This image is from the Olafur Eliasson exhibition The Weather Project — (Image credit “The Sun” by AlanFleming is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

InJanuary the Collaborate team set out our new year’s resolution for 2019: to be bold about the future we want to create. This year we are lifting our heads from the day to day of the projects and research we are working on to ask the more fundamental question about what we, and our partners, are ultimately working towards. If we pay closer attention to the shifts in thinking, practice and culture that we are helping to bring about through our work with our partners, what will we learn?

We have framed our inquiry around the idea of the Collaborative Society: an organising principle for the shifts we are seeing in the ways that we think not just about social change and the future of public services (where we specialise), but also the future of the economy, society and the ways in which we organise, and relate to one another. (You can find out more here.)

Our thinking, guided by a series of questions, has been developing over the last seven months, through our work with places around the country, and through the connections we are making with others exploring similar and connected concepts. We want to make sure we are socialising this thinking, even in its nascent form. And we hope that by inviting feedback and creating discussion we will grow the movement for a Collaborative Society.

This blog relates principally to the first of our questions: What new assumptions, understanding and thinking underpin the Collaborative Society? We think that the root of this question is about the mindset through which we view, organise and understand the world.

We have been dominated by a competitive mindset for so long that it takes some effort even to step back and see how it has shaped us: it is deeply engrained in our culture, our social norms, our economy, our conception of society, the stories we tell ourselves to interpret the world and our place in it.

This mindset underpins the way we think about multiple, distinct but related areas. For example, our capitalist economy is based on a competitive view of what it takes to succeed, to get ahead, for businesses to thrive. And the success of those businesses is measured principally by economic growth: shareholder value and nationally in GDP. We chase growth in these numbers, despite the increasing body of evidence of the human and environmental costs that accompany this success. In this worldview our natural resources are positioned as being in service to the economy. We therefore compete over access to them and the right to deploy them (oil, coal, land, water, oceans, forests), with no real view on their value in terms other than economic.

Our social worldview has also been shaped through this competitive mindset, whether you attribute this to our interpretation of Darwinism (‘survival of the fittest’) or more recently to Thatcherism. We underplay our responsibilities to each other in our communities, and our shared ownership of the challenges we face, from social isolation to knife crime, to our responsibility for the cleanliness of our streets. Our education system pits schools and students against each other and teaches children to pass exams, not to work together to solve problems. We prioritise private home ownership over shared public spaces. Even our first-past-the-post political system embeds a simplistic ‘winners and losers’ model at the very core of our public discourse. The New Public Management approach to public services and the introduction of market mechanisms of competition and choice under New Labour are part of how this mindset has been embedded in other areas too.

This mindset has infiltrated the way we view and understand leadership and organisational forms. Our traditional privileging of ‘heroic’ forms of leadership can be seen in everything from our politics to our super hero movies — the appealing and comforting notion that we can be saved by an individual with special qualities. And so often ‘leaders’ equate with the heroic ‘winners’ — the winner of the election, the winner of the prize, the winner of the war. Surely the appeal of Trump and his ilk is at least partly the comfort of the paternal, heroic-saviour figure, in the face of the growing complexity and interconnectedness of the world, spouting one simple message: Make America Great Again!

The great appeal of this worldview is that it is simple. We can be saved. We know when we’re succeeding, and we know what it takes. Not all of us can do it, sure, but we have become comfortable with the notion of the ‘losers’, whether they are individuals, communities, places, entire countries or the natural world.

But this model works for the few, not the many. It is unable to respond to complex challenges, local and global, and it has caused damage to our society, our planet, our human relationships, our story of us.

Of course an alternative mindset has always existed. You could argue that we have simply privileged one account of the world over others. The notion of ‘paternalism’ has already become unfashionable in more recent thinking about the relationship between citizens and the state. Anthropologists will highlight the different forms of organising within different cultures, historians will point to the ideological battles of the 20th century as versions of different world views striving for prominence. So yes, the competitive worldview we are describing here is arguably Western, patriarchal and capitalist, and these are not historically uncontested ideas. Yet they remain dominant.

So what if we were to embrace a different worldview as our organising principle? A collaborative worldview, rather than a competitive one? How would this change the ways that we think, act, and interpret the world? What would this mean for the stories we tell, the leaders we support, the ways we seek to create positive change? And what could help us shift our mindset?

In our first blog we set out some of the reasons why we want to do this thinking now: the moment of disruption in UK politics brought about by Brexit and the deeper concerns about the forces that are shaping our lives: globalisation, mass migration, demographic change, the impact of digital technology, social and economic inequality. There is no doubt that the ability of our traditional political system to respond to these issues is stretched, at best.

One issue seems perhaps more significant than all of these in its potential to alter our fundamental worldview at the moment: climate change. The climate crisis confronts us with some truths that are challenging to our very understanding of the world: if we are to understand and respond to the climate crisis, then we are forced to engage with the very connectedness of ourselves as humans and the natural planet. Put simply: our actions affect the natural systems in complex ways which we are only beginning to understand. We are not isolated actors: we are part of complex systems. The planet’s natural resources cannot simply be deployed for economic advantage: there are consequences of our actions.

This means we also have responsibilities. To the planet, yes, but also to each other. It means we must take action at multiple levels: the individual, the local, the national and the global. We must use the power we have. We need movements as well as government. No heroic leader alone is going to save us: we must all play our part, and significant reform of entrenched behaviours and practices will be required.

Fundamentally, we need to reappraise our understanding of the world, the stories we tell, as well as challenge our dominant economic paradigm. We need a collaborative mindset. A collaborative mindset allows us to see that we are all part of a bigger whole, with connections and responsibilities towards each other that mean we must think through the long-term consequences of our actions and act purposefully through these connections.

If the climate crisis nudges a mindset shift, then perhaps we will start to apply this mindset to other areas, and this may reveal rich insights into how the way we organise and operate has shaped society as we know it. We may begin to see an evolution in our understanding of the connectedness of human systems as well as ecological, the connections between our economic model and the environmental and social challenges we face, the inherent complexity of the challenges we are confronting, and the shared responsibilities we have to each other on multiple levels.

So what does all this have to do with the work of Collaborate? We are not climate change activists; we are nurturing new thinking and practice in the field of public services and social change. However, we think this collaborative mindset already underpins much of what we are working on with our partners, and might be the common foundation we are seeing in our work, as illustrated by these common themes we’ve identified in our projects:

– forming new relationships — between institutions and individuals based on new social contracts of reciprocal responsibility

– rebalancing power — between state and citizens, between different layers of government, between different sectors and even within organisations (especially traditional hierarchies)

– tackling complex problems through collaboration — rather than through heroic leadership or quick-fixes which fail to provide sustainable solutions

– understanding problems through the lens of systems not silos — drawing the boundaries of our investigation wider, embracing the complexity of challenges and exploring deep root causes

– growing more collaborative behaviours, relationships, organisations and leadership, to effect and enable change through networks, movements and relationships as well as through organisations and hierarchies

– ‘Thinking big’: looking beyond the service lens towards a holistic vision for the future of place. A future which includes an inclusive economy, and one which puts participation and collaboration at the heart of communities.

For example, the Gateshead’s public service reform prototypes are about developing caring relationships between residents and those working in public services, shifting traditional power dynamics and supporting people in ways that are ‘bespoke by default’. Oldham’s long-standing Cooperative Council agenda (and the Cooperative Councils movement), Barking and Dagenham’s holistic approach to creating a participatory culture, inclusive growth and public service reform, and the Wigan Deal are all examples of places applying a new approach and mindset (we did not work on the Deal, though we’re fully signed-up admirers!).

These are a few green shoots from our own projects, but we have identified plenty of others on a larger scale, from New Zealand’s well-being budget, to the forms of organising used by the Extinction Rebellion movement, to the growing interest in citizen’s assemblies as a means of navigating complex issues.

Perhaps a collaborative mindset is the foundation from which an alternative future grows. Perhaps it underpins our future public services, our economy, our philanthropy, our education system, our response to complex challenges such as climate change and inequality, our future politics and our day to day interactions with each other. And we think it is already being nurtured in the organisations and places with which Collaborate works.

We will continue to share our thinking as it develops and, in the meantime, look out for our Collaborative Society podcast series in October, in which nine inspirational people, from social activists to politicians and public service leaders share their own perspective on these questions.

If you want to discuss any of the above, please do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

Anna and the Collaborate team