The Agonising Privilege of Now

First published at FutureGov.

“The old is dying and the new is not yet born, in the interregnum many mordant symptoms are found” – Antonio Gramsci

Since I first heard this quote (more on which later) I have been struck by the explanatory power of recognising that we are in an interregnum; in fact we are in many interregnums (interregna?) each of which has their own set of mordant symptoms:

  • The old fossil-fuel economy is dying (and risks taking us with it), and the new is not yet born
  • The old financialised global capital system is certainly exhibiting very many mordant symptoms, and the new is not yet born
  • Trust and participation in our current system of representative democracy is dying, and the new is not yet born.

Much less dramatically but significantly closer to my day job(s) I think I could argue that:

  • English local government is dying and the new is not yet born
  • The hierarchical way that paper- and meetings-limited organisations work is dying, and the new is not yet born.

I find it interesting that many of these things are bound up together. I could tie together these threads by arguing that English local government is dying because its new way of organising is not yet born and because the authorising environment that will come from rectifying issues in our democracy and national organisation isn’t here yet.  Those aspects of multi-layered (including local) approaches are crucial to the aftermath of the fossil-fuel economy and all of which is inhibited by financialisation (aka measuring, valuing, and acting on, the wrong measures).

“The old is dying and the new is not yet born, in the interregnum we have to experiment and communicate LIKE MAD”

– Neil McInroy (CEO, Centre for Local Economic Strategies)

This quote from Neil is just about the only thing I can remember from the conference I attended at which he said it.  It was my introduction to the Gramsci quote.  It cut through things for me and explained a lot at a time when lots of what I engage with, whether it’s the economy, our society, our climate, local government, the list goes on … is looking pretty sick and in urgent need of replacement.  “The old is dying” – yes, that would explain the dread and the symptoms.  But  “the new is not yet born” – and how much hope there is in the “yet” of that sentence.  This is a pattern-seeking historian, in the first bit of the quote, commenting on change, who points out that the new will come along – albeit after a period of mordant symptoms.  

So then to Neil’s bit of the quote and “in the interregnum we have to experiment and communicate LIKE MAD”.  And that last clause gives me a lot of purpose right now.  Whether by luck or judgement I have interesting roles to play in a range of organisations that are innovating and communicating LIKE MAD.

Then on Monday I was attending the FutureGov Transitions event and Cassie Robinson put up a slide which I had seen someone else use before but which I didn’t really find useful at the time.  Maybe I wasn’t ready for it last time I saw it or maybe Cassie did a much better job of explaining it (that’s my guess, especially since it’s her slide).  It gave me another “click” moment.

This was the slide, I expect you may have seen it.

The dominant system – the old world – is dying, and the new world – the emergent system – is not yet born.

The first thing that’s useful about the diagram, at least as explained by Cassie, is that it gives further shape to the notion of experimenting and communicating LIKE MAD and in particular recognising the crucial role of connecting, and of building communities as we build the new world, the emergent system. 

The second thing that was useful – and actually very moving – in Cassie’s talk was the recognition of the importance of “a good death” for the dominant system.  I should probably say at this point that she did an incredibly sensitive job of positioning and getting permission to have that discussion at a time when we are faced with a pandemic of non-metaphorical death and I hope I can be extended the same permission as I carry on writing here.  If the discussion of death is currently triggering to you then please accept my condolences and a suggestion that this blogpost may be for another time.

She spoke of the importance of hospice work – sympathetically closing down the old worlds, celebrating their achievements, letting them go on their own terms, and, crucially, recycling the learning – and in this context too the relevant skills and the people, to be part of the new system – composting, not landfill.

This gives me some very useful questions to ask myself and others when considering different cases of “innovation”

  1. Is this innovation which is about the dying part of the curve of the dominant system?  I see many councils for example pursuing initiatives which are akin to squeezing the very last scrap of toothpaste out of the tube of 20th Century methods.  I suppose that doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong, but if it’s not actually a reablement but is instead a painful prolongation of a life that will only be in decline, is it worth it?  It’s very easy to put energy into this, not least because the template for how to do it is clear – believe me in Local Government we have learned how to really get both thumbs under the folded up tube and squeeze until the thumbs turn white – and for some it may be the only option.  But if this kind of work is done, is it done with a recognition that it is a stopgap, and that if it is to have enduring value then it must offer some “compost value” – how can it be done in a way which will offer learnings, and support transition.

At the risk of using an almost trivial example, it’s clear to me that MS-Teams – as an intended collaborative tool rather than just as a videophone – is about the dying part of the curve of the dominant system.  It gives a gloss to organisations steeped in the old paradigm that Microsoft helped to stabilise and where it is dominant.  But if it is at least implemented in a way that gets people realising how much better something designed to be a collaboration tool could be, then perhaps they can more easily make the transition to the emergent’s system’s use of far better tools, and learn new cultures of collaboration. (“Making the best of MS-Teams” a future blogpost?)

  1. Is this innovation that helps the “hospice work” and composting?  It will surely be better if we learn ways to do this well, to reuse the relevant resources in terms of learning and the abilities of people.  Cassie herself is doing some amazing work on this which you can read about here.  Sometimes the death of one part of the dominant system will require adaptation by other parts of the system, and they will need help.  This may be one part of the public sector adapting to the disappearance of another.   

For example, much innovation in the local (town and parish) council system at present is innovation to pick up services previously run by the more remote tiers, who simply can’t afford to do it any more – or not with their delivery model.  This is related to hospice work though, it isn’t necessarily a fundamental reimagining or creating an emergent system.  (It could be, and is sometimes – that’s another story; it’s a very exciting one).

  1. Is the innovation in How to Transition?  It may not be about creating the emergent system but it may be about learning how to go from one to the other.  As I write this I don’t know if local authorities will be able to transition into genuinely 21st C organisations.  The reasons why not may be about nothing more depressing than the allocation of resources – will councils be allowed the resources to transition, or will new emergent solutions arise to the problems currently solved by councils, possibly piecemeal?  Innovation in Transition is important innovation, provided it is really about transition and not simply to a further point on the curve of decline.  

As Futuregov increasingly pioneers work around new forms of organising I think that this will often be innovation in transition to forms that we already know, that have already been invented in the new system (eg Buurtzorg for care, new forms of citizen deliberative participation).  It is noteworthy that the FG event I mentioned earlier was called “Transitions”.  At FG there is a profound belief that public institutions: public (democratic, accountable, social); institutions (organisations with purpose) – are a really important part of the emergent systems, but they might be unrecognisable from now.

At the time, FixMyStreet.com was an exemplar to support transition to a more digital way of delivering services, many years ahead of GDS and helping to make it possible.  Still strongly in operation today and now extending to be more council-friendly in how it integrates with council systems, it also now an exemplar of interoperability.

An indicator of an alternative approach to this is the provocatively-named Institute for Impossible Ideas which seeks to find ways of radically reinventing services of public institutions whilst retaining them within the public accountability and ownership regime.  The Institute itself is an experimental vehicle for Transition, the ventures within the institute fall into the next category…

  1. Is the innovation a component of the emergent system?  Is this a new thing that aligns with the new world and helps move towards it?  Is it integrally based on a post-fossil view, is it consistent with local community power, is it about collaborative organising, is it about using the possibilities presented by all the other innovations like it? Is it about exploiting the business models, governance, tools and technology of the internet era? (HT Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital).  

Actually, I think we need to be careful about this Loosemore approach to digital in the way that it has been applied to public service reform.   It is very easy for “digital” even in a modern-looking guise of agile service design to simply be “dying curve” work.  This is perhaps especially so when it is grounded in the “Consumer” model of public service rather than the emerging “Citizen” model.  Remember that Loosemore’s iconic definition of digital went on to talk about “meeting raised expectations” rather than, for example, talking about coproduction. (Another long story for another time.)

mySociety pioneered very early on some of the key components of the new system for citizen engagement with those with power.  WhatDoTheyKnow.com  TheyWorkforYou.com and WriteToThem.com are good examples, with active thinking underway about what the equivalent tools are for a more community-based ethos and other iterregna.

  1. Is the innovation about being a midwife to the emergent system? Is it innovating connection and community?  Is it, in short “experimenting and communicating LIKE MAD”.  “Working in the open” is an example of innovation that helps give birth to the emergent system.  Taking the time to connect, to learn, to commune out of a spirit of what others might gain not from personal benefit.  This is midwifery.  

One of the organisations I work with has run for years runs a very well respected sharing conference for civic tech – the creation of TICTeC was an invention that is a midwife to the emergent system, carefully showcasing – and evaluating – tools for the emergent system rather than illustrating the old. 

Lots of my recent experiences, some of which I have referred to here, and not least the process of thinking about the impact of Covid-19 and what comes next, have caused me to crystalise my thinking in the form of this note.

It has helped me to see that the now that I live in – and you do too – is a multiple turning point (and look, it has even taken me until now to mention Brexit!).  It is “full-stack interregna”.  (I looked it up, interregna and interregnums are both correct).  (“Full-stack interregna” is clearly the title of yet another blogpost that needs to be written).

I can see that because of the diversity of the roles that I happen to play I have the privilege to make connections at this really very interesting time.  Because in many of my roles I have the privilege to lead, nudge or cajole innovation it’s important I understand what kind of innovation I am cajoling – and does it fit the need?  Is it enough?  Does it fit the times?

Anyone who has read this far in this note probably has all that too.  

It is very hard isn’t it?  It is, at times, agonising.  But it is a privilege.  It is the agonising privilege of now.

Jonathan Flowers

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