Monthly Archives: May 2009

“The Long Doom”

Dougald Hine was talking to Long Now London last week about “the Long Doom”: what an extended economic decline might mean for the way we live our lives. Dougald is part of the Institute for Collapsonomics, and is interested in how – well, a collapse would effect us: how we interact with objects and each other.

He was keen to point out that he is an optimist with a strong belief in the resilience of the human race. That said, he thinks that by asking pretty fundamental questions we can prepare for what might happen. In this context, an extended economic decline. Dougald’s approach is that the questions matter, and he doesn’t have the answers – the questions are a starting point for the debate, helping us to imagine a range of different futures.

Most people think the future is going to be like today, only better. With economic decline, though, “better” might just be different. Decline could be a long, slow extended process or a catastrophic fall. Apparently, we might bounce back the latter faster – with a gradual inexorable contraction, knowledge would be lost.

Dougald envisaged

  • products which are designed with economy in mind – easy to fix and recycle, open to hacking and redevelopment – “convivial design”
  • changing relationships to workspaces, homes, and “the third place, requiring different forms of architecture and building as we “huddle around the fire”
  • different forms of working and consumption – more co-operative working (finally producing the flatter structures and “extended organisations” that management gurus have been pushing for the past couple of decades) and a return to older models of consumption (local shops and markets appearing more sustainable than megamarkets)
  • a focus on creating easily maintained infrastructure – botch-and-patch if one can’t rely on central services to fix everything.

As often happens, the discussion after the talk was illuminating and interesting. Dougald didn’t really cover social and political structures, but these would change a lot. If transport becomes difficult (an assumption, I think, behind the move from supermarkets to local retail), what would hold Britain together (and larger countries would have bigger problems!)? It was the coming of railways which introduced a standard time to Britain – before that, local time was the norm. Without transport, could the center hold? It seems to me that all possible decisions would be devolved to a local level, whether planned or out of necessity.

There would probably be de-industrialisation and a move away from cities and towns – a return to the rural economy; @hexayurt suggested this might be driven by a need to secure a supply of food – it is easier to grow your own than rely on someone else to meet your needs.

Someone else (and it might have been Dougald!) posited that our view of identity would change, too – as co-operatives become a valid way of organising economic activity (out of necessity), we might return to a more tribal view of ourselves.

It was a fascinating discussion; a little scary – simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. Still, best to be prepared…

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What I like about Tuttle. (And one thing I don’t…)

I spent the morning at Tuttle, weekly offline get together which started out as an extension of online discussions. I have been going to Tuttle since February, and regularly for the last six weeks or so. It is a bit like a cross between a BarCamp and a networking event – there are no presentations, so perhaps it is closer to a networking event, but there is no sense of anyone trying to sell themselves or their products.

Perhaps it’s closer to a tweetup (though I didn’t go to my first tweetup until after I had been to Tuttle, so I’d probably put it round the other way!).

What there is is a load of people happy to talk about anything. There a lots of excellent conversations. A lot of the participants work in online media in one way or another (I don’t), and everyone there has an interest in social media, one way or another, so a lot of the conversations are about the internet, social media and the tools that we are beginning to take for granted in our lives.

In the past few weeks, I have had some fascinating conversations about

  • film-making in Mumbai
  • how to take the momentum developed by a conference forward to catalyse change
  • managing change in education
  • electronic publishing and the future of books
  • how on earth can social media make money
  • how companies can leverage social media within their organisations (and how they can’t)
  • collapsonomics and the recession
  • the future of jazz in Britain
  • the impact of social media on citizen-journalism
  • the good and bad things about putting Government services on the internet
  • intellectual property lawyers
  • how to take new ideas to market

and an awful lot more.

So more than anything, Tuttle is eclectic and inclusive: all that it really requires is a willingness to participate. At times I feel a bit of an outsider, since it appears I am surrounded by experts, though always a welcome one.

Basically, Tuttle is a space in which to engage with interesting people in interesting conversations, in an open environment.

It is an excellent weekly event, and I am pleased that I was taken along back in February.

In fact, I can only think of one down point about Tuttle: all those conversations going on at once mean that it can get awfully loud…

Waiving the Rules

The ongoing kerfuflle over MPs’ expenses and allowances got me thinking – some more. One of the most frequent comments from MPs subject to the journalists’ examination of the expenses has been that they were acting within the rules.

Regardless of the fact that MPs designed the rules themselves, the reliance on rules over principles lays a system open to abuse: everyone knows rules are there to be broken. If you have a rules-based system, you need a parallel system of compliance to make sure the rules aren’t being broken.

The ten commandments are a series of rules; and early on, lawyers got to work on how to work around them.

I was first made aware of the difference between principles and rules when I was training to be an accountant in the late 1980s. The UK system of accounting standards was based on fundamental principles, and it was often compared to the US system which was based on rules. Training in the UK, our system was always held to be more robust, because any system based on rules meant there would be exceptions to the rules – no system could be completely perfect – and that there would develop an industry looking at how to stretch the rules. The US rules-based system was given as an explanation of the accounting scandals of the 1990s and early 2000s, such as Enron – although the UK has had its share of scandals, too. But whilst one can find a way around rules, principles should be more robust.

I’m not great with rules: they tell one what to do, whilst I often like to find others ways of doing things. Society clearly needs rules – laws determine our behaviour. But principles would work better – if people stick to them.

Principles are more all encompassing than rules. The principle might be “drive safely”, the rules run to hundreds and are lengthy, and result in people driving at the speed limit even when it isn’t safe to do so. The principle might be “behave in a reasonable way”, the rules comprise our criminal law… And so on.

I think sticking to principles – if they could – would have saved our elected representatives a lot of embarrassment.

Lord Layard on Happiness

Lord Layard spoke at Gresham College recently about whether governments should promote happiness. An interesting – and pretty fundamental – topic: just what is it that governments should aim to do?

Layard first answered his own question – with a strong “yes!” – and then set about explaining his view.

The eighteenth century utilitarians argued that society benefited from the greatest good for the greatest number of people, which lead to large-scale social reforms in the nineteenth century; but in the twentieth century, we have become more sceptical: how do we know if we’re happy? Economists couldn’t measure happiness; instead they measured what they could: and they substituted wealth or income – gross domestic product – for happiness. Growth of the economy has become major objective: the economy has taken precedence. The thing is, there seems to be no relationship between wealth and happiness [pdf]: since 1945, western countries (where most of the research has been done) have got steadily richer (give or take a few recent blips…) but not happier.

There are many things that make us happy: Layard listed personal freedom, democracy, relationships (with family, friends, colleagues and – dare I say it – communities) and employment – things that are fundamental and deep within our natures. These haven’t really changed over time, so their effects on society can be measured.

Intriguingly, relative income seems to be important: absolute wealth doesn’t matter, but earning more than others does: we react to others’ status, and want to do better than them. So absolute growth is not relevant – because everyone benefits. (This depresses me, actually – it really shouldn’t bother me that my neighbours are succeeding too!)

“High trust communities” with a high degree of social capital and equity, as exemplified by the Scandinavian countries, regularly rate high for “happiness”. Layard said that since the middle of the twentieth century Britons had gone from being 60% trusting to only 30%, and that the change of trust in the USA was starker. The cult of individualism – making the most of oneself at the expense of others – seemed to be a likely culprit: this assumes that life is a zero-sum game: that I can only succeed if you fail. (Fortunately, that isn’t how I perceive things!) Layard and Raj Persaud (who chaired the discussion) both said that mental health problems were correlated with inequality.

Layard laid out some policy proposals to promote happiness in society, reckoning that governments weren’t responsible for making their citizens happy, but for providing the environment in which they may be happy (this is a big difference – he wasn’t calling for an increase in “nanny state” regulation, which he saw as reducing happiness since it reduces personal freedom, but creating conditions which would favour happiness: less compelling and more enabling):

  • create a society based on trust – through developing an education system which promoted “life-skills” and values as well as knowledge
  • increase co-operation and reduce competition within society – again through education, and a reduction in management through performance league tables
  • increased support for parents to help create healthy relationships
  • reduced commercial pressures on children by increasing regulation of adverts targeted at hem

All of these things to me say one thing: education. “Education, education, education” was the mantra for the government in England in the 1997 election (education is a devolved power for Scotland), but their focus has been on an increase of measurement of schools, teachers and pupils – an increase in individualism. The purpose and benefits of education may have been forgotten – even the highly educated focus on individual success rather than learning for its own sake.

Layard hoped that through measuring happiness – not its economic proxies – policy-makers would have a tool allowing them to judge their proposals against the criterion of increased happiness.

“The pursuit of happiness” is famously enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence. Nations have instead focused on increasing economic growth as the be-all-and-end-all. Perhaps the current economic failures may allow us to refocus on what is really beneficial for society.

(Edit: after I posted this, I was directed to this article about the Harvard longitudinal study into happiness. It supports much that Layard said.)

“Wholly, exclusively and necessarily…”

I tend to shy away from overtly political topics on this blog, but the MPs’ expenses furore seems somewhat outside the normal political boundaries – even the LibDems seem to have dirty fingers – and I wanted to put in my tuppenyworth, prompted by the MP in the constituency I used to live in emailing a link to his online statement on his own actions.

What I find interesting about his statement is that – despite accruing expenses within the rules and for what appear to be wholly understandable and acceptable reasons – he is repaying half of the legal costs of acquiring his “second home” in London.

This suggests some very weak thinking: he appears instead to feel he has to be seen to be doing something. He hasn’t (and doesn’t think he has) done anything wrong. He is worried that others – his constituents (or the media?) – might think that the legal fees were high.

Many, many years ago, I was the financial controller of a small part of a larger organisation, and I had to sign off certain expenses claims. Including my boss’s. He had difficulty in distinguishing the company’s money from his own, and several times I had to tell him he couldn’t claim for particular things. It wasn’t comfortable, but it seemed pretty clear to me what were expenses incurred in the course of the business and what weren’t, and I had to say so.

Many of the MPs’ expenses reported in the Daily Telegraph are clearly not business related – almost any private business would quibble over servicing an Aga, buying cat food and a chocolate Santa, or purchasing eye-liner (and that is only up to the Es!) – unless it is agreed that it forms part of their remuneration (and at that point becomes taxable). Just like other workers, MPs expenses must be incurred “wholly, necessarily and exclusively” to do their job (the words come from the HMRC about employees, but they were just used by an MP on Radio4’s WatO). It is pretty easy for most items to work out whether these conditions are met. Usually, one can also apply a “reasonableness test” – is it reasonable for someone to charge those items as expenses. (Clue: husband watching videos – of whatever nature – no!)

Many MPs were clearly “swinging the lead” – seeing what they could get away with (horse manure, anyone?), and they should be subject to review and censure. But the sight of MPs falling over themselves to pay back what seem perfectly reasonable expenses is bizarre. And paying back half of the expenses which you clearly feel were ok (because otherwise you’d be paying back all of that money) is doubly so.