Can civil society be ‘agile’?

It is widely accepted that in order to stay ahead in business these days, one must be agile. That is to say, the most successful organisations have the foresight and capability to see what is coming over the horizon and adapt quickly enough to make the most of it. Few would say the same of politics or the public sector.

In years gone by, state funded social progress and scientific discovery presented entrepreneurs with business opportunities. The fossil fuel age gave rise to unprecedented progress and the post war years saw an explosion in access to food, goods and services. Businesses raced to keep up and those that were most successful grew into global behemoths with access to billions of pounds of investment. Billions of people are now living comfortable lives and for them poverty feels like a thing of the past. The rest are still living on less than a dollar a day in an ‘emerging market opportunity’ or are refugees and migrants in ‘difficult market conditions’. In recent years, capitalist globalisation has been so successful that big business now creates change, controlling what we eat, what we wear and even what we think, whilst largely ignoring the consequences.

I believe that at a time when the public sector is asking the private sector to deliver our public services too, we are in grave danger of relinquishing the last vestiges of democratic control over civil society. Even the next generation of research is being funded, patented and then leveraged by those who seek (pay?) to ensure that the framework within which they can sell their new products is as beneficial as possible. In my view, the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership currently being negotiated between the US and Europe is the biggest, and potentially final nail in the coffin. All hail ‘fair’ trade.

All is not lost however, not least of all in that TTIP has yet to be signed. The clue lies in the fact that corporations spend billions of pounds lobbying politicians. In theory, power still lies with governments, mostly democratically elected ones. We, the voters, can choose the politicians we believe are the right ones to deliver the future we want, for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, through legislation and regulation that works for the people and planet, and not just for profit.

In 2015 the choice we made seems to have been a relatively selfish one, predominantly driven by our view of who can run the country in an economically successful way. Despite 20 years of seemingly disastrous foreign policy, endless expenses scandals, the banking crisis, growing inequality, and wide spread child obesity at the same time as mass child poverty, most are voting for more of the same.

But what was the alternative? A right wing Conservative Party, unapologetic about its pursuit of personal wealth and freedom of choice, a slightly less right wing Labour Party trying to finesse the magic trick of more public spending without increasing taxes, the Lib Dem Party unable to explain to people just how much good work they had done, UKIP appealing to the zenophobes, racists and bigots, and finally the Green Party emerging as the new-left group with a misunderstood (sic) long term vision for a better world.

Even in the most simplistic sense, UK government and most councils are run from chambers that are set up with opposition in mind, elected members childishly hurling abuse at each other across the divide. Some governing bodies have had the opportunity to rebuild their ‘office’ and most have done so ‘in the round’ to create a more collegiate atmosphere. (As an aside, it is interesting to reflect on whether the internet has followed suit; Facebook seems to create communities of interest whereas Twitter has created ‘trolls’).

Business reinvented itself for the internet age, flattening its management structures, creating multi-disciplinary teams and removing bureaucracy. Everything is on-line, on-time and on-brand. The cracks are starting to appear though, with war & famine causing geopolitical destabilization in many parts of the world. Enlightened business has stepped forward, albeit perhaps still from a self-interested point of view, to recognize that without water and raw materials and consumers with cash, there is no business.

The post-Internet era has to be one where civil society reinvents itself, growing beyond predator and prey, rich and poor, winner and loser. We are not masters of the world, we have to become the stewards of it, looking after the shared resources and precious natural environment of our home, the one planet that is the source of life for more than 7.3 billion people now trying to survive. Climate change is not a business opportunity, it is a global threat.

Over the last 15 years I have played a small part in helping Bristol work towards its aim of becoming a world class, low carbon city, with a high quality of life for all. It is a good vision, reflecting the big challenges of our times; climate change, inequality and well-being, rather than profit and materialism. I would like to work with people who share that vision, and some of those who don’t, irrespective of their political persuasion.

Recently, Caroline Lucas MP, wrote of her willingness to work with other party’s politicians (except the Tories of course) in order to achieve what she believes is best for the country, and the planet. It is only by working together that we can break down the barriers that prevent politics and the public sector from being the leaders rather than the followers. My personal values align most closely with that of the Green Party and I hope to help in whatever small way I can. It is imperative that civil society recognizes the importance of systems thinking, to experiment and notice, in order to overcome the vested interests of the small number of people in politics and the private sector who seem hell bent on profit at any cost. The revolution will not be organized, but it can be agile.

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