What Works: Success in Stressful Times, By Hamish McRae

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The Independent Culture

Nothing kicks a dying dinner party into life better than a good complaint. Only last month, John had a great one about the man from British Gas who called to inspect his boiler. After a great deal of poking about he finally announced that the boiler was beyond repair. "But it's working perfectly. I only asked you round so that I could sign up for your maintenance deal."

"Sorry," said the man. "We can only offer deals to people with boilers that meet our standards. And yours doesn't." And with that he slapped a label on the boiler which announced in big red letters "Danger. Do not use".

Even though I always roll along with such stories, I do sometimes wonder if all this middle-class moaning is really the contemporary equivalent of blaming the servants. Wouldn't it be altogether more productive to tell each other stories of people and organisations that work? Perhaps it was a similar sense of dissatisfaction that prompted Hamish McRae to produce What Works, an unapologetically optimistic story of how 20 of the world's organisations and communities have achieved success even in these "stressful times". Whereas moaning does little to disrupt the status quo, McRae insists that by spreading the message about what works, we can make other things work better. "If we are to face the many challenges we have to try to learn from each other. We all have to do it. It is the millions of acts by ordinary individuals that will make the difference."

McRae has certainly done his bit. He has a few relatively domestic examples of success – the Edinburgh Festival and Ikea – but otherwise he is bustling around the world checking up on traffic management in Copenhagen, philanthropy in New York, hi-tech industries in Bangalore and public safety in Tokyo.

Some of the examples are pretty uncontentious. Few would want to quarrel with his claim that mobile telephony is changing the face of Africa, or with the suggestion that Ikea has transformed the way in which millions kit their homes. But there are real surprises. Here is McRae in India.

"You see it on your left on the way into Mumbai from the airport: the scruffy low-rise buildings on either side give way to a great grey marshland. Except that this is a marshland full of people living in shacks. It is Dharavi, home to somewhere between 750,000 and a million people – Asia's largest slum. It is also, I suggest, the best slum in the world."

How come? As with every one of his case studies, McRae marshals his evidence with care. He visits the schools and some of the thousands of small factories, assesses the level of law and order (there are gangs but very little violent crime), checks the level of employment (nine out of 10 people have jobs) and estimates the annual output ($1.5bn) and the GDP per head ($1.500). His conclusion is firm but determinedly unromantic. "Dharavi is a community that works... its problems are principally physical, not social, and physical problems ought to be easier to fix. So the rest of the world has a lot to learn from it."

McRae knows many will disagree. He constantly hears the phrase "yes, but" in his ear as he seeks to persuade us that Tokyo is the safest big city in the world (yes, but how about the high level of gangster activity), or that Australia is the greatest sporting nation on earth (yes, but how about the evidence that nearly 4 million adult Australians are obese),

Only in a couple of cases do the "yes, buts" rise to a level that threatens to drown out his argument. It is, for example, difficult to see why he decided to retain Dubai and the City of London as success stories in the face of recent events. His argument that they will prove their worth by rising once again, seems, at best, tendentious.

I also found my democratic hackles raised by his readiness to accept the Swiss Government's brutal deportation of illegal foreign addicts and dealers as a price that had to be paid for the successful control of heroin use. Much as my sociological sensitivities were assailed by his contention that the small towns of America still epitomised the values of community (Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone is credited but given little weight).

It remains a brave, enterprising, intelligent and thoroughly stimulating exercise. And it's already catching on at the dinner tables. "Why did he leave out John Lewis?", Celia complained on Saturday evening when I was listing McRae's examples. "Remember the woman who used to say that if she ever heard the four-minute warning of a nuclear attack she'd run straight into John Lewis on the grounds that nothing bad could ever happen there. No one ever said that about Ikea." Yes, but.