban design, throw in some Minecraft experts, and we could have a process where the community sets out what it wants to see, then commissions the facilities that are needed. The process can be based on the best data and modelling available. It will transform the adversarial system we have into a creative system. The time spent on opposing developments could be spent on co-designing communities of the future.

Furthermore, using machine learning and artificial intelligence can help develop proposed developments. Having all planning data on open standards might allow us to create 3D models of our cities, and an opportunity to understand rural service needs. We could create dynamic plans in which the greatest effort is devoted to making the important decisions, not making the models. We could deploy augmented reality and virtual reality to help people understand what is being proposed. There are digital tools that allow better and more inclusive consultation.

Snook wants to develop our role in planning and community participation. This means creating a community of designers committed to human-centred design. We want people to have the right tools to challenge or contribute to the the processes that shape their environment.

These processes need to be open to everyone. They need to be truly participatory. That means we want to improve the information that supports policy and how policy is subsequently developed. Organisations like Snook are asking the question: could local development plans be fluid, responding to live data, population needs, emerging trends and unexpected events? What would it be like if urban data could be used to create a dynamic framework. An approach that allows for policy at the local level which is responsive and connected to community needs as they arise?

Technology creates the opportunity for human involvement to be focused on the highest value decisions. It offers us the opportunity to codesign the cities of the future. It allows us to better understand where to site housing, shops and other facilities.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to reforming the planning process gives us a real opportunity. However we need to think deeply and creatively about how we can make design something that we do together – that helps to create better communities for us all.

Thoughts on remembrance, war and humanity

I posted this last year on Facebook but I think it bears repetition on Remembrance Sunday. I’ve always been interested by our fascination, as a society, with the poetry of the First World War. Especially when contrasted with the almost complete anonymity of the Second World War poets. Of whom Hamish Henderson was one of the most significant.

It’s Remembrance Day, so I thought I’d share an extract from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. It was written during, after and about the Allied campaign in North Africa in the Second World War. We all know the war poets of the First World War, few of us know poets of the Second World War.

This extract from the First Elegy does something wonderful and difficult. It values the enemy. Living and dead. For many the Second World War is the archetype of the just war. A war of good against evil. Is it that a just war provides less scope for poetry?

Or is it that we have lost sense of the humanity of our enemies?

Hamish Henderson, Jan 1942 from “End of a Campaign”

There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.

There were our own, there were the others.
Their deaths were like their lives, human and animal.
There were no gods and precious few heroes.
What they regretted when they died had nothing to do with
race and leader, realm indivisible,
laboured Augustan speeches or vague imperial heritage.
(They saw through that guff before the axe fell.)
Their longing turned to
the lost world glimpsed in the memory of letters:
an evening at the pictures in the friendly dark,
two knowing conspirators smiling and whispering secrets;
or else
a family gathering in the homely kitchen
with Mum so proud of her boys in uniform:
their thoughts trembled
between moments of estrangement, and ecstatic moments
of reconciliation: and their desire
crucified itself against the unutterable shadow of someone
whose photo was in their wallets.
Their death made his incision.

There were our own, there were the others.
Therefore, minding the great word of Glencoe’s
son, that we should not disfigure ourselves
with villany of hatred; and seeing that all
have gone down like curs into anonymous silence,
I will bear witness for I knew the others.
Seeing that littoral and interior are alike indifferent
and the birds are drawn again to our welcoming north
why should I not sing them, the dead, the innocent?”

Why we’re talking about the wrong bits of Brexit

We’ve spent a lot of time taking about Brexit and very little time thinking about the causes of Brexit. That’s important because as the withdrawal date draws closer, so the expected benefits will come into focus. I think that whatever happens after March next year risks deeper divisions amongst progressives. And a ride of the hard right.

The reason why the hard right wanted a Brexit referendum was precisely because it would unleash racist forces and divide the left. We need not to fall for that tactic.

This is because Brexit can never solve the problems it was meant to address. There were two major drivers of the Brexit vote: opposition to austerity; and opposition to immigration and the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the UK.

But Brexit isn’t going to end austerity, and it isn’t going to make Britain white again. And no Brexit can be sufficiently Brexity for the Brexit enthusiasts.

I am very concerned that any failure to leave the EU will be a massive recruiting agent for the hard right. They will be able to make the case that democracy doesn’t work, so we should have authoritarianism instead. This is almost certainly what will happen if Brexit is stopped.

But it’s also what will happen if we have a Brexit that doesn’t end austerity, or doesn’t end immigration, or doesn’t create a racially pure Britain. In other words, any actual existing Brexit.

And everyone who understands politics or economics knows ending austerity will be more difficult outside the EU than inside the EU. And it is both impossible and totally wrong to end immigration or revert to the racial mix of the 1950s.

We need to focus on the causes of Brexit and the real solutions to those. We need to change how we make the case on austerity and we need to win the argument for immigration and anti-racism.

There have been effective campaigns against austerity, but the lesson from the Brexit vote is that they need to be clearer about how austerity can be ended. We focused on the problems of austerity, rather than the ways we could end austerity. There’s good evidence that people believe that there is a limited amount of money which had to be allocated by government. It’s, of course, not true. But it makes arguments against the EU (and international aid) very attractive. It is a significant part of what made people believe the notorious ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ lie.

This is not just an expression of regret. We need to change how we do politics so we can avoid Brexit becoming a permanent recruiting agent for the far right.

There has not, on the other hand, been an effective campaign for immigration. And this is what we need to change. The first priority must be to make the moral and economic case for immigration. Immigrants have the right to be here – it’s not just Scotland that is a mongrel nation – and they make our economy and our public services function. We must be on the front foot about immigration and race.

Whether you are in favour of Brexit or not, whether you are campaigning for a People’s Vote or not, addressing the causes of Brexit must be a higher priority. We are at a very dangerous juncture, and we need to ensure that we speak to the concerns that led to the Brexit vote.

It’s time for the participatory society

The world abounds with both opportunities and crises. We live in a time of unparalleled progress – scientific breakthroughs offer to achieve everything from a cure to cancer to self-repairing glass. We are more connected than ever before. We have the opportunity to replace many low quality jobs through automation. And we have more information about the world than in any previous era. But these opportunities are clouded by the rise of political chauvinism and threats ranging from climate change to antimicrobial resistance.

Citizens are more educated than ever before, but we have legacy systems of decision-making. We still vote once every 4 or 5 years, and while governments often consult on what they do, this involves relatively small numbers of people in a meaningful way. For all its achievements, consultation is failing to match the expectations of a demos which expects high levels of inclusion in decision making through the market, and in the workplace. The popularity of participatory budgeting schemes, and other manifestations of participatory politics – such as the Brexit Citizens’ Assembly – hints at the potential for wider deployment of participatory methods. These methods have been taken up by the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government committee to investigate the future of adult social care.

While there are many causes for optimism, we know that, left to trawl the internet for information people may be taken in by ‘fake news’ and conspiracies. But we also know that when people are deliberatively engaged in the process of decision making – through the sorts of participatory techniques that underpin Participatory Budgeting and Citizens’ Assemblies – that those people can properly assess the opportunities and threats, and have access to rational consensus.

When the political theorist Edmund Burke wrote that an MP “owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion” he did so in a context where most were unable to assess and judge the great issues of state. It is odd that politics and public policy decisions remain so impervious to involvement. This is especially so in a society where basic education is universally available and citizens are continually engaged in judgement and decision-making through much more autonomy in the workplace and regular consumer decision-making. Bringing these skills into public decision-making is not just the right thing to do, it is now a necessity for the survival of a democratic society.

There are a number of areas where this is particularly important. When it comes to harnessing the opportunities of ubiquitous and pervasive data, we urgently need a participatory process that allows a realistic assessment of the risks of government use of data. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has pioneered some of the techniques required in this task (and is considering expanding the discussion to data policy), but this needs to be applied much more widely, and with levels of participation that reflect how widely the effects of any decision will be felt.

We can understand the underlying issue as a failure in the public sphere – where the intersection of public institutions, media and citizens is incapable of synthesising the available information into appropriate courses of action. We have both the tools and the opportunity to move beyond the public sphere and towards a deliberative society. Now is the time to seize this opportunity.

Recent technological developments make this opportunity even more important. The last decade has been marked by a transformative increase in the availability of data. This new data comes in many forms: it is easier to track steps using a phone or personal fitness device than it is to count them yourself. It is easier to count mobile phones passing a turnstyle than employing someone with a clipboard to do the same. It is easier to assess what economic activity there is in an area by web-scraping job adverts than it is to undertake a detailed study. This new data should turn our understanding of the world on its head. Where previously when making a decision we needed to go into the world to actively pursue information, now much of that information is close at hand. While we still need to access it, that is much easier than it once was.

Collective intelligence offers us the opportunity to make human interventions of more value. Instead of expending time and effort measuring what’s happening, devices are doing this for us. We can bring these data sets together to make sense of the world. This can greatly improve decision making.

And improved decision making is becoming ever more important. We all know that there are a variety of serious challenges facing the world today – from antimicrobial resistance to climate change, and on to the aging population. Our cities are struggling to deal with air pollution, and our some are even at risk of running out of water. These challenges are easy to agree to – but often prove difficult to resolve. They work across disciplinary, governmental and other boundaries. The solutions to these problems don’t fit into the silos through which our legacy systems work.

A different way of solving problems comes when we set them out as challenges. A challenge approach works by setting out a problem, such as regulation of urban drone use or managing variable supply in a renewables-based energy network, and inviting researchers, developers and citizens to pitch ideas on how to solve these problems. It can break down disciplinary boundaries and administrative silos, create understanding, investment and ultimately – solutions that we might not otherwise have found.

These challenges could be of direct political contestation – as with abortion rights in Ireland, or they could be more local – on approaches to air pollution in a particular municipality. Or they could be longer-term issues – such as the regulation of artificial intelligence. There will be particularly significant opportunities for bringing arts-led approaches to help understand, represent and interpret the evidence and arguments that are required to involve participants in the citizens assemblies, and to more broadly communicate the work of the Institute. The opportunities to bring music and art into debates about the future will increase the impact of the this approach, and allow alignment with creative imaginings of the future.

In the Republic of Ireland Citizens’ Assemblies have been used to deal with a variety of issues, ranging from equal marriage to abortion. These issues have proved intractable through traditional political structures –- which are marked by self-interested approaches. By bringing together demographically balanced groups that reflect the major views, a resolution emerges.

At the same time, we have more methods for bringing people into decision-making processes. Both online and in-real-life we can build more effective ways of including people. Where social media has connected people much more effectively than ever before, so participatory approaches can make use of digital tools to make better decisions. By better identifying the challenges that people see, and matching this with the many exciting possibilities we can rebuild our public sphere.

These approaches are particularly relevant to institutions of learning. With Universities now measured on their impact (and with this measurement becoming more significant), and seeking new ways to make sure that their research is more relevant to challenges, a new opportunity arises. A process of identifying great global challenges, assessing different approaches to addressing these challenges through participatory methods and using this to inform research guarantees impact. It is a win-win, allowing academics to validate their research, and citizens to be involved in the process of commissioning and design of research.

How could this work in practice?
The opportunity to deliver on a programme of this sort is enhanced by the substantial investment in estate and curriculum that has been delivered through the City Deals for both Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Edinburgh, the rhetoric of ‘challenge’ has already been taken up in the design of the Edinburgh Futures Institute. This adds physical manifestation to an already existing public sphere and creates the conditions to catalyse the move towards a deliberative society and participatory democracy. The University of Edinburgh already has substantial expertise in this area through the work of Oliver Escobar, co-director of What Works Scotland and the Smart Urban Intermediaries programme.

The dominant political approach in any era is manifested in its architecture. The German theorist Jürgen Habermas identified the Palace of Versailles as a bricks-and-mortar example of absolute monarchy. So physically vast and so overpowering as to leave the subjects of the French King in no doubt of who wielded power on behalf of god. We have the opportunity to create a concrete manifestation of the participatory society.

By bringing together a challenges approach with a citizens assembly methodology, we can identify, test and surface the areas where change is needed. When we bring researchers and practitioners together we can begin to address these areas where change is needed. By including citizens at every point we demonstrate that research aligns with popular concerns. The process has impact woven through it and will begin the process of prioritising problems, accounting for social, environmental and economic change, and rebuilding trust in society.

This is not an attempt to replace curiosity-led research, but rather to allow researchers and practitioners to better understand which questions should be addressed, and to – if they choose – direct their research to answering these questions. The approach itself will be open to experimentation, iteration and development. By comparing the effectiveness of different ways of identifying challenges, building participatory techniques and measuring impact we can create learning that can be widely shared.

If the Palace of Versailles was a manifestation of the feudal political order intended to awe subjects into submission through the sheer scale and majesty of the buildings, so the aim of Edinburgh Futures Institute should be to create a deliberative space where citizens can realise a participatory democracy. It can be a built manifestation of the participatory society. And through harnessing the information now available to us, and the insights of citizens, we can create a public sphere worthy of awe.

Local elections: mass movements and agenda for change

Thoughts on the English local election results:

Expectation management and the mass party

Poor expectation management may be the biggest problem for Labour in communicating the results. Since the 1990s brought the era of media-focused campaigning we have become used to parties playing down their chances. This move was based on parties raising much more money from wealthy donors.

Parties could campaign in this way because their campaigns were delivered by paid staff supplemented with small numbers of very committed activists. Those staff and activists didn’t need to be energised by the possibility of big wins.

The need to energise campaigners can leave you with an expectation management problem. But it means that you can run campaigns that don’t rely on big donors, and the corporate capture that so often accompanies the need to do big fundraising.

Much of the current confusion in politics originates in the tensions around this approach. It’s much messier having big campaigns that excite people. But it is a necessary corrective to the sort of elite politics that divides ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ or cynically denies people housing or – maybe worse – cancer treatment to pander to racists.

Turnout and an agenda for radical local government

Local elections are never going to be as easy for mass movement parties, who require big ideas to motivate their voters. The enthusiasm gap will always be bigger for local elections.

These elections took place in a context where there was no national campaign. That makes it more difficult for parties making a big offer. Labour did well in 2017 with polarising policies on issues like student funding and housing. Greens did well in 2015 with issues like rail renationalisation and moving politics to the left. Local elections don’t give scope for that sort of approach so easily.

We need to build strong ideas of what voting for a radical party in local government can achieve. The right can point to lower taxes and the punitive removal of services from the ‘undeserving poor’ as a reason to elect them. Since the era of new municipal socialism in the 1980s, it’s not been clear what a radical council would do. The councils of the 80s made public transport more affordable (Fares Fair), pioneered anti-discrimination on race and sexuality and campaigned on issues like apartheid. We need that spirit back.

Community and Economy: on the success of Highlands and Islands Enterprise

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) is a rare beast: an economic development agency that enjoys widespread popular support amongst the population of the area in which it operates. First set up as the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 it has been successful in reversing the economic decline of the Scottish highlands and islands. And not only has it been successful, its success is widely recognised.

This is extremely unusual. Industrial policy is littered with the corpses of long-dead and largely unlamented agencies. From the inward investment approach of the 1980s to the ‘connected economy’ approach of the 2000s, the changing winds of policy have swept away a range of agencies. In Wales industrial development was taken back into the competencies of central government. In England, the Regional Development Agencies were replaced by Local Economic Partnerships that enjoyed substantially less resource.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland the equivalent bodies, Invest NI and Scottish Enterprise survived, but are regularly the subject of political opprobrium. In the run-up to the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, the Scottish Government launched an Enterprise and Skills Review in which the intention was strongly signalled that Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise would be merged to form a single body.

The mantra of the Minister needing to be seen to do something is all-too-often merging the unmerged and demerging the merged. So it seemed would be the fate of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. But a groundswell of support for HIE – the “Keep HIE Local” campaign – meant Ministers chose not to merge it with Scottish Enterprise. Indeed, such was the success of HIE that Ministers ended up committing to a new development agency, on the model of HIE, for the south of Scotland.

hie local

So why is HIE so popular? Why did Highlanders fear its abolition so much they campaigned to save it? The answer lies in the unique element of its mission, that gives a pointer as to what successful inclusive innovation might look like. Almost every other economic development agency is tasked with growing businesses, seeking inward investment from transnational businesses and other economy-specific activities like knowledge transfer. HIE does these things too. But it also has a mission to support community development.

It is this twin commitment to economic and community development that has allowed HIE to support the hugely successful transfer of crofting estates into community ownership. It has allowed Highland communities to enjoy the benefits of widespread development of community renewables and it has helped to reverse depopulation and retain communities in many remote and rural areas. So much so that other areas of rural Scotland want a similar agency.

And HIE faces new challenges. Adaptation to climate change and the impact of the data economy and automation will change the way the rural economy works. As will the widespread deployment of drones, which could both threaten the much loved rural postie, but could also facilitate true just in time delivery.

Of course, seeing community and economy as interlinked to the point of indivisibility makes HIE’s job more difficult. But it also seems to be more effective than a separation of community and economy that risks appearing reductive and locating the economy outside the scope of the society in which it functions. HIE shows we can build a successful economy in a way that reduces alienation. And it does so in a way so successful that people are prepared to fight for HIE’s ongoing survival.

Some thoughts on the failure of the Sinn Féin-DUP deal

Here are some brief thoughts on the failure of the Sìnn Fein-DUP deal yesterday. At every stage of this process Sinn Féin have driven the agenda. At every stage the DUP have played into their hands. Sìnn Fein collapsed the Assembly and have set terms for agreement that Unionists would find it very difficult to agree.

1. It is partly a function of the limited devolution allowed in the nations of the UK. The job of any NI Executive would have been the administration of London-imposed austerity. It’s easy to understand why Sinn Féin were unenthusiastic about this.

Theresa May’s call for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ compounded Sìnn Fein’s antipathy to her government. Brexit looks very much like an attempt to reinvigorate exactly the British Imperial sentiments that repel Irish republicans.

2. Brexit brings the prospect of a united Ireland back onto the table in a serious way. There are only 3 solutions to the Irish border problem. Ireland leaving the EU and joining the UK – which (despite the DUP’s fantasies) can’t and won’t happen. Brexit failing – which might happen. And Irish reunification.

With Sinn Féin sensing the possibilities for a united Ireland they hold the whip hand in any negotiation.

This is why they’ve played so hard on marriage equality and the Irish language. The worst they could hope for was a humiliation of the DUP.

3. The imposition of direct rule from Westminster on the north of Ireland will trigger a great deal of pressure on the Irish government to defend minority interests in the north. With a veto over any deal for the UK over Brexit this is a perilous position for unionists.

It seems likely the Irish government will ask for joint authority. With the UK government’s capacity to actually govern deeply impaired by Brexit this may mean a gradual absorption of the north into an Irish political system and demos. This is the republican strategy and gets to a united Ireland without the need for a border poll.

4. This is an almost inevitable outcome of the Northern Irish electorate’s decision to polarise politics. Both unionists and nationalists gambled that they would win the peace – having concluded that they couldn’t win the war.

The era that started with the Civil Rights movement and ended with the power-sharing agreement had no clear winner. Both sides felt they had lost. This meant the political centre was ripped apart. The more moderate Ulster Unionist party and SDLP lost out to the DUP and Sinn Féin. That was a gamble for each side.

It looks like a gamble the unionists have lost.