Category Archives: Innovation

“Entrench warfare” or “why I don’t bother with one-off trainings” #smugosphere #inertia

A few years ago I organised a one-off training session on research for activists. It went well and had … no discernible impact on how anyone did anything.  So it goes.  I reflected on this – and other training I have been part of as a punter. And I came to the conclusion that unless you are part of a group that values the new skill/knowledge, then whatever shiny new training you have been on will simply not become embedded, and you and your group will stick to what you know.  This is not a particularly startling observation.  But now at least I have a citation I can back it up with when I am whining about the smugosphere

It’s from a bloody brilliant paper –

Perkmann, M. and Spcier, A. 2008. How are management fashions institutionalized? The role of institutional work. Human Relations, Vol. 61 (6), pp.811-844.

This bit

Zeitz et al. (1999) distinguish between the transitory adoption of a practice and its enduring ‘entrenchment’. Entrenchment is defined as the institutionalization of a practice to the extent that it is unlikely to be abandoned. They argue that while the mere adoption of a practice indicates the exposure to a fashion, entrenchment is required to induce a lasting change of practice. They identify five ‘pillars’ by which a fashionable concept can become entrenched: models (spurring imitation), culture (promoting identification), education (again spurring imitation), regulative/coercive influences (exerting power) and technical-rational influences (providing recipes for improving performance). Assuming that such entrenchment can occur at different levels of analysis, from individual, organizational, interorganizational to the societal level, they propose a set of ‘indicators’ that can be used for empirically assessing as to whether a practice has become entrenched: formalization, compatibility (with other practices), depth, systematic coherence (with other concepts and strategies) and the existence of ‘webs of interdependencies’ (Zeitz et al., 1999).
(Perkmann and Spicer, 2008: 814/5)

And that citation is this – Zeitz, G., Mittal, V. & McAulay, B. Distinguishing adoption and entrenchment of management practices: A framework for analysis. Organization Studies, 1999, 20(5), 741–76.

So,  a while back there was talk of me doing a training or two with a group. But since only one person in that group knew me/valued the training, and he wasn’t going to be sticking around, (he and I) decided it was at best a waste of time, energy and morale for all concerned, and at worst actively harmful (destroys the credibility of innovation, turns it into a ritualistic set-up-to-fail thing).

Doomed, I tell you, all doomed.  So what.

(Wind) Power to the People – Denmark, Tvind and bricolage

So, two years ago I read this

Hendry, C. and Harborne, P. 2011. Changing the view of wind power development: More than “bricolage.” Research Policy 40,, pp. 778-789.

and wrote this about it –

This was mentioned in a reading group/symposium yesterday by one of my supervisors. It’s a response/elaboration to a paper by Garud and Karnoe comparing the Danish and US wind energy industries and how they came about. Hendry and Harbone heartlessly puncture the lovely romantic notions that Tinkerers Matter throughout the process (they did, but once you get to a certain point, there’s no substitute for “science” and deep pockets.) Reminds me a bit of Manuel de Landa in “War in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” where he makes the point that there are tactics, but strategy will overcome them, and there is strategy, but in the end, logistics – being able to feed, clothe, arm and replace members of your army at a more efficient rate than your enemy – is what matters.

Well, the Danish wind industry is the gift that keeps on giving, if you are interested (like me) in niches that become regimes and ‘bottom-up’ pressure that actually, you know, ‘works’.

The latest I have found is this paper, which is brilliant.

Hoffman, J. 2013. Theorizing power in transition studies: the role of creativity and novel practices in structural change. Policy Science, Vol. 46, pp.257-275.

Just brilliant [full disclosure – for two years of my life (minus a year here and there) I lived in the shadow of the Tvind windmill. True story.].

Here are a couple of empirical chunks.  Far more interesting (well, as interesting) is the theoretical contribution, around ‘carrier waves’ and also the shortcomings of a multi-level framework,and the assumptions that innovations just, you know, happen.  –

Because the MLP assumes the presence of a ‘novel practice’, it hides from view how actors draw upon regimes and incorporate exogenous trends in shaping and defining what the [page break] ‘novelty’ is about and how it relates to the regime.
(Hoffman, 2013: 262-3)

But that’s for another time.

I shall distinguish between two key episodes of interaction between wind energy experiments and outside groups, both within and outside the energy sector. Although both very crucial for further development, the two episodes differed in terms of entrepreneurial activities, strategies, and the outcomes. In the first episode (1950s), entrepreneur Johannes Juul put up wind energy experiments in collaboration with power company SEAS. Even though the later popular 200-kW Gedser turbine resulted from these experiments, the energy sector’s support for wind energy waned and wind energy production in the 1960s was literally left to fall into disrepair. Danish wind energy experienced a second coming, however, when parts of the Danish democracy movement in the 1960s and 1970s adopted wind energy as a form of decentralized energy production. In this episode, wind energy became primarily an affair of the democracy movement, with little involvement of traditional energy companies. In contrast to the collaborative relationship between Juul and incumbent actors, wind energy actors in the democracy movement moved into an antagonistic relationship with incumbents; wind energy actors in the democracy movement openly contested incumbent practices and presented themselves as a decentralized and democratic alternative. In its decentralized form, wind energy production grew to substantial proportions resulting in a relatively strong industry that obtained a market share of half the world market for wind turbines.
(Hoffman, 2013: 259)

and

How do these insights help us make sense of the dynamic interplay between actions at the level of novel practices and power? Let us now draw on the case of Denmark to answer this question. The rising prices of import fuels in the 1950s formed a structural power that discredited incumbent practices and raised expectations about novel practices. Among others, the entrepreneur Juul proposed wind energy as a complement to the use of imported fuels, which regime players appreciated as a way to tackle the increasing costs of imported fuels. In collaboration with the power supplier SEAS and a Wind Energy Committee (Vindkraftudvalget) from the ministry of trade, Juul could draw on sufficient technical and financial resources to start experiments. This relational power resulted in the later widely used 200-kW Gedser wind turbine. At least for a while, rising prices for import fuels formed a carrier wave for novel energy practice. However, just when wind turbines were ready for upscaling, nuclear energy became a serious alternative and regime players’ expectations for wind energy practices were lowered. As a result, all wind energy projects were cut short and resources were withdrawn. Wind energy practices were left to ‘hobbyists’, bereft of relational power.
(Hoffman, 2013: 261)

Babies, bathwater, innovation and Gramsci…

The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (a mouthful, I know) runs internal seminars where academics get to test out new ideas/reboot old ones and generally reflect on the direction(lessness) of travel for innovation policy, science and technology policy and much else. It can be dreadful, but when it works – and it did yesterday – it is great fun and a learning opportunity with few if any equals.

Yesterday’s seminar, the first for the year, was entitled

Innovation policy at stake: should we throw the baby out with the bath water

It was delivered by Prof Philippe Laredo. The blurb went thus-

Very harsh questions emerge here and there on our cumulative knowledge on research and innovation policies. Put together they drive to ask whether we should throw the baby with the bath waters, now that the term is all over the place.

My take on this debate can be summed up around 4 main questions

  • The first is both historical and evaluative: there has not been much discussion about the gathering in one policy of ‘science’ and ‘innovation’ policies. Is it still useful? Has it ever been productive as a sectoral policy? Should not we rather consider another grouping focused on capability building regrouping higher education and (academic) research?

  • The second requires to delve again into history and the birth of S&T policies, which were mostly warranted by ‘mission oriented’ objectives. What has changed when discussing ‘societal’ challenges?

  • The third question, probably the most problematic for us in management, deals with the underlying assumptions (linked to manufacturing industries) on which the portfolios and policy mixes for innovation policies are based. Can we go on, facing politicians, keep telling the same stories on portfolios of instruments and policy mixes?

  • And the last one, I face more and more, who is this policymaker? Is not it too easy an answer to say that all is co-created or that governance is the answer?

I am not going to try to capture all that was said – and I may have got some things wrong, in which case I will correct them when told. This is mostly just bullet points of what was said, and the Q and A, with some [additional comments in square brackets]. Its purpose? Mostly as an aide-memoire for me, so After The Thesis Is Written I can come back and plug some gaps in my innovation theory knowledge.

Presentation

Laredo: We need to think of science policy and innovation policy separately, and especially research and innovation policy.
Should we focus on sustainability? On what is left of previous policies?
Johan Schot paper from 2015 points to 90% of policies not working. [This one perhaps?]
Policy makers are pretty unsatisfied with academic output. We seem stuck in the manufacturing paradigm – from the 1980s onwards, same recommendations (Laredo read over 70 papers, all with pretty much interchangeable recommendations – see Q and A for more on this.)

Why do we stick to old paradigms, defend failed policies? [Mental inertia? Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, or citing Rogers.]

Laredo says four phases of innovation policy
1. collective industrial research
2.  early 80s, collaborative programs, university/industry
3. Support SMEs innovation (directly, tax credits)
4. Support the ‘start-up’ ecology.

Of course most policies a combination of these four [Cohen’s Garbage Can model from 1972, bricolage, palimpsests]

Btw, the tax credit loss to state revenues is ENORMOUS – $100bn a year, (EU and USA combined).

Look up: SPRU stuff on ‘Hidden Innovation

Remember, growing concentration of industries (i.e. fewer players, very dominant firms) means that “competition policy” doesn’t fit reality [Thomas Kuhn would be laughing]

There’s a changed relationship between producers and consumers [“Prosumers” etc]

60% of investment going into circulation of products and interactions with users, rather than ‘basic’ R and D.

Shifting role of users in driving innovation – crowd sourcing, political consumption, social innovation, sharing economy, changes in ownership/consumption patterns. Put all of these marginal things together and you have a MAJOR change in the socio-economic articulation. But we’re not studying it…(well enough)

Innovation is coming from the regions, not from the nation states. Politicians (regional), seeking re-election are asking the questions from the outside. Laredo laments ‘I have nothing to tell them’. They say to him ‘well, these conferences with 100s of experts – what do they actually achieve.’ Laredo read lots of reports and then had to agree with them. He says ‘our policy agenda [i.e. what and how innovation scholars study] should change deeply.’

There has been failure at the national level, government and bureaucratic.

[Laura Tingle, in her Quarterly Essay Political Amnesia, deals precisely with this in the country that is the setting for my case-study- Australia. The capacity to remember, let alone act, of the Federal state has been dramatically eroded over the last 20 years.]

They wash their hands of it by sub-contracting it out.

Public banks are becoming major/core actors in innovation funding, but barely studied at all (Laredo says he found three papers on it in last five years).

Innovation policy is not [illegible! In synch with?] science and tech policy.

Q and A

I am going to invoke the Chatham House rule for three reasons – simplicity (self-explanatory), politics – people there were asking questions in a way that they didn’t think would be reported for ‘everyone’ [going by this blog’s normal hit rate, about 5 people] to read forever – and accuracy – if I got stuff wrong, it should appear as a misrepresentation. And I got stuff wrong.

Q. You imply there’s a lot of bathwater and very little baby.
A. Yes, sort of, and remember, the academics didn’t invent some of the constructs we use, they came from policy experiments in the real world.

Q. Most R and D is about D (development). What keeps Science Technology and Innovation together, why don’t they break up – because science needs innovation to justify its budget. Think of it as a marriage. So, if a divorce, how would we develop useful innovation policy?
A: how did they merge, look at discursive, governmental and administrative levels. Look at Vannevar Bush onwards, and in the 1963 report [don’t know which] there was no mention of science, only strategic areas for government.

[Someone who knows (a helluvalot) about these things pointed me to this paper –
THE UNITY OF SCIENCE—TECHNOLOGY byMELVIN KRANZBERG American Scientist Vol. 55, No. 1 (MARCH 1967), pp. 48-66]

Q UK Science policy became substitute for technology policy because in the late 70s/early 80s it became impossible to talk about ‘intervention’/industrial policy.
A. For employment we need incremental innovation over and above ‘breakthrough’ innovation.
We have no policy instruments for dealing with the three transformations. Things are analogous to where agriculture/manufacturing was in France in 1965. Agriculture was the major employer, so if basing report on employment would have looked at agriculture.

[Gramsci – The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

[Machiavelli-
“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

Q Who is the policy maker? How do you find them? And what is with this quantitative R and D funding obsession?
A – Second question first – In 1963 only one OECD country had a minister of science. By 1968 all but the USA had one. And there were gazillions of statisticians under them, measuring inputs (because you can do that easily) – Fraschetti manual” (sp?).

[Anecdote of the cop who finds a drunken man crawling around on hands and knees under lamp-post.
Cop – what are you doing?
Drunk – looking for my keys.
Cop – did you lose them here
Drunk – no, I lost them over there in the alley where it is dark
Cop – then why are you looking here?
Drunk – the light’s better.

As for policy makers – fascinating to see the loss of substantive competence in all governments. Fewer people around, less experience. So therefore they go through procedural processes because they don’t actually understand the issues, and then they delegate to actors [This has been PRECISELY my experience trying to get Manchester City Council to act on climate change].

Q – there are some books – The Innovation Illusion [by Erixon and Weigel]  that argue that there has been, outside of ICT, a slow down in innovation, and fewer new entrants because the incumbents have figured out how to rig the game in their own favour. See also THE Corruption of Capitalism – rentier capitalism, a few big firms/oligopolies. They get tax credits in the billions. So, big firms benefiting, getting R and D funding from tax payer for stuff that they’d do anyway, and using power to suppress [competence-destroying] innovation.
A – You can go back to the 1920s – Keynes and Kondratieff arguing that progress is slowing down. Progress is in a few areas that have a deep impact that transforms the rest of the economy [William Gibson – the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed]. So for example, electrification does this, or railways – Alfred Chandler’s book The Visible Hand.

Articulation between breakthrough disruption in areas that then transform the economic fabric. So progress not disappearing, just in specific bits.

Q – Robert J Gordon on quantifying ICT sector

Q – But is ICT same as steel? And do those numbers include robotics and Artificial Intelligence

Q – He doesn’t use data on things that haven’t happened yet.

Laredo – innovation policy in 1970s and 80s was ‘how can this new gizmo be generalised. Now it’s about the generalisation [sp?] of ongoing stuff mostly, and breakthroughs a second focus.

Q – What earlier questioner said is right – the role of powerful actors and powerful non-state actors is actually very important

Suzanna Aborra Capable actors. [Need to check this]

Q – maybe we need to look at Trump – he will definitely be shaking things up. Tweets as a way of creating scandal, forcing otherwise more powerful actors to change [I think this references Ford’s decision not to continue building cars in Mexico]

Q – need to look at market power to suppress competitors, look at specific sectors.

Q – around competition policy, market creation, we [innovation scholars] have missed a trick.

Reference – Innovation Paradox

Verdict: Wow. Normally, I dislike Q and As where it’s mostly the Big Beasts doing the talking . At a conference it can be especially tedious – people showing off to mark their turf, impress/intimidate their frenemies at other institutions. There was none of that in this though – these are people who know each other well, have regular interactions and – crucially – were engaging very thoughtfully indeed on the basis of – if you add it up – hundreds of years of thinking and writing about innovation.  Starts the MIOIR seminar series off with a bang.

Suspicious minds and climate policy

Goering is alleged to have said that whenever he heard the word culture he reached for his revolver. For me, whendver I hear the word ‘trap’ I think of my Elvis. Specifically, ‘We’re caught in a trap. I can’t walk out.…’


Meanwhile, this from an article

Nair, S. and Howlett. 2015. From robustness to resilience: avoiding policy traps in the long term. Sustainability Science,

is good

“A lock-in trap is characterized by low capacity for change, high resilience to change, and high connectedness among structural variables which may preclude change or render it rather expensive (Ranger 2013; Allison and Hobbs 2004). Policies typically emerge as ‘bundles’ or ‘mixes’ of policy tools through processes of policy change, with addition and subtraction of elements over time (Howlett and Rayner 2013). Any change in policy response, however, will typically be faced with resistance by stakeholders and beneficiaries of status quo policy arrangements. This makes it difficult to introduce any radical changes in the adaptation policy mix even if new policy objectives are put forth (Kern and Howlett 2009). Innovations for example would need to compete with existing institutions that have already been imbibed into the socio-economic context and attempt to fit through processes of ‘‘learning, coercion and negotiation’’ (Rip and Kemp 1998; Christiansen et al. 2011).”

And of course, the mother of all carbon lock-ins, from all the physical, political, psychological infrastructure. You are are now leaving the Holocene, as the amazing David Pope cartoon goes…

holocene

So it goes. So it went. This too shall pass…

And those citations

Allison HE, Hobbs RJ (2004) Resilience, adaptive capacity, and the ‘‘Lock-in Trap’’ of the Western Australian agricultural region. Ecol Soc 9(1):3. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss1/art3.

Christiansen L, Olhoff A, Trærup S (eds) (2011) Technologies for adaptation: perspectives and practical experiences. UNEP Risø Centre, Roskilde

Kern F, Howlett M (2009) Implementing transition management as policy reforms: a case study of the Dutch energy sector. Policy Sci 42:391–408

Howlett M, Rayner J (2013) Patching vs packaging in policy formulation: assessing policy portfolio design. Politics Gov 1(2):170–182

Ranger N (2013) Topic guide. Adaptation: decision making under uncertainty. Evidence on Demand, UK, p. 86

Rip A, Kemp R (1998) Technological Change. In: Rayner Steve, Malone Liz (eds) Human choice and climate change, Vol 2 resources and technology. Batelle Press, Washington D.C., pp 327–399

The absence of structure is hierarchy

I went to a meeting (won’t say if it was activist or academic or whatever – that’s not the point).

There was explicitly ‘no agenda’.

And we were then, without warning, asked to introduce ourselves (say what we had done, were doing and what we wanted to do around this particular issue/topic). And did they give us a) a couple of minutes to collect our thoughts and b) an upper-time limit.

Nope, instead it was one of the organisers (or rather, people who called the meeting) saying ‘well, I may as well start’. They then spoke for a few minutes, while we were all trying to listen and think about what we would say.

And guess what – the people who spoke the longest (who basically just mentally Ctrl C and Ved their comments) were the highest status ones. And they spoke for a looooong time. The lower status people spoke very little.

And guess what – after we had done those intros, the conversation came to be dominated by those who had spoken longest in the intro.

Who. Would. Of. Thunk. It.

Afterwards I thought about how one of the smartest people present (also perhaps the kindest) had said not a word. This person is perhaps an introvert. They don’t do the whole song and dance thing, so if you don’t create mechanisms (institutions – informal norms and also formal ones) to facilitate their input, you won’t get it. And you will end up with mediocre decisions, arrived at after un-necessary faffage. And so it came to pass.

This: The absence of structure is hierarchy. Just the hierarchy of prior status (mostly class, race, gender, age, confidence, extrovertism).

You can choose not to see that, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true, it doesn’t mean the power isn’t there. FFS.

Last week in #Australian #Climate Politics – a bluffer’s guide

What happened?
turnbullThis week the government executed a massive policy backflip and its backbenchers weakened a leader who they despise and will probably knife quite soon. The opposition rolled its eyes and sighed and secretly squealed with delight. There were assurances that Australia is on track to meet its international obligations on emissions reductions when in fact it is a gazillion miles away.  Meanwhile the media piled in and business stood there mouths agape like a goldfish whose bowl is ever more full of… dirty water.  Economists slammed inch-think reports on desks. The scientists and environmentalists bleated about ecological catastrophe, but everybody ignored them for the fun of the horse-race politics.

So, a normal week in Australian climate politics then?
An abnormally normal week perhaps, but yes, point taken.

Then why is everyone running around as if it’s the end of the world?
Because – as Lenore Taylor has been exhaustively reporting (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), the last environment minister, Greg Hunt, had spent ages trying to slip the framework – or the necessary ambiguity – for an “emissions intensity scheme”  into the government’s policy. Of course, it had to be done in a way that wouldn’t lead to a bloodbath.  Julie Bishop had pointed to possible carbon trading after 2020 when she was in Paris last year for some international meeting. It was a very very badly kept secret, but economists, business lobbyists and even some greenies hoped it might work.  

And?
On Monday morning, at just after 8am in an ABC radio station,  it all went Very Horribly Wrong.

Yeah, I think I heard something about that. So the new environment minister – Josh Frydenberg’s few words- “We know that there’s been a large number of bodies that have recommended an emissions intensity scheme, which is effectively a baseline and credit scheme. We’ll look at that.”–   are as fatal as Gillard’s February 24 2011 ill-fated agreement that a fixed price for an emissions trading scheme could be considered a ‘tax’?
We will see.  Probably.  But before using poor Josh as a pinata, remember the wiggle room  to skirt around the issue was always going to shrink.  The can had been kicked down the road as far as it could. Someone was going to have to piss or get off the pot.  The boil was so big that it…

Yes, yes, thanks, we get it. But surely people like Julie Bishop and Greg Hunt manned… sorry, staffed the barricades, belted out ‘La Marseillaise‘ and stiffened their innovative leader’s spine when the spittle started flying?
Strangely, no.

How odd. So,moving on –  which pundits said what?
Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that ink was spilt in the Saturday papers, and electrons set to work. The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor reminded Malcolm of his fine words in 2009. The Fin’s Laura Tingle had already commented that the Turnbull government had achieved a ‘rare’ trifecta.

Eh?
Oh, more Tingle gold, you know – or you should – “governments sometimes get policy right but the politics wrong; or the politics right but then stuff up on process. But the statements of Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg – and the even more strident statements of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday – have managed to stuff policy, process and politics all in one deft manoeuvre.”

Annabel Crabb had fun, sharpening her knives in that kitchen of hers, with a wry piece about political correctness and trigger warnings preventing proper debate of issues.  Jacqueline Maley knitted Pauline Hansen’s thousand-miles-from-bleaching-(and-reality)-snorkelling stunt to Canberra in a bravura sketch of a world “where policy-making is as fantastical as a go-nowhere boat trip over a bleached-out coral reef.”

Could we have some old white men now please? They seem under-represented in punditry these days.
Thought you’d never ask. Paul Kelly reckons that Turnbull has to prepare for renewed ‘carbon policy war’. He argues that industry dreams of Coalition and Labor coming together on climate change policy were just that — dreams” and that  “Turnbull has no wish to repeat the mistakes that cost him the leadership in 2009, hardly a miraculous conclusion. He has buried any ETS nostalgia and this can be assumed for the rest of his prime ministership”. However long that might be…  Chris Kenny was… Chris Kenny.  Something about Banquo, but he forgot to call Julia Gillard Lady Macbeth.  Richo reckons Malcolm deliberately used Josh as a human shield, a la Scott Morrison on the GST. Laurie Oakes reckons Josh Frydenberg is a marked man and how “game-playing takes precedence over good policy and process in Australian politics today.” 

Who knew?
Quite. Jack Waterford has a very interesting piece in the Canberra Times  on the using crises to push through policy changes.  He implies that Turnbull doesn’t have the skills – or perhaps the spine. Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have both editorialised on Malcolm Turnbull, calling him a climate policy girlie man.

Really, they said that?
Not in so many words –  I am channelling my inner Mathias Cormann.

So everything will calm down now, yes, and the grown-up government can continue?
Oh, absolutely.  The right won’t dismiss the Climate Review as ‘housekeeping’, or imply Alan Finkel is a raving incompetent pinko in league with Gillian Trigg.  The states will decide to wait for the Federal government before taking any further action on climate or energy policy. The Climate Review, which is taking place for almost a year will be led by a non-partisan figure – probably Dick Warburton or Maurice Newman – and the hearings and discussion papers will not be hijacked by leaking, stunts and smearing; it will be an ideal speech community to warm the cockles of Jurgen Habermas‘s heart. Internationally, Donald Trump will be a steady – if slightly small – hand on the tiller.

Oh, thank goodness for that, you had me worried for a minute.
I have a bridge in Sydney to sell you.  Cash only.

 

[If you so much as smiled, let alone laughed, please think about retweeting/emailing/facebook.  Cheers!!]

PS  Here’s a (much) longer article, with less snark

PPS And here is my piece on the Conversation about climate backflips over the last ten years

The neo-liberal state and its legitimation crisis: @OpenStateSA in South Australia

South Australia’s government is running an ‘Open State’ festival with all the usual buzzwords about innovation, participation, engagement blah blah blah. I’ve been to three of its events, all of which were good for thinking with – not about ‘innovation’ and ‘democracy’ (the events were deeply problematic)  but about how the neoliberal state tries to make it seem that it is listening to “the People” while continuing to do what it sees best, for itself and for the great god Economy.

And though I want to talk about the failings of each event, and how each could have been improved within the same space, with the same budget, I am MORE interested in how the neoliberal state is using the rhetoric of ‘peer-to-peer’ and ‘prosumers’ and all that ‘social innovation’ malarkey to defend itself and raise  (but not too high!) expectations as the future comes a-crashing around our ears.

So, a few concepts are in order. What do I mean by neoliberalism and the neoliberal state? There are serious bunfights over neoliberalism and its meaning, but if you had to boil it down to a sentence, it would be “the market will magically provide, efficiently, while the state is always inefficient and leads to the gulag”.  From the end of World War 2, where the credibility of the State and planning was high (they’d beaten the fascists etc) to the early 1970s, “everyone” believed in the power – and responsibility of the state to guide/shape/chivvy “the Economy”.  But in the mid70s there were a series of shocks to the system, beginning with the US ending the gold standard, the first oil shock, Watergate, the US defeat in Vietnam, and, most significantly, the combination of inflation and mass unemployment at the same time  (so called ‘stagflation’, which had been thought impossible).  And along came the advocates of the “Free market”  (who’d been beavering away in the Mont Pelerin Society, the Institute of Economic Affairs) and who seized the moment.  The election of Thatcher (May 79) and Reagan (November 80) were the signal moments.  In Australia, it was Hawke/Keating (1983-1996) From then the rhetoric (and reality) of the neoliberal ideology kicked in, with the reduction/abolition of (some) tariffs, the privatisation of publicly-owned companies, successful attacks on trade unions, and the increasing ‘marketisation’ of society.  This has had really important implications for the way individuals think of themselves and the solutions for problems, both personal and societal, but that’s a bit beyond our scope here. [this looks interesting]

So, the neoliberal state is one in which “intervention” in the economy is dismissed, and the state shrinks to providing a few core services (roads, law and order etc) and private corporations start to provide health, education etc, and this is regarded as a good and inevitable thing always.

The problem for the neoliberal state is where is the tax-base to pay for these things coming from (anyone who watched seasons 3 to 5 of the magnificent TV show ‘The Wire’ will recall Mayor Carcetti’s desperation on this topic).  And so we come to another of David Harvey’s concepts –   the spatial fix.  Capital is (especially since the 1980s) hyper-mobile, able to slosh around the world at a moment’s notice.  Labour and government is ‘stuck’ in one spot, mostly (the opposite of what David Ricardo witnessed, but I digress).   So, how to attract capital, and keep it long enough in order to get some tax dollars that can then be used to pay for the stuff that people expect (police, roads, emergency ambulances, schools etc).  Well, you have to make yourself attractive to capital.  And since high—tech capital wants certain niche things, such as good transport links (airports, container ports, good roads), connectivity (broadband/pervasive wifi/highspeed internet fiber-optic wazoo), stable/predictable political setting (no policy oscillations/uncertainty) lots of cultural and sporting things for highly educated knowledge workers to distract themselves with (so, festivals and sporting stadia) and, above all, a highly educated workforce (so, think universities).  The city I am from and the city I live in – Manchester and Adelaide – are both well into this.  And they see themselves not as competing with other cities around the world, not necessarily nearby cities.

So, almost done with the concepts.  Bear with me.  So, neoliberalism and the retreat of the state has been part of a ‘legitimation crisis’  (the other part, which leftists forget, is that it wasn’t all a bed of roses when bureaucracies ran stuff. See Jeremy Seabrook’s ‘What Went Wrong?’ for a contemporaneous account.  After all, bureaucracies shit on powerless people, especially the poor). The state is regarded as both incompetent, and overtaxing, but at the same time, politicians are blamed for everything that goes wrong.  An obvious example is the death of a child when it turns out the parents were a clear risk – ‘why wasn’t something done?’ goes up the cry.  But if something is done (lots of children removed from risky parents)  then the Nanny State has Gone Beserk/interfering busy-bodies.

And the final concept (for now) is a related one – ‘political amnesia’ which I’ve stolen from Laura Tingle, who is a fricking genius.  She makes the point that ‘institutional memory’ of bureaucracies, political parties and the media has shrunk as the ‘old hands’ have been offered early retirement etc etc.  So even ten years ago is ancient history, and lessons of previous failures (and successes, such as they are) are simply not available.

So, finally, on to the three Open State events. I will keep this short.

The first event was a finalists-pitch-their-innovations and the announcement of the winner.  What was interesting is that although the judges were able to ask questions to the pitchers, the audience was NOT, at any point. We were there to be grateful witnesses of the cleverness of the technology nerds and the wise state appointed judges.  And in his speech announcing the winner, SA Premier proudly stated that South Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions had gone down 8% by 2014 on a 1990 baseline.  He didn’t mention (and almost certainly does not know- see political amnesia) that in 1990 South Australia committed to reducing its emissions by 20% by 2005.  Oops.

The second event was a wretched ‘foresight’ exercise.  I generally avoid anything with the word 2050 in the title because they are simply avoiding the short-term necessity of decarbonisation and allowing us all to dream a distant future for which we have no responsibility, and today’s politicians can get the credit for without having to do any of the heavy lifting. I refuse to collude in that sort of masturbation.  So why was i there –  I’ll admit that I stumbled into this because I got my dates wrong.  What was interesting was that we were sat at tables of three or four and, after a lecture about how we should avoid certain cognitive biases, set to work on what they wanted to talk about (and it was woefully vague). We were not encouraged to find out who the other people in the room were, what expertise and experience with ‘foresight’ exercises they might already have. We were not asked to participate in how the session was designed. The outcomes were not clear (though there was some embarrassing guff about how if we were sufficiently ‘open’ to the experience it could lead to ‘personal transformation’ [I. Shit. You. Not.].  It was a dismal ‘world café’ bastardisation, where all we could do was scribble down random thoughts on a sheet of paper, and then circulate.  Think a palimpsest of pure mush.  Meanwhile, inevitably, a photographer circulated, taking evidence that could be added to some glossy report to the funders.  And people circulated, asking ‘interesting’ questions.  It was diabolical.

The third event was the most laughable.  I have to be careful here about libel laws etc, especially in ascribing motivations or thoughts to the panellists.  It was allegedly about democracy via face-to-face and digital methods of ‘engagement’. We were sat at round tables, but all eyes were to the front, to the seven sages on the stage.  We were told that there would be time for questions and interaction from the audience. And guess what; after 55 minutes of a 60 minute session, the compere, who had made the promise, had finished asking her questions to the panellists  and so it was over to us. For what was going to be a single question, but was stretched to two because the first one was dealt with very quickly.

Not one of the six panellists – all of whom doubtless believe in the importance of interaction and engagement – tried to get any information from the assembled ‘odd’ citizens about who they were, what they knew etc.  Not one of them tried to hold the chair to the initial promise of opening it up to the audience.  How’s that for speaking truth to power, and challenging stale formats?  I won’t say more than that (libel laws).

What COULD have happened was that we on each table were given 5 minutes to get to know each other and then generate an agreed key question.  Tables could also have been asked to generate ideas for how South Australia’s government might solve problems with previous ‘engagement’ processes (and there have been many).

Look.  The crapness and top-down-ness of these events was not some neoliberal conspiracy, designed to dupe the heroic citizens.  How do I know this?  Because the “left” also runs its meetings and events in the same crappy way.    The game is the game.  So why write this?  Because the gap between what was promised (and the subject matter) and what was delivered was just too much to bear.  It undercuts the credibility of the South Australian government, and it also devalues the very meaning of ‘participation’.

The common features in all three events

  • Sages on the stage (en)act expertise, while the audience is there to cheer them on.  The words participation and innovation are thrown around with great abandon.
  • A complete failure to find out from the audience what their actual expertise was, how they might have genuinely contributed (scribbling words on flipcharts? Don’t make me laugh).
  • A total silence on the intermediary organisations between the individual and state (trades unions, churches, community groups, NGOs) that might help the individual make sense of what is going on, AND help them engage in long, drawn out, and costly (in terms of finance, emotions etc) ‘engagement processes’ with state bureaucracies.

So, two more concepts to finish with

The audience at these events was treated as ego-fodder.

The process was one of facipulation.

Further reading

The key stuff on neoliberalism and the late 70s onwards is by David Harvey. You could also read on Karl Polanyi and his notion of the ‘double-movement’

On the spatial fix, see also Richard Florida and all the guff about the rise of the Creative Classes and so on.