Imagine

chimpanzeeImagination, above all else, is the facet that makes humans so successful. It exists in other creatures; witness a chimpanzee stripping the leaves from a twig and inserting one end into an ant hill. She slowly withdraws it along with a number of ants who have clung to the twig. Deftly, she wipes the twig across her open mouth and eats the ants. It may be learned behaviour but once upon a time an ancestor sat beside an ant hill and imagined what it would be like to be able to extract ants without having to destroy the colony. She imagined inserting a foreign object into a fiercely defended colony and it being attacked by the ants. She saw a twig and imagined it without leaves, sleek and streamlined, the perfect foreign body. Because she imagined it, she experimented, refined her technique and perfected it.

Prior to this breakthrough, no none imagined it possible to extract ants so easily and with so little destruction to the colony. Yet, now it is common behaviour.

Over centuries, human society has developed many ways to solve problems. As hunter gatherers, we co-operated as a matter of life and death. I have no notion of whether these groups were egalitarian but surviving, so-called primitive societies often have tribal leaders or elders suggesting an inevitability of hierarchy in some form or other. As we became settlers, new ways of organising emerged. Governance became expressions of competing political ideologies. These have become synthesised into relative positions on a sliding scale whose opposing points are Left and Right. We have become wedded to the notion of this linear model of political ideas. So much so, that anything that is not fundamentally Left or Right is Centrist or left or right of centre; not, in effect a new idea but a variation of an existing position on the imagined horizontal,sliding scale. And these positions are often held from varying perspectives of what is or is not fair.

The speed of scientific progress in my lifetime has been breathtaking. But our smartness cannot supplant our imperfect humanness. The Internet and social media have great potential in terms of the democratisation of knowledge. But Umair Haque on his recent blog about abuse on Twitter shines a light on an ugly truth. With all our flashes of brilliance, we are still, fundamentally human…flawed.

I find it ironic that the creature with the largest brain often has the smallest mind.

We snipe and we sneer. We resent and belittle. We abuse and demonise those that are other and not we. Why? Because, despite the randomness of the natural world we inhabit, we cling to the notion of fairness. It is fairness or the apparent lack of it that inspires so much of the vitriol we see and hear.

Fairness makes a poor man resent a rich man and a rich man resent a poor man. Fairness drives a thief to take from those who have what he has not. Fairness inspires a man as rich as Croesus to hide what he cannot spend in vaults rather than see it put to any practical use because he earned it (or perhaps inherited it). Fairness makes an otherwise kindly person seethe with anger when a person fleeing bombs and bullets is carrying something as commonplace as a mobile phone. When we allow our imagination to speculate on fairness, we become less human. So long as we believe in fairness, we cannot progress.

Instead, I would argue that we should apply our imagination to the practical, and most importantly, that governments should.

For example; how much political instability in the world is directly or indirectly attributable to the pursuit and use of non-renewable fuels? Is that practical?

Could we imagine spending ten years perfecting a universally accessible renewable energy infrastructure and in so doing eliminating inequality, ending unnecessary conflicts and addressing the refugee crisis?

It is one example of many I could cite where a focus on the practical can challenge entrenched systems of belief, economics and governance. But that takes imagination.

The chimpanzee that perfected the stick technique clearly didn’t keep it to herself. All chimpanzees benefit and despite a few losses, the ant colonies continue to thrive. Imagine that.

Post script:

I caught Brian Eno’s recent John Peel Lecture which set me off on this train of thought. I thoroughly recommend it.

Curtains

Curtains

Ever sat in front of the TV and screamed at the politician “Do you take me for an idiot?”
The short and most honest answer would most likely be “Yes.” Though it might come as something of a shock, it would at least demolish the all-pervading pretence.

It’s an election year and for some of us working in local government comms, it will be local and national elections. The double whammy.
Shortly we’ll be entering the period known as purdah. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word originates from the early 19th century Urdu and Persian word parda meaning ‘veil or curtain’
Purdah is a period when comms teams must steer clear of communicating anything that has the slightest taint of political spin. We mustn’t be seen to be giving unfair advantage to the incumbent administration over the opposition. Ironically, we won’t be hidden or remain totally silent. We can still report the day to day operations of our authority, the bread-and-butter, so to speak.  In that respect, the notion of a veil or curtain is not entirely apt. One could argue that the veil or curtain is transparent or at least opaque in that we will be telling people exactly what we do. There just won’t be any gloss on it. Which begs the question, does it ever need any?

I’ve been in local government for over a decade now having spent the previous ten or so years in the media. I’m lucky to have seen both sides of the story as well as experiencing local government as a civilian. And the more I look at it, the more it occurs to me that party politics are a distraction when it comes to dealing with local and hyper local issues. Often you will see the leader of a local authority at odds with the national government of the day when the two wear the same colours. The view from the local coal face isn’t always the same as the one from central office.
Council Chamber discussions across the country too often degenerate into political point scoring and name calling when they ought to be run like a boardroom meeting. Like it or not, local authorities are a business these days and businesses don’t adopt bad practice for the sake of ideology or political expediency..at least, not the enlightened ones.

I do have a particular business model in mind. The 18th century in England saw the emergence of a new breed of industrialist. Brave innovators who invested as much energy into the welfare of their workforce a they did the bottom line. They understood that the two are inextricably linked. Check out Darby, Fry and Cadbury for starters.
There are many competent councillors who transfer skills honed in the business, public and voluntary sectors into local governance. It’s that interesting mix that makes local government so lively. And though some councillors may serve for long periods, you don’t get the phenomenon of career politician so prevalent in national politics. Councillors live in the real world not the Westminster bubble.

We joined Streetlife recently. It was interesting to read the tone of comments that greeted our arrival; much less embittered than the tone on Facebook or Twitter. In the context of this piece, one in particular stands out:
This is the sort of thing that brings a special relationship between the Council and residents. Please use it wisely for non political purposes and enjoy the positive response that you will receive from the local people.”
It’s early days for Streetlife but if I read this comment correctly, it’s the ‘localness’ and practicality that people are warming to. And the gentle nudge to keep politics out of it only serves to underline my original point.

So, councils run on enlightened business principles by councillors who have the right skills and the interests of all their residents and workers at heart may be a pipe dream but it leaves little room for petty party politics. Allegiance would be to residents not political ideals.
Non-political governance based on human dignity, sound business sense unfettered by dogma , a dedication to sustainable practice that has the courage to take the long-view; all this may be even further away at a national level but in that respect, local government is the most likely place to incubate it.
Governance would become much more of a partnership between the governors and the governed. And ‘vested interest’ would be a universal notion rather than an exclusive club. In this utopian future evidence will be the pillar of every decision. Political rhetoric would become redundant and I for one would spend much less time screaming at my TV.

To paraphrase John Lennon:
“You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m surely not the only one.”