Category Archives: Social engineering

The Size of the Challenge? Challenging.

Met up with a few people over the festive period who I haven’t seen for a while and in-between the turkey and mince pies have been explaining what I’m up to and what my thoughts are.  I find it a bit of a struggle sometimes to explain the nature of the change that I’m going through, but it does start to make a bit more sense when I frame it in the context of the Size of the Challenge.  What follows might not make for easy reading, but having a point of view on the what the task is at least enables one to identify what you need to do about it:

Okay then, I’ve arrived at the use of a metaphor as the best way to describe what’s going on, what needs to happen and how likely we are to make that change.  The metaphor is that the change that needs to happen for us all to live sustainably on the planet is equivalent to the change that happened when we moved from fully believing in God and religion as the answer to all questions to believing that science holds the answers.

What do I mean by that?  I’m not a big history reader, but my understanding is that in the past (pre-Enlightenment) the prevailing belief was that God created in the world in 6 days, the Earth was at the Centre of the Universe and we were special (i.e. not related to animals).  Then along came science and through the likes of Galileo and Darwin, they introduced ‘laws’ and proof and rationality to disprove many of the religious beliefs.  So, now, we not only have a prevailing wind that science can hold the answers (or rather if you can’t ‘prove it’ it doesn’t exist), but that the economic system is the way that world works, man can control nature and consumerism and individualism is king.  These beliefs, I would contend, are as strongly held as those religious beliefs that existed before science came along and the systems that hold those beliefs are as strong as the church was (and in some places still is – i.e. for half of the USA).

So, if we are to move to a more sustainable future, then why is the change as big as the change from ‘religion’ to ‘science’?  Because, I think just like back then, it requires an entire re-calibration of the way you think that the way the world works, or more importantly how you relate to the world.  So, rather than being disconnected from nature and seeing nature as ‘other’ we, as a species, have to understand that we are interconnected to it, want to live in harmony with it, indeed, that we are interconnected to everything else.  Don’t we already do that?  Doesn’t the internet let us do that?  No.  If we believed that then we would run the global economy with no environmental impact.  We’d understand that there are things that are more important that our individual needs.  We’d be thinking about what our actions mean for people living generations ahead of us and acting in their best interests, not just ours today.

If this is right (or in the ballpark) then the question then becomes ‘Can we change to think and act in a way that will allow us to live sustainably on the planet?’  Reframe that question as ‘Has mankind ever given up the prevailing system and the values it promotes without great suffering?’  I’m thinking slavery, Suffragettes, American Civil War, Apartheid, Arab Spring.  But, there might be some examples where that hasn’t happened.  Further, if you think about the amount of tension in the system before the system changed (read that as a lot of people dying and getting beaten up who wanted the change to happen) then we’re a long, long way off that.  A few thousand people involved in the Occupy Movement is hardly Tahrir Square or Sharpeville.

So, in my mind it’s a race.  On the positive, we as a species evolve fast enough to care about nature and each other.  There is a sort of ‘rising global consciousness’ and somehow we understand, intuitively, that we’re all interconnected.  Big business and governments change accordingly.  On the more dramatic, there is a grass roots, global movement that puts an insurmountable of pressure on those that currently run the system and again Big Business and governments change accordingly.  The race is that either (or both) of those things need to happen before we heat up the planet beyond acceptable levels (and the bio-diversity loss point).  If that doesn’t happen then we, as a species, are in deep shit.

The last question then becomes ‘Are you an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist?’

Into the lion’s den

Learning quite a bit recently about system change and personal change and how this relates to the issues that our society, economy and environment face.  But do things need to change?  Is that just a personal point of view, rooted in the course and the things that I see?  Just because I see something and might believe it, is no reason for anyone else to.  So, it’s always good to get ‘evidence’ to help validate my own emerging views that the way the world and society works needs to change if we’re all going to live ‘happily ever after’.  Now, you can find loads of support for a view like that in every ‘eco’/Climate Change/green book/article/movie you come across.  But, I don’t really count them because ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’.  So, where would the ‘evidence’ really count?  How about a publication whose very essence, name and readership is inextricably linked to the success and continuation of the current system – the Financial Times.

So, it was with pleasant surprise to read an interview with Laurence Freeman who runs some Christian meditation outfit in London that includes members of the IMF and Blackstone on it’s Board.  In the interview he talks about success and money (something that will be important to many FT readers):

‘“Perfectionism is like a virus. In religion, it can lead to fundamentalism and self-loathing. The secular equivalent is success. If you only judge yourself by success – of your job, your marriage, your children, even – you are setting yourself up for failure or a sense of inadequacy. Learning to meditate, you have to unlearn perfection and the need for success.”’

Given the economic crisis, unlearning success, or rather rediscovering failure, seems especially relevant today. I ask what he makes of it all.

“Clearly, the crisis is hurting those at the bottom most,” he says. “But even at the top there is anxiety, a sense of failure and, perhaps, shame. Clearly, we have to deal with the surface turbulence and strive for the best solutions to minimise suffering and preserve justice. However, the depths of these forces of change come close to, or actually participate in, humanity’s spiritual stratum. This means we cannot manipulate or exploit them but must strive to understand and go with them. This requires a subtlety of wisdom. It also makes one wonder if the crisis is symptomatic of broader change, a new axial age in which old assumptions and ways of living are breaking down.”

When asked about the unfocussed demands of the Occupy Movement he says….

“That’s understandable.  They are protesting against fat cats, sure. But the movements’ deeper value is to witness what is happening – even if it’s not yet clear what the meaning is. Still, we have time to think about it: how long will this crisis last, five or 10 years? We must think about limits. We have become so inebriated with success.”

“You can put ethics courses in business schools but you can’t legislate for ethics. What people need is an experience of goodness, which has to come from within. That’s where meditation comes in. If you are too neurotic and inebriated with success to give yourself time to take care of your interior life, you are going to spin out of control. ”

So, interesting that the FT both interviewed him and printed it.  Well done them.  But also, I think it’s really interesting that he doesn’t think that this is a ‘flash-in-the-pan’ thing.  That he thinks that the length of the crisis (‘5 to 10 years?’) will give us a longer time to think about all this stuff and in doing so, provide us with an opportunity to decide whether (money and) success are the things we should be aiming for.  Good stuff.

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How to get more people to act sustainably? Don’t talk about sustainability.

Here’s a very good, clear articulation of how to get more people act in a more sustainable way.

Caroline Fiennes of GlobalCool breaks people into three groups (called Value Modes) based on their broad motivations:

First group. People who care about things that are quite proximate to them.   Their primary concern is the safety and security of myself, family and nation.  Like rules and big into community.

Second group.  Primarily driven by the esteem and respect of others and therefore need to demonstrate their success.  So, big into fashion and social networks.

Third group.  Primarily interested in their intellectual and ethical imprint.  Interested in ideas and others even if they’ve never met them or are never likely to meet them.

So, who does the existing sustainability narrative talk to?  The third group and the third group only, of course.  It’s effectively missing out two-thirds of the population.  Talking about glaciers melting and people on the other side of the world just doesn’t connect those in the other two groups based on what they value.  They don’t really listen.  So, what to do?  She goes onto to give a couple of great examples of health advertising – e.g. communicating that you shouldn’t take Crystal Meth because it ruins your teeth is more appealing for people for whom appearance is important (the second group) than talking about how addictive it is.

Her point, which is obvious but very well made, is that you need to talk to people about what they care about in a way that engages with them as a means to do what you want (the obliquity strategy).  The health people don’t care what they need to say in order to get you to not take Crystal Meth, just that you don’t start taking it.  They’re happy not to talk about health in order to get people to be more healthy.  As she puts it – the important thing isn’t why you act in the way they what you, just that you do act.

Taking this to sustainability  an example of an ‘Accidental Environmentalists’ are kids who want to go to school on their micro-scooters because this is more fun than being in a car.  This has lead to an appreciable drop in car journeys in some areas of London.  You would never say to them that what they are doing is ‘green’.  But it is.

Commercial marketers have known this forever – they never talk about their agenda (we want to make more money) they just talk about your agenda – ‘You want to be popular?  Buy our product’.  And in doing so, we make more money.

She gives a bunch more examples and there’s loads more good stuff on their website, but in summary – to get more people to act sustainably, don’t talk about sustainability.  Simple really.

How long does it take to go sustainable? (part 2)

In this previous post I came to the conclusion that it takes a minimum of a year for someone to ‘go sustainable’.  This is because this is how long it’s taken me and I would regard myself as highly-motivated to do so – I’m doing the MSc and have LOTS of conversations about it.

It’s a fairly demoralising realisation – as that seems a long time in our short-termist society, but knowing the scale of the task is a great thing to know.

Further evidence for the this One Year Hypothesis come via a great conversation I had with Morag Watson at WWF. She talked about the excellent Natural Change programme that they’ve run in Scotland.  They describe it as follows:

The Natural Change Project was developed by WWF Scotland as a new and innovative response to the challenge of sustainability and to the growing evidence that current environmental campaigns are not resulting in the depth of behaviour change necessary to address this challenge. The project drew together seven diverse individuals from the business, charitable, arts, public, health and education sectors in Scotland. All were selected on the basis of being excellent communicators who were influential in their sector, but not particularly environmentally aware.  The purpose of the project was to encourage this group to think deeply about sustainability, to communicate through their social and professional networks and to share the changes in their thoughts and attitudes more widely through the forum of internet blogging.

They spent a total of 16 days together over the course of a year or so, a year that included a lot of shared conversations and thinking all grounded in trips to the wonderful area of Knoydart.  The group experienced some  some dramatic changes in the values and behaviours of the group.

Relating this to how you can communicate (or ‘engage’) with people, you broadly have 2 polar opposite options ‘Shallow and Many’ (mass advertising) or ‘Deep and Few’ (group therapy, for example).  Natural Change provides me with additional evidence to my own experience that the ‘Deep and Few’ option is the ONLY option that will work in order to make the necessary societal change to get people to change to be more sustainable – a deep, lengthy process in involving small groups of people.  This is because I agree with the Common Cause work in that the consumerist mindset and the extrinsic values associated with it are instilled in our society and within us from the day we’re born.  To get people to ‘go sustainable’ requires that they recognise and value intrinsic values instead of extrinsic.  This is obviously a big deal because it requires a basic rewiring in people’s heads as to what’s important – this sort of change is best done when supported by people undergoing the same transformation.

This all gets me to believe that getting people to turn down their heating or recycle their rubbish will have very little real, lasting effect in encouraging people to become wholly sustainable.  They are just mere actions that have virtually no impact on a person’s values.  An interesting question would be if you could get someone to turn their heating down, recycle more, buy organic, save water, drive less, go vegetarian, not to take foreign holidays etc etc., would they end up having intrinsic values?  Intuitively, I don’t think so – these actions are a multitude of ‘shallow’ and I don’t think all of that would add up to ‘deep’.

So, much more to think on with this, but if I continue down this way of thinking, then at least the challenge is clear – how do you do ‘Deep AND Many’?

Where are all the artists?

Part of the problem with all this sustainability stuff is that there isn’t a really good version of what a sustainable future looks like.  The majority of the visions of the future are fairly apocalyptic where things turn out worse than they are today.  This kind of vision is run through films like The Day After Tomorrow, or Avatar which portrays our negative relationship with nature.

So, it seems that we need a bit of positivity to help counter the negative view and give us something to aim for.  And it seems that artists should be part of the answer.  On this, Alain de Botton talks about artists being able to come up  the words and images that to make visible and important the most abstract and impersonal.  So, they can envisage a positive world that can be.  This reminds me of Andy Warhol who said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes back in 1968.  And it came to pass that we had Michelle McManus and now have Cheryl Cole.  This is the prescience of the artist.  On this, I heard an interview with Bob Geldof.  He was talking about music and the ability of great musicians to sense what people are conscious of before they are aware of it.  The musician makes a record based on this feeling and when released, it puts into words and music what the people were thinking of and becoming an important record for that reason.

So, where are the artists when it comes to sustainability?   Where are the positive songs, words and images that bring the issue to life?  Now, it might be that many people aren’t conscious of it yet, so we’ll have to wait.  But, it’s possible that it’s the role of the artist to accelerate the issue into the front of people’s attention.  Back to Geldof and this time, Live Aid.  I think that the stimulus were Michael Burke’s reports from Ethiopia on the BBC News.

Now, in total, there might have been say an hours footage that appeared on the news.  Geldof, the artist, converted that hours footage into the UK’s second best ever-selling single and into one of the most significant musical events of the century in a simultaneous global spectacle that changed our relationship with charity and  raised $150 million on the day.  Not a bad conversion rate in turning something small into something massive.

So, what the sustainability equivalent?  What’s the creative event that really kicks off the public caring about the future of the planet and those that will live on it.  I don’t know, but I reckon it’s not going to be another image of a worried looking polar bear.

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China to wage war with West over Climate Change

Naive thinking or bold prediction……

So, I’ve asked myself recently has been ‘Am I old enough to get by with out having to learn Mandarin?’

Hopefully, the answers ‘yes’ because I’m rubbish at languages, but The Economist has recently brought forward its forecast and has now stated that China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in 2019.  So, maybe not.

However, maybe this is a good thing as being the world superpower will allow them to save the world.  Literally.

There’s two bits of evidence to suggest that China will save the day. The first is a book called Consumptionomics.

Here’s the radio interview with it’s author.  What’s interesting about it is that it’s written by an Indian Management Consultant based in Hong Kong (rather than someone from LSE or Harvard) and basically he says that China and India cannot mirror the OECD countries in their level of consumption or we’ll run out of planet.  Nothing new there, but he goes on to say that China, with its style of government is in the best place to save the planet and indeed they’re already restricting car ownership.  He also makes some great points that India and China’s idea of what the ‘right path’ is has been determined by the West (i.e. consumption is good) and it’s time for the academics in those countries to step up and create their own sustainable future, rather than have their future dictated to them by the West.

This is all interesting stuff, then Tim passed this my way.  It’s an article in Time magazine about China banning ads that promote the luxury lifestyle because it encourages inequality and China’s number one priority is to build a ‘harmonious society’.

So, what does all of this mean?  Well here’s the prediction.  The USA is the current the world’s superpower but there’s only 307 million of them (4.5% of the global population).  A lot of their foreign policy is about protecting American interests and they’ve been pretty good at that.  Now, China has got a population of 1,331 million (19% of the global population).  So, America doesn’t have to worry about what happens at a global scale because they don’t have to think that big.  But China does.  So, if China pursues a sustainable policy now, what are they likely to see when they get to be number 1?  That they’re doing their bit to save the planet (and themselves) and given current trajectory, the US and Europe aren’t. And will China do?  How about ‘force’ the West to do what they say, for the sake of the planet.  Economic or military force, who knows?

That’s my prediction.

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I love recycling. Not yet, but maybe one day.

Went to meeting last week about how to get more people at work to recycle.  So, despite there being bins all over the place for paper, plastic, CD’s, batteries etc, we only recycle about two-thirds of the amount we could.  So, what to do?

There were lots of good ideas about how we could improve the situation – emails, posters, more bins, taglines and a crazy one about a sculpture but the thing that the discussion raised for me was how boring recycling is.

When you buy something you buy it for what’s inside the pack.  So, at work it’s likely to be sandwich, a drink or something from amazon.  It’s the food, the coffee or the book which is the thing you want – it’s like a present that you unwrap and enjoy.  The packaging is just the wrapping and has no value.  You discard it; you throw it away.  This is the direct opposite from what’s inside which you keep.  Even the physicality is interesting in that you hold or consume what’s inside and you throw the packaging away from you.  It’s a negative act.

I once heard a man talk about something similar – about getting people to stop chewing gum.  He was saying that the act of chewing gum is an act of rebellion (semiotically, I think).  It’s to do with movies and teenagers and a lot more probably knowing semiotics.  Anyway, his point was that in order to encourage people to stop chewing gum, you’re not going to have a lot of luck if you tell them to stop chewing gum.   This is because if the act of chewing is an act of rebellion, you’re hardly going to start conforming if someone tells you to stop.

Anyway, back to the point and if recycling is a negative act, the question for me is how do you turn it into a positive act?  How can you take it from being dull, boring and a chore for do-gooders into a fun, exciting thing to enjoy?  Now, maybe this is about getting points and prizes for who can recycle the most, or making the bins interesting and suprising so they play a tune or cheer or give you sweets or tell you a joke when you put something in them.  They’ll be hundreds of ideas to play with but I think the task is to make it the act of recycling the wrapping part of the experience of enjoying the total product – i.e. you enjoy the can of Coke AND you enjoy throwing it in the recycling, rather than one being ‘positive’ and the other being ‘negative’.

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Sustainability. The end, but the means?

I’ve been having a few chats recently about the fact that the sustainability debate, in the UK at least, is confined to a minority.  The sort of person who reads The Guardian, watches Channel 4 and knows that there is social value in being a globally-concerned individual.  That’s all well and good, but whilst they might be the heart and soul of the debate and movement (if it could be called a movement), they’re too small in numbers to make any real difference.  The action has to be in the mainstream.  In terms of media, it has to be with The Sun and ITV1.  The question is, how do you make that happen?  How do you get sustainability to become a mainstream issue?

Government regulation aside, there seem to be two options.  Popularise the existing narrative.  Or change the narrative.  The first option is to make ‘being green’ more popular; more attractive; more socially acceptable.  This is entirely possible, but it hasn’t happened yet – there seems no appetite for it so far, but who’s to say that there will be in future?  However, I don’t see Ant and Dec giving a way an electric car on their new gameshow before sticking up their ‘How To Be Green’ wallchart from the centre pages of The Sun any time soon.  But it might happen.

In thinking about the possibility of being an alternative narrative, it seems important to make a distinction between the means and the end.  At the end of the day, we, as a nation (and a species), need to live in a more sustainable way.  This is the desirable ‘end’.  It’s the ‘means’ to achieve that end that I’m interested in.

To use an analogy – and one that helped get us in this mess in the first place –  is that in the 1950s President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors stated “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods”.  So, the ‘end’ was an thriving economy based on the production of more ‘stuff’.  How do you make that happen?  There seem to be a number of different ‘means’ that could have been used to achieve this.  It was the 1950’s so you could have created a narrative about it being your duty as an American to buy things in the ideological fight against Communism.  Or you could could create a narrative where people would feel more altruistic by encouraging them to buy bigger and better gifts for friends and relatives.  Or you could create a narrative whereby you can achieve greater personal fulfillment and happiness by buying more things.  It seems that the latter was the primary narrative that was chosen as the ‘means’.  It certainly wasn’t a narrative around ‘please buy more because our economy depends on it’.  So, the means were different to the ends.

So, why, when it comes to the issue of sustainability, should it be any different?

Now, it’s likely that it will be a combination of narratives to help achieve the sustainable end that’s required, but looking beyond the current means = end thinking might move things into the mainstream a little bit quicker.

If you know what those alternative narratives are, you might just help save the world.

Selling Short

Legislate that full-time workers should work a shorter, 4 day week (or less).

This is an interesting idea from Pat Kane in the Sunday Herald.  It’s interesting in that it brings the impact of living a more sustainable life into people’s lives today.  To me, this has always been a key problem with getting people to act more sustainably because Climate Change is typically framed in a global, negative, future way (see Gidden’s Paradox in the ‘Making Climate Change Fun’ post).  But, by getting people to work a 4 day week with its inherent pros and cons, it makes the issue of sustainability immediate, real and tangible.

By working a 4 day week, people will have more time to spend with friends, family and their community – proven to make you happier than buying more stuff.  And you’ve got less money to buy more stuff.  So, you take away with one hand, but give with the other.

The other thing I like is that a shorter working week is an easier ‘sell’ than the way acting ‘sustainability’ is usually sold.  This is because rather than being about ‘use less’ or ‘have less’, it can be sold on more positive lines like work less or have more time with your friends and family.  It seems a rare ‘sell’ that sustainability can have a positive social benefit on people’s lives today, en masse.

Is all of this social engineering?  Of course, but then it was social engineering – consumerism – that got us in this mess in the first place.

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You need to say more than one thing to get people to change

Went to the IPA last night to hear a talk about the anti-smoking case study that’s been short-listed for the 2010 IPA Effectiveness Awards.  It was a panelist of the contributors and they started with a fact which determined the way they approached the whole campaign – that 76% of smokers need more than one reason to stop smoking.  So, given that advertising theory states that you should only have one message at a time, how can you give mulitple messages at the same time and hope that they’ll stick?

The answer was to involve various parties, all with an interest in people stopping smoking and all capable of coming at the problem from a different angle yet able to advertise in and around the same time.  Those parties were the British Heart Foundation (BHF), the NHS and the Cancer Research UK.  Each came at the problem from their distinct point of view and with a different tone of voice.  In combination, they created an ‘additive and complementary effect’.

There were another couple of points that were interesting too.  Anti-smoking legislation (e.g. no smoking in public places) and taxation (now over £6 a pack) obviously work, but its advertising that provides the emotional prompts that work with these things. 

Smoking is irrational, because rationally, you know it’ll kill you.  So, you shouldn’t use rational advertising – you need stories told with emotion as they will ‘work harder and last longer’.

So, what does this mean from a sustainability point of view?  It seems that the anti-smoking lobby have moved from one message to change one behaviour to mulitple-messages to change one behaviour.  However, when it comes to sustainability, there are multiple behaviours to change.   What to do?  One suggestion the panel had was to wrap different behaviours into one campaign – apparently the ‘Change4Life’ campaign contains 8 messages.  However, I’m not sure that this is the best way – with ‘Change4Life’, the messages seem to get lost as they are not individually distinctive enough in the same way that the anti-smoking messages were that were covered here.  On this, I can see the benefit of using advertising as it can use emotion to reverse irrational behaviour, but who would pay for those multiple messages, productions and airtime?  The government is cutting spending, and there don’t seem to be as many charities that are focussed on this issue as they’re are with anti-smokng to pick up the tab (WWF? Oxfam? Carbon Trust?  Maybe)

Anyway, it was an interesting talk and here’s the link to the 20 min video they made to talk about the case study.

And here are some of the ads:

British Heart Foundation ‘Fatty Cigarettes’:

NHS testimonal (there’s loads of these):

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