London feels a long way away, these days, and the years that I spent there are starting to feel like a long time ago. But I’ll be back briefly at the end of next week – and the good people at Impact Hub Islington have invited me to give a talk on Friday night (27th).
I want to take this as an opportunity to look back on the years I spent within London’s ‘social innovation’ scene, to share some stories, as a well as a few reflections made with the (possible) benefit of hindsight.
That loft space behind Angel tube station feels like a particularly appropriate venue. I remember my first visit, when it was simply The Hub. I’d come down from Sheffield with my friend Dan, looking to connect with others navigating the borderland between activism and technology, DIY culture and democratic structures. There wasn’t exactly a name for that borderland, but when we got to The Hub, it seemed like it had an address.
Over the following years, I remember coming back there to host a School of Everything breakfast discussion with Charlie Leadbeater, and another time when Gustavo Esteva polarised a room with his arguments about international development – and it was at an open meeting in the Hub Islington boardroom that we chose the name for the network that became Spacemakers.
So one way or another, it was a regular stop on the London circuit that I became part of: a circuit that became associated with the term ‘social innovation’.
It’s hardly a term that passes the Mum Test (has your mum heard of it? can you explain it to her? can she explain it to her friends?) and I guess one of the questions I want to ask is, does that matter? Does the language we use to talk about our work need to be an everyday language – and what happens when it isn’t?
Then there’s another question I want to have a go at…
I remember being struck when I read Geoff Mulgan, one of the people who framed ‘social innovation’, writing about how its practitioners ‘draw on rhetorics of progress’. There was a knot here, for me. Because during the same years that my projects were being held up at regular intervals as examples of social innovation, I also wrote a manifesto that starts out with a critique of ‘the myth of progress’. That’s not exactly a big deal – Geoff could be mistaken, or I could be self-contradictory (I frequently am), or we could be talking about different things. But I think that this little knot opens onto a larger question.
Anything that’s framed in terms of a rhetoric of progress today is going to feel quite distant from the experience of everyday life for a lot of people. Across the developed countries, most of us now believe that young people are growing up poorer than their parents. This breakdown of the promise of economic progress is the common factor in phenomena as different as the Indignados and the Five Star Movement, UKIP and Russell Brand’s revolutionary turn.
So it’s in this context that I want to talk about what it might mean to work for change, in the absence of progress. Is it necessary or helpful to frame our projects in terms of an optimism that may just alienate people? Can we find and hold on to a sense that change is possible, that things don’t have to be the way they are, without that being grounded in any grander narrative of cumulative historical progress?
According to the announcement that’s gone out from Impact Hub Islington, we’re going to have a lively discussion – so I’m hoping that you’ll come down and make that a reality. I’m especially hoping to see some familiar faces from my days around the social innovation world!
People sometimes ask if I miss London – and the honest answer is, I don’t miss the pace of life or the time it took to get anywhere or the amount of coffee I used to drink, but I do miss the people I used to spend time with.
The Practical Stuff
The event takes place from 7pm till 9pm, Friday 27th June.
Places are limited and bookable through Eventbrite. There’s a suggested donation of £4 on the door.
Drinks will be provided at the event – and we’ll find somewhere nearby to carry on the conversations (and the drinks) afterwards.