Alternative Editorial: Phase 2 Movements

Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s  image “Out of Focus

Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s image “Out of Focus

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

Last week, the A/UK Editorial hit 50. It’s just a number, but it coincided with our own sense that we are moving into Phase 2 of a long-term project. In the first phase, we felt we were responding to an urgency that Brexit and Trump had – not so much caused – but described very well.

Both Britain and the US – superpowers of the 20C – were profoundly divided. There are arguably deeper divisions: for example 1% of the global population owning 82% of the wealth. But politically, these societies were broken in half: in the UK, 48% Remain to 52% Leave, in a European referendum (ref) we are still trying to make common sense of. In America, the absolute electoral majority of Hillary Clinton was narrowly beaten by a voting system that gave it to Trump.

Our feeling in early 2017 was: can it be that the population is so neatly divided into two camps, in each case? Or are their current political cultures intrinsically and destructively divisive: built on historic binary oppositions (right and left, statist and free-market) that do more to instrumentalise citizens than serve them? And if politics is broken, what’s the Alternative?

Looking back over those 50 weeks of stepping outside of the political bubble we have discovered many starting points. We curate their multitude in our Daily Alternative – every day another creative initiative, contributing new thinking and practice.

But moving into this second phase, we feel we are part of a slowly forming, but accelerating world-wide movement for whole-system change. The pieces of the puzzle, or the many fractals of a new system emerging, are beginning to make relationship with each other. As they do so, we get glimpses of a future we could fight for. Just glimpses for now—but increasingly coherent and workable – see here and here.

Within that, the blocks and obstacles to that future are also becoming clearer. Some of these are recognisable forces which would always be ranged against any shift in the 20th Century settlement that has left our planet burning. Characters like Donald Trump are only the most visible representatives of the old cultures and narratives that have led us to the multiple crises we are in today.

But within “our” own movement of movements – that is, we who consider ourselves woke – there are also blind spots and developmental hurdles to clear. One of these is what seems to be our inability to engage properly with context. By this I mean, the conditions within which our great ideas might thrive.

At a recent confab hosted by Indy Johar at the Royal Academy in association with the Invisible Landscapes exhibition, he talked about this from an architectural perspective – meaning moving from focusing on the object, to the context. So when we design a building or an entire skyline, we should do more than keep the community subject to that plan merely in mind (served with a few shallow focus groups).

Instead, designs should be fully informed and shaped by the citizens who either use it, or will live with it in their environment. In this way, each building will add to the flourishing of that community.

I can hear the objections instantly. Won’t that lead to mediocrity? What do most people know about architecture? But that’s a zero-sum fear: collaboration does not mean diluting ourselves until we find a common opinion, but creating a more dynamic space to accommodate our unique capabilities and perspectives.

Architects too will carry on bringing the fruits of their training. Although they may have to be more inventive than they expected, if the people bring their insights to the table. In one sense, the logic is simple. For a seed to take root – for a building to function well in the community – the healthier the soil is (or the citizenry), the better.

Even so, understanding the difference between object and context does not come naturally. How many new projects are launched without first paying attention to the conditions we find ourselves in? Many good ideas rely on attraction and on-boarding to get up speed and display numbers. But they have never addressed (and may not be interested in) the bigger problem - whether or not it will help the majority of people thrive.

In this age of populism, any good project which only addresses narrow interest groups is vulnerable to either drying out – like a seed on concrete - or being washed away by the emotional tide orchestrated in the interests of the current elite.

Those engaged in care work, meantime, are more often context oriented: helping people to develop the capacity for whatever opportunity is offered, rather than overly focused on the task those clients might perform once enabled. That capacity is born of good relationships with others, the ability to get emotional needs met in balanced ways and an understanding of how networks can serve communities rather than enslave them. Amartya Sen describes this as a capability framework. This kind of focus is also a key part of what Hilary Cottam describes as relational welfare in her book Radical Care.

But neither object-driven nor context-driven action can thrive independently of the other. For Hilary’s contextual insights to make change, they have to be heard by those with the money to invest (who often need “objective”, measurable outcomes).

The obvious – but difficult and sometimes misleading - characterisation of these two different kinds of activity is with the masculine and the feminine. Object driven activity is mostly associated with growth and impact. Context driven activity with health and capacity. And yes, we do find more men driving big business and innovation, more women in care and development.

And to some extent too, we could say that the reason we live in a teetering planet, is because those in public life – almost exclusively men leading up to and including the 20th C – have not paid sufficient attention to the sustainability of their projects until now. While women, active (or contained) in the private sphere, have not been able to transfer their knowledge of what it takes to make something sustainable at the human level, into the bigger picture.

But in the very rapidly changing landscape before us, that gender divide can be distracting. While the continuum between masculine and feminine remains a cultural trope, where individual men and women stand on it is increasingly more fluid. Amartya Sen, after all, is a man who has been recognised as a feminine economist.

Just as there are innumerable women bringing stellar new ideas into public realm these days, there are both men and women - and those that identify in other ways - engaged in what En Comu's Ada Calau calls the feminisation of politics. Privilege plays a big part in that growing equivalence: so even as we welcome it, let’s be sure to honour the history and the continuing struggle to free all people to choose their own paths.

Hence, together with all genders and none, in this second phase of The Alternative UK we will be doing our best to give at least as much attention the context within which the objects of our fascination, the brilliant new ideas, can thrive.

As much to localism – where people build resilient communities - as to municipalism, where power is redistributed. As much to narrative – delivered by new forms of media and behaviour – as to events, where we meet face to face. As much to value – experienced in felt transactions between people - as to systems (like blockchain), which carries that value in measurable ways. We’ll have some guest editorials on the way, to keep the interplay between these two equally important spheres of activity visible.

If that feels like a good idea, please consider supporting us to continue. We are going to be launching a crowd-funder soon to get The Daily Alternative to its next level. This will include opening up comment and discourse to all our readers. As well as offering regional media platforms to our collaboratories. It’s time to get more people involved in generating the new narrative.

But any regular donation starting now, however small, is the best guarantor of that crowdfunder being a success. Thank you.