On paradigms

I’ve spent a lot of time working in think tanks. One of the key lessons it taught me was to be very suspicious of the word ‘paradigm’. Demos in particular was the sort of place where paradigms were broken and remade every day. I loved working there, and we really did shift thinking in some important areas, but I sometimes wondered how much we were really getting done. The high Blair years were not a fertile period for people who championed systems thinking, devolution and community empowerment.

A real paradigm shift comes along perhaps once in a generation and slowly changes everything. It arouses debate and opposition. It takes years of effort and many hands to build and establish. By definition, most people who claim to have discovered new paradigms probably haven’t done anything of the sort. At best, they might be lending a hand to a grander design.

I’ve seen so many dodgy attempts at paradigm shifting that I sometimes wonder if I’ll be able to spot the real thing when it does come along. But just recently I’m starting to wonder if we really are at one of those moments of change.

I’ve been powerfully struck by the reaction to NLGN’s recent report The Community Paradigm, which makes the case for empowering communities over both the state and market. The report rightly takes Big Local as one of its iconic case studies — the handing over of large sums of charitable money directly to communities — but also looks at community asset transfers and various moves towards deliberative decision making.

It isn’t the first time this argument has been made (I’ve had a few cracks myself), but in the past it has usually been met with scepticism by a worldly local government establishment which is even now struggling to let go of a paternalistic model of public service provision. The warm embrace given to Adam and Jessica’s piece suggests that something interesting might be happening.

The obvious way to build on The Community Paradigm is through a discussion about the kind of economic context that might allow communities to take more control of their own affairs. The report is very strong on radical new approaches to service delivery, but my suspicion is that the very idea of a service is one of the things that’s anchoring our imaginations in the 20th century.

It is fairly easy to describe a theoretical world in which local people run more of their own services with new forms of state support, but much harder to envisage a world in which people actually have the capabilities to do that. If we want communities to be powerful, we are obviously going to need a grander economic framework to support that.

There is a range of really exciting ideas in the air at the moment which might start to forge the basis of a new economics for the civic economy. The biggest challenge might be time: how do we give people the space to take part in shaping their communities? How do we free them from the urgent need to pay rent, provide food, pay for childcare, so that they have more time for imagination, creativity, care and play?

This requires radicalism on both a grand and micro-scale. Community wealth building seems like one sensible starting point, but people need time to contribute as well as ownership and income. Innovations such as the introduction of a four day week, or a universal basic income, would liberate a huge amount of time in our society, and if even a small fraction of that were reinvested in the civic economy it would be transformative. Ideas such as a form of national service for the young and the retiring — each spending a year working for minimum wage in their communities — might also inject a huge amount of social capital into our localities.

On a micro-scale, we need new ways to meet some of the basic needs that hold people back from participating. One the richest areas for innovation is childcare. I am continually inspired by Amy Martin’s bold attempts to reinvent the industry at Impact Hub Birmingham. And one of the simplest solutions I’ve seen is the impromptu cooperatives formed by mums who are working in the community kitchens in Barking’s Participatory City project. Parents take turns to look after the kids while the others cook.

If a new, community-based paradigm is emerging, then it surely proceeds from the austerity trap in which British public services find themselves. The combination of rising demand and falling budgets, with no real end in sight, means that we have to move upstream of social problems like isolation and poverty. The goal is nothing less than to shift our focus from delivering services to shaping better places that produce fewer social ills in the first place.