Unusual Suspect: Robin McAlpine, Director of Common Weal

Robin McAlpine is Director of Common Weal, a Scottish “think and do tank” which campaigns for social and economic equality, participative democracy, environmental sustainability, wellbeing, quality of life, peace, justice and cooperation. He has worked for over 20 years in journalism, public affairs, political strategy and policy. He writes for a wide range of sources on Scottish politics.

SIE interviewed Robin for their Unusual Suspects Festival interview series.

Does social innovation mean anything to you and your organisation?

Of course. Many words have been both over-used and misused but innovation is a fundamental part of human nature — to see something and to realise that if it is done differently, it can be done better. And in reality, all innovation is social innovation. I mean, did the invention transistors or the internet not all have enormous social impacts? They gave us radio and social media. The urge to keep asking ourselves, “Is that as good as it gets?” will be around as long as humans. But at Common Weal, we try not to focus only on the idea of “innovation” as if it is value-free. After all, nuclear weapons were also an innovation.

What I think makes an innovation a truly social innovation is when we are ready to say, “Hold on, we CAN do that, but should we?”. There’s a kind of wild market ideology that says innovation should be accepted as something we must do at any cost, that anything we can do, we should do (at least if there’s a profit to be made). That’s not a “socialised” innovation. So we tend now to emphasise not so much the innovation as how it is designed into society.

That concept of “design” is I think the key. Rather than just say, “We can do it so let’s do it”, we should start by saying, “What do we want to achieve and how do we achieve it?”. It gives you a guide, a way to judge whether any given innovation is something which will improve society or not. So spare us any more “innovation” in the financial services sector if the result is global financial instability.

I would usually describe things in terms of a design-led future, a future not of chance where we hope what we do is an improvement on the past but where we work together to design better systems, better ways of living, a better society.

Bottom-up movement is key to the way your organisation works. How do you manage to bring together a wide spectrum of “unusual suspects”?

The first thing that anyone who wants to do things with the “unusual suspects” has to do is to be patient and not to be too hard on yourself. It’s difficult. The grassroots of movements are an essential way to broaden out the professional elites who tend to have by far the biggest influence. When you then look at those grassroots, you’ll start to realise that these are already committed people, people with strong views and very often they’ll have been active in other things as well. And then you can start to think “This isn’t the REAL grassroots — where are the dispossessed working class?”. But of course if you had a movement of the dispossessed working classes you could easily start to ask, “OK, now where are the problem drug addicts?” and so on.

There is no perfect or perfectly inclusive organisation or movement — or society for that matter. What we do is to try and accept that we’re nothing big enough to do real mass community outreach (only government is really capable of that) but that we can make it as easy as possible for people to find out, to engage, to get involved.

Getting your language right is important (jargon and slogans turn all but the usual suspects away). Make yourself bright and inviting so that people don’t feel intimidated (by your website, by your events, by your literature). try not to focus only on what interests you but on what interests others, even when occasionally you might feel a little uncomfortable with where it goes. Yes, make sure spaces are “safe” for people to participate, but always remember that the “unusual suspects” don’t always know what is and isn’t “correct” or “appropriate” so try to be understanding. And of course listen, but then don’t imagine you’re going to get a pat on the back just for listening. People want you to absorb what they say and do something with it. In the end, people who might not have been involved in activism in the past are most attracted by things that they feel make a difference, where they feel that the time and effort they put in is “worth it”.

Tell us about the session you’ll be running at the Unusual Suspects Festival.

Economic development is one of the subjects in public life where you can almost guarantee that you’ll find the usual suspects — the same lobby groups, the same consultants, the same professionals. And then frankly the same outcomes. If all the existing industry sectors are throwing money at lobbyists to look after their interests, who speaks up for new and sunrise industries?

One of the potentially great industry sectors in Scotland is the micro-, small- and medium-sized manufacturing sector. New technologies and new means of distribution mean that localised manufacturing is a real option now that we don’t need giant factories to make advanced goods. But when everyone seems permanently focussed on the existing big employers, how do we create the conditions for change?

Common Weal has developed a lab methodology that lets people think about specific problems in a specified period of time, focussing on practical solutions. So we’re running a lab to ask, “How could small scale manufacturers really break through and sell to local customers?”. We hope to have a really good range of manufacturers, potential customers, IT people and others together for a day to think about what a distribution system would look like if its aim was to connect local producers to local customers.