Citizen-powered progress

Matthew Taylor sets out the RSA’s vision for a 21st century enlightenment that is truly universal

By Matthew Taylor


‘Why don’t more people understand what the RSA is?’ This is an issue we often discuss at the RSA. In fact, it sometimes feels like a rather touchy subject.

Unhelpfully for my colleagues and Trustees I am ambivalent. On the one hand, institutions, like individuals, tend to be unrealistic about how deeply they appear in anyone else’s thoughts. A few people may perhaps recall the last high-profile report the RSA published or know about the part of our output that relates directly to their interests. But why should they go out of their way to find out more? When I ran the thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the early 2000s, we seemed to be on Radio 4’s Today programme or featuring in The Guardian every other day, but a lot of our work still felt largely invisible.

On the other hand, what first attracted me to the RSA was the institution itself, and its combination of history, culture, products, methods and assets. When we undertook a strategic review some years ago the single principle most discussed was ‘alignment’. How could the different parts of the RSA better reinforce each other to achieve greater impact?

The review came up with a mission statement for the RSA: ‘Enriching society through ideas and action.’ It sounds rather generic and anodyne so we do not quote it very often, but it is precisely this combination of ideas and action that is at the core of my belief that the power of the RSA lies not just in all the good things we create but in our very nature as an institution.

Looking back on that strategic review something else strikes me. It was rather self-serving. Of course, we genuflected to the usual list of big issues — from climate change and demography to austerity and democratic discontent — but the sense of urgency came primarily from our appetite to succeed. Today, for an organisation with our history, any consideration of our future must start by asking what we can do, not for ourselves, but to address the growing threat to enlightenment values.

21st century enlightenment

The RSA’s better-known strapline is ‘21st century enlightenment’. The impressive renovation of our historic John Adam Street headquarters — featured in the latest edition of the journal — includes many references to our rich heritage. Not only was the RSA formed in the midst of the 18th century Enlightenment but we have also, from the start, been an organisation that has sought to embody those principles that have so transformed the world. A greater awareness of our past, prompted also by the residency at the RSA of Dr Anton Howes, whose new history of the Society will be published next year, reminds us of the many times across the centuries when the RSA has had a great impact. If enlightenment values are in question then who better to lead the fightback than the RSA? And how do we take this long view while also injecting a sense of urgency into what we do?

This does not lead us to be uncritical about the history of the enlightenment project or fail to recognise how it has been misused and twisted across the centuries. The original Enlightenment spoke of universalism but often perceived only privileged white men as full citizens. Many of its architects — the philosopher David Hume, for example — were enthusiastic racists. Not only did its champions somehow manage to square their principles with the excesses of colonialism, but aspects of Enlightenment thought were ruthlessly reinterpreted by the murderous tyrants of the 20th century. Even today, those who claim to be enlightenment warriors can seem more obsessed with attacking the exaggerated excesses of identity politics than addressing the continued denial of justice and practical freedom to large numbers of their fellow citizens.

“If enlightenment values are in question then who better to lead the fightback than the RSA?”

Moreover, as I argued in my annual lecture back in 2012, a 21st century version of the project needs to recognise how the core ideas of the original Enlightenment have become hollowed out. An important task for the RSA is to renew those ideas and seek to apply them to modern challenges.

Autonomy, universalism, humanism

There are many different accounts of the Enlightenment and some scholars — Jonathan Israel being perhaps the most controversial — have even argued that there were two Enlightenments, one much more radical than the other. My starting point comes from the Bulgarian-French historian and philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, who argued that the three core, revolutionary principles of the Enlightenment were ‘autonomy’, ‘universalism’ and ‘humanism’.

Autonomy is often equated with freedom. A famous argument about freedom, taken up by Isaiah Berlin among others, is whether it should be seen, as John Stuart Mill argued, primarily as ‘freedom from’ interference by the state or others, or whether it also requires ‘freedom to’, in the sense of the resources necessary for someone realistically to have any degree of autonomy in a modern society. I am in the latter camp but my lecture made a different point. Arguing, on the one hand, against the idea of homo economicus — the mythical perfectly informed utility-maximising individual and — on the other hand, against the acquisitive idea of freedom as ever-greater consumer choice, I posited that real autonomy could only come from self-awareness (the knowledge, for example, that we are inherently social beings) and self-control. In this I was strongly influenced by many RSA speakers — behavioural economists, social psychologists and neuroscientists — who have over the years described the mounting evidence of human cognitive limitations and inherent biases.

The enhancement of greater autonomy is an important theme in many RSA projects. We believe that schools should be about creating confident and ambitious learners, not just young people who know how to scrape through examinations. Surveys show that a sense of autonomy is an important part of job satisfaction and that its absence is one of the biggest causes of stress and illness. Our Future Work Centre is seeking to counter both determinism and widespread public pessimism about technological change by exploring sector by sector how machine learning, robotics and other advances can be used to improve the quality of jobs. And our thinking on economic insecurity aims to understand and counter the widespread sense that many people, and many places, lack agency; a feeling many see as a wellspring of populist sentiment.

The idea of ‘universalism’, the principle that every person should be afforded equal dignity and basic rights, underlies modern arguments for social justice. Over time, the idea of universal rights has become more socially inclusive and more substantively expansive, recently culminating in the commendable ambition of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In terms of social justice, recent decades have seen a narrowing of inequality between nations but a widening gap within them. As national inequality rose in the eighties and nineties some on the right rejected the very idea of social justice as a dangerous justification for state interference. Today there is wider recognition of the scale of inequality and its malign effects but profound disagreement about what can and should be done about it.

For many RSA projects the question of how to address disadvantage and exclusion is central. It can be seen in the make-up of the Academy schools we have chosen to sponsor and the emphasis in our education work on closing the attainment gap. It is there in our research on how to strengthen communities and the public services they receive. It is core to our work on inclusive growth.

In my annual lecture I suggested that in the diverse communities of our shrinking, interdependent world the 21st century enlightenment idea of universalism should not only be about equality and entitlement but also connection and bonds. From tackling climate change to our response to the ongoing refugee crisis to our ability to cut through the morass of identity politics, a capacity to empathise with and respect people different to ourselves is vital. This is a subject we have often addressed in our public events. Our research team has explored barriers to social integration. Our championing of the arts is based in part on their capacity to promote empathy and build bridges. But this may be an area where our Fellows are ahead of us.

We rely on your generous annual donation but that can sometimes make the Fellowship feel exclusive. This may be why so often Fellows choose to develop initiatives that are about bringing people together in their localities and exploring what can be done to tackle exclusion. I am writing these words on a train on my way to a Fellow-led RSA Engage event in Leicester; its theme is ‘diversity and inclusion’.

The last of Todorov’s Enlightenment fundamentals is ‘humanism’. This principle has two complementary parts. The first is the idea that it is up to citizens — not priests or royalty — to determine what is in their best interests. The second is the assumption that human progress can and should be measured above all else by an increase in aggregate human fulfilment.

The first idea gives rise to the unfolding story of democratic enfranchisement. Until very recently it looked like this would have a happy conclusion. Optimism reached a highpoint with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Francis Fukuyama’s infamous announcement of the “end of history” with the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. Since then, the failure of democratic governments to solve difficult issues — ranging from stagnant living standards to managing immigration, the rise of populism and growing disenchantment not just with government but with democratic politics — the successes of China and the aggression of Russia have shattered that optimism. If the RSA events team were to decide to restrict our programme only to authors exploring the crisis of democracy we would not find ourselves short of speakers.

The idea of progress in human terms saw its philosophical expression in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and his followers. Progress could be secured by the power of reason and the scope of science and technology to improve the world. And so indeed it has proven, as latter day enlightenment warriors, such as Steven Pinker, continuously assert. Why is it, they ask, that we are so loath to recognise that reason, invention, democracy and markets have led today’s citizens to be healthier, longer living, better educated, more tolerant and peaceful than ever before? The only thing standing in the way of further progress is the credence given by a misguided citizenry to the rabble-rousing alarmism of politicians and the predilection of left-wing intellectuals to be sirens of crisis and oppression.

“perhaps what most distinguishes the RSA from other thought leadership organisations is our emphasis on action”

Determining a better future

Statistics support the assertion that we have never had it so good. But complacency is challenged by the past, present and future. To treat the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century as a mere bump in the upward road is as unconvincing as it is inhumane. Today, how can we celebrate our achievements as a species without acknowledging the terrible plight of the world’s poorest, the damage we are doing to our planet, the scale of inequality in most nations and the emergence of new developed-world concerns ranging from the growth of mental illness to the parlous state of liberal democracy? Furthermore, while Pinker and his allies may view the growing pessimism of old world citizens as irrational, perhaps it is a symptom of a more profound loss of direction.

It is easy to confuse the fact that scientific discovery and economic growth constantly create new possibilities with the idea that in themselves they comprise human progress. One reason the RSA intersperses talks on design, education, technology and economy with more philosophical, even sometimes spiritual, reflection is that 21st century enlightenment must involve humanity finding richer ways to discuss and determine what a better future should mean. This need is heightened by the risk that growth will soon tip us into planetary disaster or that technology could run out of our control.

This may sound abstract but it is about how the world feels to us every day. The challenge of articulating practical utopias is exacerbated by the sense that we, as humans, are no longer in charge. For more and more citizens — including senior politicians and company CEOs who may be seen to form the power elite — day-to-day reality involves trying to survive in systems of such complexity and flux that they are impossible to understand, let alone imagine being redesigned through human agency. In a world that continually spews out ever more commentary and opinion, has the relationship between our capacity to have ideas and effect change ever been more attenuated?

Action, not just thought

Which brings me to action. If I could only take one aphorism with me to a desert island it would be ‘it is not hope that leads to action so much as action that leads to hope’. Finding a route to social progress is like trying to untangle a ball of wool. There is no harm in devising a detailed strategy and there are certainly tactics to avoid, but it is probably only by carefully tugging at the loose strands that we can make any progress.

Perhaps what most distinguishes the RSA from other thought leadership organisations is our emphasis on action. It is there in our model of change, based in a detailed analysis of why change so often fails. We call our approach ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’. It is there in the idea of ‘partners in change’, where our research and engagement seeks to help organisations whose values we share make greater impact. These range from a housing association in Rochdale wanting to offer local people better opportunities, to government departments seeking advice on public engagement and progressive employers wanting to use technology to create better work. And, of course, it is there in our Fellowship, a social movement of change-makers in whom we have steadily increased our investment of time, energy and resources over the past decade.

Perhaps it is my age but I find different contexts have a strong impact on my state of mind. When I am around people whose instinct is to try to make a difference, such as RSA Fellows, who want to talk about initiatives, experiments and new conversations, I feel energised and hopeful. But when the topic is the difficulty of getting government to act, of reforming creaking national institutions, or persuading the political class to put the public interest ahead of personal survival or sectional advantage, the energy levels soon plummet.

The temptation is to abandon the latter world and live only in the former. But for society this will not work. What social innovators and entrepreneurs can achieve is in reality severely constrained by the environment in which they operate. In the RSA’s own work on public entrepreneurship we have shown how potentially powerful innovations that could hasten profound change are often repelled by a ‘system immune’ response. As Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms argue, understanding the difference between old power (hierarchal, exclusive, controlling) and new power (networked, inclusive, generative) is only useful if we can work out how to channel the energy and creativity of the latter towards the difficult and complex problems faced by the former. For example, we expect those in traditional positions of power to be held to public account, particularly in government; we see it as a positive and essential element of decision-making. Yet inflexible or punitive forms of accountability can contribute to a fear of failure and aversion to change. The solution is not to abandon the ideal of answering to the people but to reform the systems and norms of accountability so they are compatible with experimentation and innovation.

The RSA is an old establishment organisation proud of our enlightenment history. We value the trust and the networks we have built with decision-makers and our reputation for independence. But we are also a kind of social movement brimming with the energy of impatient problem solvers and innovators. How can we help to reimagine and redesign social institutions, processes, norms and expectations so the power of the new can flow into and reinvigorate our isolated, unloved political system, our creaking, often dysfunctional institutions, and our polarised, distorted public discourse? And how do we do this as technological change generates new possibilities, dangers and dilemmas?

With a new Board Chairman and the opportunity to refresh our strategy, the mission of the 21st century RSA combines these two elements: first, a deep commitment to enlightenment values, not preserved in aspic but continuously interrogated and held up in the light of contemporary challenges; and second, an unerring focus on action to achieve the next stage on the journey of human growth and fulfilment. This may sound grandiose but look carefully and you will find it in the way we have refurbished our historic house, our best research projects, our most widely disseminated content, and the thoughtful endeavours of our nearly 30,000 Fellows.

Matthew Taylor is the Chief Executive of the RSA

The RSA recently published 10 foundations for 21st century enlightenment, explored in the following essays: