A view from 2003

My friend Gill Wildman suggested that I should take another look at something she had found while tidying her files that I had started working on five years ago. Digging it up myself. I tried to remember why I had decided that it was not worth pursuing, because looking at it now it seems pretty relevant to what we are going through now. Take a look and let me know what you think:
“The Death of Routine: Living in a World of Surprises
001 Introduction
The central thesis of the book is that we have moved from a world of shared predictable routines to one, which for some decades, will be characterised by surprises. The argument is that much of this can understood in terms of three “action ideas” developed in the “Sixties”, which are continuing to work their way through giving shape and character to the world we live in.
The three “action ideas” are:
Self-Created Identity – the notion that individuals and groups can grasp the freedom to define their own identity and way of life.
Market Romance – the notion that markets are the most effective way to organise human affairs, leading to widespread liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation
Digital Everything – the idea that any human activity or any process can be described in terms of binary numbers and simulated in a computer system.
The impact of these three action ideas combined with the contexts I discuss in the first three chapter – overcapacity, over powerful financial markets and a “Mosaic” society have created a world which many of us find perplexing – a world of surprises. While the move from a world of predictable routine to one surprises has caused much distress and unease, this new world also has its attraction if we can come to terms with it. The other chapters deal with some of the “surprises” I see emerging over the next few years. Some of them are very new, some go back to the Sixties, but are likely to gather force as this new century proceeds.
002 The Poverty of Abundance
By the mid-sixties there was overcapacity in many manufacturing industries. Since then, in part amplified by Market Romance and Digital Everything, there is overcapacity in almost every industry including services. One likely consequence of this is a continuing trend for both goods and services to become commodified and their production to move from the more advanced economies to the periphery.
003 The Magic of Money
Finance and financial engineering has become dominant force influencing policy at Government and Corporate level. In this chapter I trace the development of this process and how this impacts on everyday life. The two action ideas of Market Romance and Digital Everything have played a major role in creating this complex system, which nobody really understands, and while impacting heavily on the real economy, of producing goods and services that people want and need, seems increasingly divorced from it.
004 The Mosaic Society
The period from 1945 to some point in the mid Sixties can be characterised as a time of shared predictable routines – this was the time of the development of mass consumer society, serviced by mass industries and mass media. The cultural revolution of the Sixties and the three action ideas of Self Created Identity, Market Romance and Digital Everything have helped disrupted the seemingly predictable identities and narratives of that period leaving us with a more fragmented and complex landscape of human action and values.
007 The Biggest Market Space of All
There are about 6 billion people on our planet. About two thirds of that population are largely neglected by the market economy. Where they are serviced they generally pay more than their richer counterparts. There are now a few signs that a small number of companies and academics are beginning to recognise that the poor represent a significant market and potentially represent a way out of the problems of overcapacity that continue to dog the advanced economies. Working with the poor to improve the quality of their lives offers the tantalising prospect of profiting through doing good – how many of our current corporations are a capable of taking up this opportunity is open to question. The action ideas of Self Created Identity, Digital Everything and a tempered Market Romance can be important drivers here.
006 Factories that Feel
The Industrial Revolution and its aftermath can be seen as a process of replacing human muscle by machines. The digital revolution offers the opportunity for factories to have a nervous system as well. This goes way beyond automation, because it provides the means to measure the variables in complex processes in real time, to analyse and learn from them and with the knowledge gained to monitor and control these processes in ways that simply have not been possible before. In most manufacturing there is an immense amount of waste of various kinds. This represents a pool of hidden value, which if released through the application of these developing technologies offers the potential of immense gains in productivity and profitability. This is particularly true in traditional batch production industries such as wood, leather, food and building materials.
005 The New Multinationals
There is a new breed of multinational corporations beginning to emerge. Unlike more traditional multinationals, which invariably are based on large home markets, the new multinationals have seen themselves from a very early stage of their development as global players. These companies are building their organisations around the action idea of Digital Everything, taking advantage of Market Romance and, perhaps, have a greater recognition of Self Created Identity. While many traditional multinationals are still in essence burdened by their legacy of having developed as bureaucratic machines, the new multinationals may be more genuinely flexible, agile and adaptable. With their origins in the periphery such as Mexico, Twain, India these companies may have greater capabilities to deal with the challenges and opportunities of a global marketplace, including the huge market space offered by the poor and the opportunities presented by the application of new technology than their more traditional counterparts.
008 The Expolary Economy
Most of the population of this planet live in what can be called the Expolary Economy. This is an economy, which exists outside and beside the formal market economy or the economy of the State. It goes by a variety of other names such a subsistence economies, the black economy, the grey economy or the informal economy. It is a world of getting by – a less romantic version of Charles Handy’s portfolio lives. As the crisis of overcapacity continues to impact on the advanced economies, larger proportions of the populations of those economies will find themselves moving into this unfamiliar world. For some it will be a means of following the action idea of Self Created Identity for other it will simply be a means of getting by. The paradox we may see is that while in the advanced economies more people will be moving into the Expolary economy, people in the periphery will be moving out of it and into the formal market economy.
009 Good Business
As formal organisations continue to squeeze more and more from the people that work for them at the same time as offering less security the attractions of running a business as means of livelihood will become greater. The combination of doing something worthwhile and developing real relationships with the people who use your services or buy your products will increasingly seem to offer a greater sense of security and satisfaction than working for larger organisations. The action ideas of Self Created Identity, Digital Everything and a cash flow focused version of Market Romance all play a role here.
010 Downward Nobility
One effect of Market Romance is the huge disparity in rewards offered by the formal economy. This seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. This chapter is about how many successful people reach the point where they make the choice to cash in and try to do something that feels worthwhile with life, driven by the action idea of Self Created identity.
011 Another Kind of Welfare
The Welfare State was postulated on a high level of permanent full-employment. As this has begun to breakdown, combined with the individualism often associated with Self Created Identity and Market Romance the idea of communal support for all is under continuing assault. However, the issue of insecurity remains and as more of the professional classes find themselves subject to the caprices of the market, the political demand for a new kind of Welfare State is likely to grow. The idea of a Citizen’s Income, funded by socially created wealth, such as land values, is quite an old one, but when one sees support from the right from people like Samuel Brittan, the FT columnist and from left, the Green Party feature the idea in their manifesto, the potential for this idea to take hold becomes more plausible. Further as the price for Market Romance becomes more apparent the issue of what can be provided more effectively communally through the State and what should be the responsibility of individuals to provide for themselves will move back to the centre of political debate.
012 The Intelligent Prosumer
One impact of Digital Everything combined with Self Created Identity is about people moving from the role of consumers, limited to make choices about the products and services offered to them, to the role of prosumers actively shaping the goods and services they want. Companies involved with the poor as market will become particular adapted at developing these kind of roles and the process is likely to migrate from the bottom up.
013 Network Thinking
Digital Everything has obvious practical impacts, but perhaps equally important is its impact on our style of thinking, which is about a move away from the limited cause and effect mode of thinking to one of thinking about the interactions between nodes in a network. As I have written elsewhere; “It may take several decades for this mode of thinking and action to become commonplace. In the mean time the strongest advice I could give to any individual or business is to become sensitive to where you fit in your networks, learn to think in terms of nodes and connections and the complex interactions and feedback between them, and be conscious of the dynamics of your patterns of connection. Whether you are aware of it or not, your success or failure is going to bound up in how well or not you identify, create and navigate your networks.”
014 Character & Authenticity
Big brands are beginning to lose their appeal. This chapter is about a people’s reaction against brands, marketing and the manipulation of desire and their search for the genuine and authentic. Strongly driven by Self Created Identity and taking up themes developed in “Good Business” and “The Intelligent Prosumer” the quest for authentic, meaningful experience is one that is likely to grow and one that some businesses will be able to meet and others simply wont get.
015 Rehearsing the Future
Since the death of the Modernist dream, we have had few positive visions of the future to strive for. We have two powerful vehicles for exploring and creating new futures – design and education. In this chapter I explore some of the ways they can fulfil this role.
016 The Search for Capabilities
The period following the cultural revolution of the Sixties was dominated by the idea of Making It – the idea that material wealth equalled freedom. As that dream begins to fade an alternative may emerge – a recognition that real wealth is about what we can do rather than what we have.
017 Is this all there is?
The “boomers” often saw themselves as a radical, progressive generation. In the event we can characterise them as the Selfish generation, for unlike their parents they have often seemed to be more concerned with their own well-being. Their parents primary concern seemed to be about creating a better world for their children – the boomers seem primarily concerned with creating a better world for themselves. This chapter is about the impact of the “boomers” hitting the point when they have time to reflect on their lives and the world they have made and, for some, rediscovering their radical roots and doing something to change it.
018 Living with surprises
This final chapter is a reflection on what has gone before and tries to draw some conclusions about how we might live more lightly in a world of surprises with no mechanical routines to sustain us.”
For those of you interested, I put up a draft of the Introduction in February 2004.

Look for the green shoots

A week or so ago I found something I didn’t know I had. It was a copy of “The Photographic Journal, the official organ of the Royal Photographic Society” dated January 1929. It’s significance for me was that it contained a paper, accompanying an account of a demonstration, delivered by my father, Leslie Walter Oliver in 1928.
His paper began,”A method of of photography in colour which, by a single snapshot exposure, gives negatives from which colour prints can be made with the simplicity of bromide prints, is an ideal for which the world is expectantly waiting. To our knowledge such a process does not exist, but we are going to demonstrate a process this evening which, we believe, is a large step in the direction of this ideal and is we claim, the simplest known process of obtaining colour prints on paper.”
Now you may be wondering what this has to do with “green shoots”. Well, if you will bear with a little more biography, I’ll get to it.
My father left school at fourteen and worked for a while in an engineering works and lived in digs (lodgings). During much of that time he was poor, dirty and cold – a condition he spent the rest of his life trying (and succeeding) to avoid. Then, thanks to a pushy mum, he joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment as an apprentice. One of his tutors advised him that colour photography looked a promising new area to pursue, which led to him presenting this paper in 1928. In 1935 he was recruited to set up Technicolor UK, where he ended up as Managing Director for several decades.
Now I had known for some years that here in the UK, and no doubt in other places too, the years of the Great Depression were good years, prosperous years for some. Stupidly, until a few days ago that was just interesting fact for me. I hadn’t made the biographical connection. For my dad they were good years, an opportunity for social mobility, a growing career in a growing industry.
So, despite the barrage of offers to “beat the Credit Crunch”, and all the rest of the eager cries of doom and gloom from the commentators, who hadn’t seen it coming, the reality is that a lot of people are going to do just fine in these “difficult time”. If you’ve got a job and the right kind of mortgage you might even be better off than you were last year.
For those of us in a shakier position, particularly if you are young, I say look for the green shoots, “the ideal for which the world is expectantly waiting”, whatever it may be, for there will be some, just as there were in the Thirties.

Constructive Disobedience

There is a nice meditation on a picture of a slide in a children’s playground by Jaan Valsiner in an interview with 3quarksdaily’s Jonathan Pfeiffer, concluding with this bit, which is worth spending some time thinking about:
“… Any object of furniture is a culturally designed object that suggests to its users — children or adults alike — some socially preferred courses of action. Yet by that suggestion, these objects call forth counter-action to the opposite, resistance to suggestions, and in one word, creativity. If there were no people — children or adults — who would constructively “disobey” the socially suggested ways of being, then no new technologies or social changes could be possible.”

Slack Spaces

Rowan Moore points to the bright side of the recent closure of a number of retail outlets in London. As he says:
“… The shrinkage of high street shopping – probably, thanks to the internet, never to return in the same way – brings back something London has recently lacked, and once had in abundance and to its great benefit. This is what could be called slack space: spare, hard-to-let property that allows creative and ingenious people to experiment and set up new businesses. It is the fallow land of a city, allowing it to renew itself.Slack space enabled design businesses, production companies and publishers to start up.”
He goes on to give a number of examples of how slack spaces have contributed to making London the city it is. Give it a read, it’s worth it, and see if you can think of any other kinds of social or economic slack spaces that may emerge from the current economic and financial turmoil. i am sure they will, it is just that I haven’t spotted any yet.

Count your blessings

I started today really well. The sun was shining and I felt a cheerful chappie. Then it all collapsed into one of those shitty days where nothing gets achieved very actively. A one of those why bother days. Then this evening quite by chance I came across a TED talk by Dan Barber about a farmer, Eduardo Sousa, who produces foie gras without force feeding. A delight. One of those blessings that lift the spirits and makes life feel worth while.
You can view it here.

Wandering into the future

“…Modernism was preoccupied by the way history could be achieved according to prescribed scenarios. Again, the big Postmodern question was ‘Where are you coming from?’, which was the basis of its post-colonial, essentialist and post-political discourse. A new question arises today: ‘Where are we going to?’ We know that we can only reach this destination, wherever it is, by wandering…”
(Nicolas Bourriaud in an interview with Tom Morton in Frieze)

It came to me in a dream

Just before New Year we went to Paris for a week. A couple of nights before we were due home, I dreamt my New Year’s message for this blog:
“The task for 2009 is to address the question of how we can construct enticing futures that will work.”
Now there have been a couple of problems with getting this message out. The first was, despite seemingly spending most of the night in a half wake, half dream state, composing variations on this theme, when I came to write it down the key word, “enticing”, had disappeared from my mind, leaving a large blank space. (I can write this now, because during this afternoon’s little snooze, it kind of wandered back into my mind. Not the usual pop here it is, more a kind of absent minded I’m back.)
The second problem has been looking at it now it seems a bit pompous and rouses all my concerns about the dangers of imaginary futures. (Think Pol Pot and Year Zero) On the other hand, as we liberal minded people are prone to say, since dystopic visions seem all the rage some counter visions may be in order. For start, how about cultivating kindness, as Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor urge. I think I could warm to that as an enticing future. (Thanks to the magnificent Bryan Appleyard for the pointer.)