A couple of weeks ago, I went to hear James Thaler, co-author of Nudge, a wonkish tome about influencing behaviour that has become the political book of the year. This is the book that talks about how drawing insects on urinals reduces spillage better than any more heavy-handed or expensive intervention. As a result, it's captured the imagination of both Cameron and Obama. To hear the talk, click here.
Thaler seemed a good guy, and clearly a great economist. His key point is about choice architecture. Whatever the choice, it has to be presented in a certain way - in a certain order, in a certain light, etc - and that's what he means by choice architecture. Because this architecture makes a difference - if you put sweets by the checkout you sell more - you have to make a decision about which kinds of architecture are best. He argues that from pensions to energy usage, we can do a great deal to develop choice architecture that creates much greater social value.
I can see why Cameron likes the idea of all this. Not long ago, we held governments to account for the state of society. Now we hold them to account for the services people receive and the choices they face. How much simpler it would be if they were only responsible for the choice architecture. That's why Nudge is of interest to the Tories - because it connects with the broad project of reducing demand for the state and the responsibility of the state.
This struck me first when I couldn't get my head around one of Thaler's examples. He said that Google's employees are super-fit because Google provides gyms, nudging them into exercise. Of course, this isn't nudging at all - it's public provision. It's not about the choice architecture facing employees but the choice itself. Cameron is interested in nudging precisely because it's an alternative to public provision.
That's why the argument about obesity is so significant. 'People are obese because they eat too much'. That's not a point about causation; that's what obesity is. Those who treat this as an argument about causation - pointing out broader social context, etc - have already lost. They are getting drawn into a circular argument in which the state is able to do a disappearing act. Nudge is a cool book, but I worry the Tories will use it to help with this trick.
In Spain last week, I pissed on my first replica insect. I hope the other patrons knew how much ideological weight is being rested upon it.
I'm back from a conference in San Sebastian on social innovation and I bring you one. Poteo – it's like a pub crawl, but slower. Instead of downing pints, Poteo-ists drink special small measures, accompanied by tapas. In Spain, eating is not cheating. Instead of racing paralytic round the circle line, you wander from bar to bar with all the time in the world. If the pub crawl is drinking speeded up, the Pateo is drinking slowed down. I thought I liked the pub crawl, but I prefer the Poteo.
It's only a minor discovery, I confess, and most of the civilised world beat me too it, but it sort of expresses what I learnt from the conference. The first day-and-a-half we spent on show and tell. This is a long-winded process, especially in translation. And I was in pub crawl mode, looking to down my jar of facts and race on to the next lot. Only on the last day did the conversation really get going, leaving me with the headache I craved and struggling to remember it all.
'Why couldn't we have done that from the beginning?' I thought. But that was the point. Like in the Guinness ad, 'good things come to those who wait'. It took most of the conference to understand each other's work and context, in order that we could have a meaninfful conversation. Only by slowing things down were we able to communicate at all.
Slowing things down seems like a good function of social innovation. We heard about the slow food movement in Italy and the way Chinese villagers' own savings provide capital for social innovators. Here were pictures of slowing consumption and accelerating innovation forming virtuous circles. For me, feeling guilty about the event's carbon footprint, that was an exciting idea.
Charlie Leadbeater concluded proceedings by driving home the broader point. Social innovation, he said, is about one word; 'with'. We do social innovation with people, not 'to' or 'for' them. The lesson for me is that working with people takes time. If, as another speaker said, 'the skill of orchestration is the skill of the twenty-first century', I'm going to need to slow down. Think quicker, maybe, but work slower. I'm reminded of John Campbell's line about philosophy:
“Philosophy is thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed - to do with our natural motivations and beliefs. It then becomes evident that alternatives are possible.”
Last week, I read Microtrends, by Mark Penn, who famously created the 'soccer mums' moniker. Despite the inevitably being pigeon-holed as a soothsayer, Penn's central methodological point is that the future is not shaped by one or two social trends but one or two hundreds. The decline of deference and the rise of a long tail of different niches and special interests means that trends are fewer and microtrends are on the rise. Interestingly, given previous Demos work, to qualify as a microtrend, a phenomenon has to touch around 1% of the population.
For me, the most striking microtrend Penn describes under the title 'smartest kid left behind'. Increasingly, in middle class neighbourhoods, ambitious parents who think their child has a shot at topping their class, will deliberately hold them back. They start school later, older than their peers, with all the social and physiological advantages that brings. Of course, once this practice starts to develop - and to become a social phenomenon - it starts to escalate and spread.
This is the elk's antlers phenomenon in action - an arms race for resources that may help individuals but is collectively disastrous, imposing huge childcare costs and slowing children's development. For me, this is a classic example of the effects of inequality on people's abilities to live life as they would choose and on the health of our collective life.
We imagine we live in times of cynicism and despair, but really we are determined optimists. At least, the narrow, private optimism that believes our lot in life will be as good or at least as good as our parents'. But for a while now I have not had that optimism. As these blogs show, I'm interested in the ways in which social breakdown (most of all, divorce), inequality and the dominance of the world of work are, relatively speaking, impoverishing us all. I'm interested, therefore, in this article from the Guardian about Baby Losers:
"Across Spain, France and Italy, young middle-class professionals with good degrees and diplomas are facing a lifetime on low salaries with unrewarding jobs, forever poorer than their parents."
I think this will prove to be one of the most important phenemena of our time. After the Age of Affluence, we are starting to face up to an Age of Turbulence.
And I really believe this in the context of my own life. I am in a higher earnings percentile than my parents were at my time of life and yet I find myself thinking if I could just find my way to their quality of life I would be delighted. A house, family life, pensions, guilt-free foreign holidays - for me, making these things possible seems quite a stretch.
Now, this isn't credit crunch whinging - I'm a lucky boy - but it seems important. How easy would progressive politics be if most people found themselves worse of than their folks?