Blue Skies: Thinking the unthinkable

It's the 21st century's most valuable commodity: a fresh, raw, innovative idea. But can brain power alone really change the world and improve our lives?

By Matthew Sweet
Thursday 02 April 2009 23:52

In the offices of the Global Ideas Bank, its director, Nick Temple, is marshalling the thoughts of an online community of thinkers that stretches from Brighton to Bhutan. At the London School of Economics, Professor Ian Angell is preparing a presentation for a corporate audience. His contention? That democracy should be dismantled for the benefit of the rich.

In the offices of the Global Ideas Bank, its director, Nick Temple, is marshalling the thoughts of an online community of thinkers that stretches from Brighton to Bhutan. At the London School of Economics, Professor Ian Angell is preparing a presentation for a corporate audience. His contention? That democracy should be dismantled for the benefit of the rich.

In a modest meeting room in Deptford, south-east London, the writer and lateral thinker Gerard Darby is asking a class of local entrepreneurs to fold their arms the other way round and feel the discomfort - in the hope that they may do something similar with their minds.

In his study at the foot of Ilkley Moor, Graham May, the head of the consultancy Futures Skills, is drafting a conference paper on the shortcomings of the British education system: what is the point of school, he'll ask, when pupils know that most of what they learn there is useless?

In the north London offices of her organisation New Integrity, the creative consultant Indra Adnan is "re-imagining social work". And at Civitas, a think tank in a quiet corner of Westminster, the deputy director Robert Whelan is pondering how to persuade a local authority to turn over a tower block to his management.

There's a phrase that unites the work being pursued by these figures, and it's not a popular one with the British public. "Blue-sky thinking" was recently voted the 10th most disliked expression in the English language, just below "ballpark figure" and "it's not rocket science". It brings to mind policy wonks in cheap suits plotting the dismemberment of the welfare state; tanned charlatans with pinball machines in their offices, jotting down meaningless jargon on their whiteboards. But, for want of a better word, "blue-sky thinking" also describes the production of initiatives and ideas that have already wrought subtle changes in our lives. It will - if its practitioners get their way - soon transform Britain in ways that most of us have yet to consider.

How important and widespread is this activity? It's hard to measure. Statistical information on original thought is rare, and anecdotal evidence can be used to argue both ways. On the negative side, the University of Leeds recently closed down its MA course in futurology (no cracks about unforeseen circumstances, please), and Orange's so-called Imaginarium, an oval office off Baker Street in which the telecommunications company's employees were invited to think wild thoughts, has recently been restructured out of existence.

On the positive side, it's undeniable that policy ideas that would have been considered outré and eccentric 10 years ago are now being chewed over by government ministers, and innovative grass-roots schemes such as the Coffee House Challenge - a project established by the Royal Society of Arts to encourage small groups to solve local problems by addressing them over a cappuccino - are beginning to have a measurable effect. (In Bristol, the focus has been on reducing waste and, thanks to the RSA initiative, 7,000 local householders have taken in furniture that would otherwise have gone to landfill sites.) Other catalysts for original thinking are about to be put into action: the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust is in the process of recruiting six "visionaries", to whom it will give office space and a £20,000-£40,000 salary. Their brief? To create "a world made better by your vision".

The market for British think tanks seems to be growing. Of the 72 outfits officially recognised by the National Institute for Research Advancement (a US body that monitors such things), half were founded fewer than 15 years ago. The Institute for Public Policy Research - an organisation that claims to have inspired the Government's introduction of child trust funds and Railtrack's reincarnation as a not-for-profit company - now employs 50 staff and enjoys an annual turnover of £3m. Demos, the influential policy-wrangling unit founded by Geoff Mulgan, now garners almost half its annual income from research jobs for corporate clients.

And, increasingly, many of these organisations are doing rather more than presenting reports to ministers. Civitas, for instance, is attempting to justify its faith in low-cost private education by setting up its own school in west London. The Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, has yet to come knocking on its door to ask it how to privatise the British education system, but a decade ago it would have been unthinkable for such an organisation to be running a school. "People are looking for new ways of doing things, questioning old assumptions. A lot of things are up in the air at the moment," says Whelan.

If the school project is successful, Whelan would like to attempt an even more ambitious scheme: the purchase of a local authority tower block, with the object of transforming the lives of its tenants for the better. He speaks passionately about the scheme. "There are lots of people living in conditions that are absolutely unacceptable in a developed economy. They're living horrible lives and nothing's being done to help them. And that's because most people working in public policy don't know anybody who lives in social housing. The issue's not really being discussed in any meaningful way, and we'd like to do something about it." Local authorities, he has discovered, are unwilling to relinquish control of their properties, no matter how run-down or notorious. "We'd need a hundred million pounds," he says. "And before people are willing to give you that kind of money, I think you've got to show you're trustworthy."

Civitas was formed in 2000 as an independent registered charity, with a brief to investigate ways of renegotiating the responsibilities of government and society. The publicity it has attracted has not always been good, and its director, David Green, is uncomfortable with the "right-wing think tank" label that tends to be applied to the organisation. It's hard not to sound like a voice from the right when you are making remarks about the importance of "homeland liberty", the social value of marriage, the evils of multiculturalism and the need for a "renewal of the legitimate pride that the British people can take in their own history". But Green would like to make something clear: "At Civitas," he asserts, "we're fans of [the economist] Adam Smith, not Adolf Hitler."

Despite feeling obliged to make this distinction, Green suggests that the intellectual climate is changing in his favour. "It's not as difficult to talk about these things as it once was. Academic journals will now publish articles that, for instance, deal with the connection between family breakdown and crime. But if you were to take the average journalist, for instance, I think most of them would feel rather uneasy about these ideas."

If I woke up tomorrow in a country in which the ideas propounded by Civitas had become the new orthodoxies, what would be different? "There'd be an education system in which most of the schools were run by local community trusts, and not by the government - with most people paying for them and the poorest having the money paid for them by the others. We'd stop being ashamed of our own history, and bring our young people up to believe that one of their missions in life was to uphold liberal democracy. We'd have a health system based on social insurance, in which the government wouldn't own any hospitals. There'd a lot less crime. There'd be a strong obligation to work by all those who were able to. There'd be no equalisation of income whatsoever. It may take some time, but it wouldn't be a bad world." And what are the chances of it happening? "Some of these things within five or 10 years, I hope. We just keep ploughing on with grim determination, keeping alive a certain point of view."

Angell, professor of information systems at the London School of Economics, is more upbeat, despite his obsession with the collapse of liberal democracy. He takes a puckish pleasure in posing uncomfortable questions about the future. "I'm more of a black-sky thinker," he says. "Sometimes I die like a stand up comic dies. I get people walking out of my talks. I've been to the Inland Revenue, and Customs and Excise, and told them that all taxation is theft. I gave a talk to the DVLA on innovation, and told them that as far as their organisation is concerned, innovation is how to steal money from motorists. You could see them looking at each other and thinking: 'He's taking our money, he's in our lecture theatre, and he's quite unabashed about saying these things.' But it wasn't malicious."

Angell is a hearty, expansive Welshman who delights in appalling complacent liberals with his appetite for dystopia. Sometimes, he confesses, he horrifies even himself with the scenarios he dreams up. The future, as outlined in his 2000 book The New Barbarian Manifesto, is a world in which nations have yielded to a collection of independent city-states, which will use favourable tax regimes to bid for the privilege of accommodating members of the world's rich elite, and deny citizenship to the insufficiently skilled. If this happens to London during his lifetime, Angell plans to offer himself as its first Doge.

He's an enthusiastic nihilist, a committed contrarian - and his most outré prophecies, he contends, have a habit of coming true. For years, he advocated the practice of outsourcing, advising firms to transfer their operations to the countries with the lowest labour costs. Every time he rings National Rail Enquiries, he feels a little more Delphic.

On the day that I visit him, Angell has received some pleasing intelligence from India. He's just heard that several Scandinavian telecommunications companies that have relocated their call centres to the subcontinent are not recruiting employees from the local population, but offering jobs - at Indian wage levels - to Scandinavians willing to follow work to the east. For Angell, this means blue skies over Bangalore: this voluntary relocation of labour is exactly the kind of economic trend that suggests to him that capitalism is breaking free of sentimental liberal orthodoxies.

"How do you get your students or employees out of orthodoxy?" he asks, rhetorically, from the depths of his glossy red-leather swivel chair. "I create scenarios that are deliberately strange, often offensive, to shock. Many of these scenarios I don't actually believe in myself. Many of them I don't like, but I think they could happen. But I still raise them, and then we have a discussion. It's not science," he says. "It's a form of thrill-seeking."

What do people do with his ideas? He grins and shrugs, and resettles himself in his chair. "That's up to them. That's not my problem. All I'm trying to do is demonstrate that the way that things are done is simply the product of the natural selection of accidents - there's no rationale to it at all, and sometimes it can be completely crazy. We've simply been programmed into accepting it, and it's my job to rattle the cage."

Not everyone in Angell's field shares his taste for social division, or his contempt for democracy. The Global Ideas Bank, for instance, is an organisation dedicated to the "collectivisation of intelligence", in the belief that communities of thinkers are better able to formulate original and workable new notions than individuals. It has built its home at the end of a higgledy-piggledy drag of mews houses in Finsbury Park, north London. Its bare-brick walls are painted a sprightly yellow. A cardboard coffin looms from one corner - a consequence of the Bank's cohabitation with the Natural Death Centre, an organisation that facilitates eco-friendly committals.

Both organisations owe their existence to Nicholas Albery, a member of the dynasty who founded the Albery Theatre. A textbook hippie dropout, Albery used his experience of San Francisco communes in the 1960s and political activism in London in the 1970s to found a charitable foundation in his own name and pursue his interest in "social invention" - the formulation of new ideas about how to live. Albery established the Institute for Social Inventions in 1985, the Natural Death Centre in 1991, and the Global Ideas Bank in 1995 - the latter as an online suggestions box into which subscribers could drop their e-mailed thoughts. A fatal car crash in 2001 prevented him from developing the Bank into a more substantial entity. Since Albery was laid in the earth in a biodegradable coffin, Temple has been continuing the work.

He explains the aims of the organisation. "Part of our ambition is to change people's mindset, to convince them that they can contribute. We're a democratic think tank, to which anybody can contribute an idea, rate the ideas of others, or offer practical help about how to put them into practice." The Ideas Bank, he says, is not a forum for technological innovation. If James Dyson had posted messages to the site about bagless vacuum cleaners, Temple would probably have policed his e-mails from the site. The Bank is a forum for social inventors. "We're not interested in a design for a new light bulb, we're interested in new ways of using light bulbs or recycling schemes using light bulbs. It's about fostering creativity for social good."

He drags his chair back to his battered Apple Mac, and clicks through some of the suggestions of his subscribers: a people's pub, the profits from which are invested in local community projects; a scheme to put a bobby on every corner by allocating one house in every street to a police officer; an environmental IQ system for consumer products - a simple numerical rating for everything from sugar to shelving. "Why shouldn't there be a Green Miles scheme, which would reward consumers of ethical products with vouchers for public transport?" asks Temple. "It's better than anything the Government comes up with."

Temple has had a few friendly meetings with government representatives. He'd like them to consider using a forum like the Global Ideas Bank to democratise their approach to generating new initiatives, but he's not holding his breath. And others in his field argue that the suggestions for genuinely dramatic reform make most governments want to jump on a chair and scream. "Governments aren't really interested in truly radical ideas because they threaten so many vested interests," reflects May, a retired academic who writes on the future of education and is also the director of Futures Skills. "It's fine for an independent futurist so say these sorts of things, but not for a person who holds power with an institution." Darby, who oversees the Coffee House Challenge for the RSA, also suspects that government has good reason to be wary of too much blue-sky thought. "Innovation and enterprise challenge the norm," he contends. "And if people start developing those instincts they'll start looking at governments and asking questions that might make them feel uncomfortable."

But click your way to the website of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, and you'll see more blue sky than John Kettley in August. An association with frighteningly fresh ideas is clearly considered a vote-winner, even if their implementation is not. The strategy unit was created in 2002, the result of a merger between a number of smaller forward-planning outfits within Whitehall. In 2004, it issued a document that attempted to measure the influence of its work upon government policy and practice, and, in the process, justify its own existence. The report asserted that the unit was responsible for a 29 per cent rise in adoptions between 2000 and 2002; for the creation of the Assets Recovery Unit, the new agency empowered to relieve criminals of ill-gotten property; for the introduction of the universal bank account available at Post Office branches. A greater number of column inches, however, have been generated by two less popular initiatives: the suggestion that on-the-spot fines might be extracted from the drunk and disorderly by marching them to the nearest cash machine, and the appointment of the former BBC chairman Lord Birt to oversee a review of transport policy.

One of Birt's most notorious dictums during his tenure at the BBC was his stated preference for people "untainted by experience". As an approach to problem-solving, it strikes a chord with many who work in the field, and is the nearest it seems possible to get to a definition of blue-sky thought. Angell professes that naivety is his surest weapon. "I just ask very simple questions, like the boy who pointed at the emperor's new clothes."

In his workshops for young entrepreneurs, meanwhile, Darby celebrates the virtues of ignorance. "I work with young people who often have no grounding in business and a limited understanding of the sector that they're going into. But their naivety allows them to go into it with a fresh mind without restraints, and be highly innovative."

It's an attractive idea - harnessing naivety like wind-power, and using it to drive the engines of business, politics and culture. But where do such practices actually lead us? Were the great innovations of the past yielded by comparable methods, or by more conventional approaches - such as the intelligent analysis of evidence by experts, for instance? Nobody needed a cute buzzword to describe the process by which Sir Richard Arkwright invented his spinning frame for the textile industry in 1775, or the work that shaped the 1908 Old-Age Pensions Act championed by Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. The men and women employed today in the business of dreaming up fresh and radical ideas, of devising strategies that depart from accepted orthodoxies, all argue that a particular hunger is currently being expressed for original thoughts - even though many such thoughts will be highly unpalatable. But will their endeavours solve the pressing problems of the present day - global warming, bird flu, terrorism - or simply generate a corpus of engaging science fiction?

It's hard to be certain, but the fact that these ideas are being expressed at all makes them more likely to come into being. Capitalists who flush hot at Angell's vision of a world in which they can behave like barbarian kings will make plans with this dystopia in mind. Social and technological inventors will use new forums to propagate and spread their ideas. (I vote for the people's pub.) Political ideas factories will continue to affect the political climate simply because they are pumping so many notions into the atmosphere, and even if the Government is squeamish about putting them into action, it still seems to delight in the publicity generated by the research, and to believe that there is electoral profit to be made from the impression that they are willing to talk about radical solutions to big, nasty problems. Whether you believe their blue-sky ideas to be unclouded by prejudice or reason is open for discussion. "Come back here in five years' time," Civitas's Green exclaims, as I step through his office door, "and we'll see if I'm right." It's a date, I say.

'The New Barbarian Manifesto' by Ian Angell is published by Kogan Page

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