A radical re-think of what ‘change’ means

Charles Leadbeater tries to convince a sceptical Martyn Perks about the positive powers of 'we think' and how unleashing the creative potential of ambitious individuals could potentially overhaul society.

Martyn Perks

Topics Books

UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s bedtime reading this year has included a book called We-Think: Mass Innovation, Not Mass Production, by Charles Leadbeater – a man familiar to many in British government and policy circles, since he previously worked in Tony Blair’s 10 Downing Street policy unit (1). He is also the author of numerous books, including Living on Thin Air. Leadbeater is not just a dry ‘knowledge economy’ theorist, either. While at the Independent in the 1990s, he devised Bridget Jones’s Diary with Helen Fielding. Now Leadbeater is partner in a new design consultancy called Participle, which designs public services such as hospitals, prisons and schools (2).

Brown’s choice of bedtime reading is timely. We-Think is all about making us willing participants in the recreation of public life, turning all of us into mass innovators, and it is obvious why such an idea might appeal to the isolated-feeling New Labour, which is fast running out of ideas of its own.

I went to Leadbeater’s home to interview him. At first, I wondered if I had the right address – eventually I found the house at the bottom of a dirt track past various warehouses and garages in Islington, London. Surely this is not the place of abode of such a prominent policy wonk? Upon walking through his front door, all was revealed: I was in a splendid modernist house (he told me it was a self-build project) complete with concrete walls and minimalist décor. Okay, I only made it as far as the kitchen, but you get the picture.

As it happens, entering Leadbeater’s home is a sensation not unlike reading his book. On the surface of his book, too, everything makes sense: it is an intelligent argument for injecting some much-needed creativity into society. And yet, beneath the surface, an altogether different agenda resides. Although Leadbeater appears not to be an apologist for New Labour, he can’t help reaching the same conclusions as Britain’s governing party.

We-Think describes itself as a ‘defence of sharing, particularly the sharing of ideas’ (3). Leadbeater deconstructs how ideas are created, describing the necessary ingredients that enable creativity to occur. He says the creative process springs from collections of diverse individuals rather than from large groups. But this isn’t about lone inventors slaving away in their garden sheds. Instead, We-Think argues that, because of the withering of top-down models of authority and expertise, there is the real possibility of forming new creative relationships today, fuelled by dynamic, localised and bottom-up thinking. This is predicated on individuals with dexterity and diversity who are able to cooperate and collaborate much more fluidly than in the past.

At first, the individualism conjured up by Leadbeater seems open-minded and free, more able to cope with a changing world, and something that we should welcome. Throughout the book, he gives many examples of how the internet makes all of this new creativity happen more smoothly, unfolding new possibilities of collaboration and cooperation previously impossible to imagine, let alone to make into reality.

However on closer inspection, this newfound focus on individualism has its problems. It is laden with ideas of ‘responsibility’ (to whom or what?) and also harks back to the kind of 1960s idealism that tended to gloss over wider social and political problems, and sometimes treat them as irrelevant or irresolvable. Leadbeater writes: ‘The We-Think generation is living out the hopes of the 1960s radicals for the creation of a harmonious, post-scarcity society that is free, decentralised and yet apparently egalitarian.’ (4)

Continuing with the somewhat hippy theme, Leadbeater argues that we are creative in all aspects of our lives, not just at work. We are even creative when we consume, he says. Thus, he writes, one key task today is ‘turning consumers into participants in creating solutions and so mobilising their commitment, effort and ideas’ (5). While people are indeed creative in many ways, many of us possessing hidden talents, the burning question for Leadbeater is how to unlock the masses’ potential for an already defined social end. In other words, how can we persuade ordinary people to get excited about social renewal – fixing their neighbourhoods, schools and all the other problems they face – where the state, authorities and numerous institutions and corporations are either less able to sort things out, or are not trusted to bring about positive change?

On the bright side, he says, when people do get involved and collaborate, good things can happen. He describes Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia based on the voluntary contributions of thousands of people worldwide, as a clear example of the principle: ‘the more we share, the richer we are.’ (6) On one hand, it spreads knowledge around the world, and on the other, ‘it teaches habits of participation, responsibility and sharing’ and is an example of the ‘collaborative exercise of individual responsibility’.

Sitting in his kitchen, Leadbeater tells me that what makes Wikipedia so important and persuasive for those who contribute to it is the fact that they will get some recognition for their efforts, which should be held up as a model to the rest of us to become more participative. ‘What they are after is recognition. They don’t feel they get that from work, and that they can get it only from a community of peers.’ That said, Leadbeater recognises that an economy based solely on recognition would fail; but a halfway house might succeed, he says. ‘We need to be finding ways to combine the two – recognition and monetary reward’, he tells me.

However, much of Leadbeater’s book seems to offer only an illusory model for society, which, he writes, will ‘encourage us to share more, to be more collaborative and participative, and in the process extend democracy, equality and freedom.’ (7) This sounds extremely positive, but many societal problems cannot be fixed simply by encouraging creative individuals to collaborate online or to share their thoughts; they also require political thinking, political solutions and sometimes political fights.

We-Think takes a fairly selective approach to new forms of participation. Its thesis seems to work well when there are local issues that require fairly high levels of local participation in order to resolve them. Yet many of these initiatives are more akin to local crime prevention projects, known as Neighbourhood Watch, than they are projects that might solve bigger political problems, such as issues relating to food production or transport congestion.

The We-Think mantra appears progressive, yet I am concerned that in highlighting fairly small-scale examples of collective endeavour it glosses over bigger problems that require significant debate, investment and endeavour if they are to be improved or fixed. Leadbeater gives many examples of groups of individuals have effecting change in small ways, and as such We-Think frequently reads like a pro-status quo treatise rather than a book that points the way to new ideas for how to organise society. Perhaps this emphasis on the small-scale and the local springs from the fact that big thinking today, and idealism itself, is considered unfashionable.

Leadbeater proposes a careful and selective means for nurturing the creative process, in order to generate what he seems to consider ‘the right outcomes’. So he wants diversity, but tellingly, only of opinion not of values. That’s an important, yet subtle distinction. As he tells me: ‘The creativity I’m talking about only comes about when there is some level of diversity of opinion in groups.’ However, he later suggests that putting people together who have diverse values would be counterproductive: ‘Different values make it very difficult for people to collaborate. Diverse groups find it more difficult to collaborate early on than homogeneous groups.’

He is right: having to contend with opposing values – that is, clashing outlooks and convictions – makes it hard to agree on how to get things done. But then again, life is never easy, especially where challenges seem insurmountable, and tension will inevitably cause strife. Yet such ‘creative differences’ can either lead to a clash of egos or to a much-needed spark of inspiration brought about by having to defend one’s corner, or make compromises, or agree to experiment and do things differently. Ideas will be thoroughly tested and inspected against harsh critics, helping to make them stronger. Groundbreaking innovation often happens against the odds, in adversity, and when least expected. Novel thinking doesn’t come from ‘group-think’ – that tends to breed conformity.

In We-Think, Leadbeater does give interesting examples of how groups, mostly made up of what he calls professional amateurs or ‘Pro-Ams’, have collaborated to produce things such as Open-Source software, or to customise and promote mountain biking, or to search for new astronomical discoveries. But he seems to get stuck when dealing with problems closer to home, which are bigger, richly complex and difficult to solve. In the book, he focuses on education and healthcare. Both of these issues are deeply entwined with political, economic and cultural concerns, and both have been subjected to numerous reforms and ‘revolutions’ by the New Labour government in recent years, including, as it happens, the encouragement of greater parental or patient ‘involvement’ in decision-making. Why should Leadbeater’s formula of encouraging reciprocal participation succeed where the government’s has failed?

Leadbeater’s concerns are sometimes all-too synonymous with Brown’s and the rest of the New Labour establishment. On occasion, his arguments about participation come across almost as a cover for a political class that is essentially cut off and aloof from the public, and which is fast running out of a credible and coherent agenda. For example, in education and healthcare we are told there must be greater parent and patient responsibility; in effect, blame is removed from bureaucratic mismanagement, and instead individuals are pressurised to live more healthily or to take more responsibility for educating their children. Government failures and lack of direction are reposed as ‘opportunities’ for ordinary people to ‘take responsibility’.

On schooling, Leadbeater writes: ‘[T]raditional schools do little to encourage individual initiative and collaborative problem-solving; learning is cut off from real-world experiences; teaching focuses too much on cognitive skills and too little on the soft skills of sociability, teamwork and mutual respect.’ (8) No longer education for its own sake, then. Here, education effectively means learning ‘life-skills’, with schools not ‘necessarily the most important places where children learn. Families are as important to education as school. An integrated education policy would focus on how schools interact with families, including learning support at home, working on raising family aspirations for learning.’ (9) Teaching moves toward a pupil-centred exercise where ‘pupils would have more say and more choice over what they could learn, how, where and when, from teachers, other adults and their peers’ (10).

Leadbeater applies the same kind of strategy to healthcare, too, which ‘should primarily be a responsibility we all exercise’ (11). He told me: ‘A lot of that is about understanding how you can unlock people’s own imagination and incentives to contribute their own ideas. That works only in certain settings; clearly it doesn’t work where there is a very big asymmetry between information and knowledge’, such as in the patient and doctor relationship. But it does work, he says, where people can imagine better ways for services to be run.

Why, though, should patients be experts in healthcare management? And why should parents be incorporated into what ought to be the state’s responsibility: giving their children a decent and thorough education? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Leadbeater, like the government itself, proposes more ‘choice’ and ‘participation’ as a way out for a government that has continually tried and failed to improve education and health services; in place of meaningful proposals or solutions, we get top-down pressure for ordinary people to take responsibility for improving their own health or providing education to their children.

Leadbeater acknowledges these problems: ‘There are dilemmas in both the private and public sector in what that level of participation means.’ But again, he seems to put the onus upon the individual to change, rather than the system itself. ‘In the public sector, the expert patient programme is about getting you to be a better patient in the system’, he argues.

In this sense, ‘to participate’ means, essentially, being treated as part of the problem. We-Think describes itself as an idealistic political agenda that helps ‘renew the fractured social contract underpinning work and production’; it says it offers ‘a way for capitalism to recover a social – even a communal – dimension that people are yearning for’ (12). But while Leadbeater’s examples of healthcare and education provide the establishment with a way out of their lack of vision, its real result, it seems to me, is to target the rest of us to ‘change’.

When I put it to him that many of his ideas could easily be used by New Labour, Leadbeater says: ‘I very much doubt that.’ But on reflection, he concedes, ‘I think you’re right, this whole agenda can be used… but we need to have that debate about purpose… when you have those things in place, you have more chance of a better outcome.’ Unfortunately for us, Gordon Brown and the establishment have already had the debate ‘about purpose’ and ‘change’ – and for them, ‘change’ always seems to mean us changing our behaviour and our attitudes, rather than them taking more responsibility for improving social services and living standards.

Martyn Perks is a design consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, IT and business. Visit his website here.

We-think: The Power of Mass Creativity, by Charles Leadbeater, is published by Profile Books Ltd. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Long hours and obsession with minutiae. No 10’s private man, Guardian, 25 June 2008

(2) Along with Hillary Cottam, winner of the Designer of the Year award in 2005

(3) We-Think, p6

(4) We-Think, p46

(5) We-Think, p89

(6) We-Think, p18

(7) We-Think, p24

(8) We-Think, p147

(9) We-Think, p147

(10) We-Think, p149

(11) We-Think, p152

(12) We-Think, p90

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Topics Books


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