We mostly think citizens bring huge value to society. But only a tiny number of us think they will. Let's change that.

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Not unpredictable but still interesting findings from the RSA’s Future of Britain survey (conducted by the polling company Populus). It’s out later this week, but it’s previewed in this blog. Here are the top-line findings:

  • Only 21 percent of those surveyed believe that the UK will be better in 2030 than it is today.

  • 35 percent believe it will be worse. These are not the findings that would be expected of a self-confident society.

  • When asked what people thought Britain would look like in 2030, choosing from a longlist of possibilities, the most popular response was ‘divided’, selected by 30 percent.

  • Only 7 percent see citizens as the most influential force in modern Britain. Yet, the contribution of citizens was seen as most important by 60 percent.

The highlighted facts above identify both the key challenge and the best response to it. What does it mean that the largest response to a question about Britain twelve years from now is the term “divided”?

One might imagine this to be somewhat resigned and fatalistic. What else could the consequence of two narrowly-concluded major constitutional referenda (on Scottish independence and Brexit) otherwise be? Or the increasing prevalence of culture wars, conducted by parties and amplified by digital platforms, who both have a vested interest in polarised debate?

Yet the second highlighted finding contains the answer - which is the gap between how much we think being a “citizen” brings value to a society, and how little we actually feel that citizens have an impact on that society.

The “citizen” is regarded as someone who thinks consciously about the role of power and voice in their own daily and public lives, and acts in a way to manifest that. Of course, admirable! And yet our sense of them facing much bigger powers, which daunt and limit their action, is acute.

The RSA is pointing to these disjunctions in order to justify its somewhat grandiose ambitions to bring about a 21st century Enlightenment. The politics which might support that are outlined below, and worth considering as effectively a political manifesto from that organisation:

  • Mass ownership of the assets of the new economy – and a Universal Basic Opportunity Fund to support economic security.

  • A national dialogue about expanding investment in the public services of the future after a decade of cuts.

  • A ten-year transformational Agriculture Plan to meet our commit­ments to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Pilot Universal Basic Income as a platform for real economic security and welfare.

  • New devolution settlement for the UK to empower neighbourhoods, towns, cities and regions to combat inequality.

  • Mission-led schools with the freedom to provide a more complete and generous education of the ‘head, hand and heart’ – a precondition for a 21st Century Enlightenment.

  • Devolve power to teachers, parents, communities and pupils to support a rich education for all.

  • A new social contract including Personal Training Accounts to help safeguard good work amidst widespread technological change.

  • Embed deliberative democracy in the UK constitution at national and local level.

  • A new data commons to ensure rights are protected and the benefits of the AI revolution are shared.

Much in this that A/UK would sign up to, and indeed already has. Yet as we heard at an event in Seville that we attended this week (a room full of social innovators), there is a search on for a “big and powerful narrative”. Something that might encourage a disgruntled, sceptical electorate to make steps towards something that looks like a new citizenship.

Is the aspiration to a 21st century Enlightenment the kind of “big narrative” that might motivate those who have cast their populist vote, to point in a less defensive direction? It almost certainly isn’t.

For all the advanced nature of the policies proposed above by the RSA, the language in which they are framed hardly hums and zings with urgency. And in this super-reflexive age, the idea that someone is “building a narrative” - something you are to be seduced by - is not the greatest builder of trust.

Yet we salute the RSA’s indefatigable combination of networking, prototyping and policy-making. They try to land their ideas in concrete social situations, with actual communities, and learn from what flies and what doesn’t. Always worth following and digging into.