Rethinking wellbeing – Scottish Futures Forum

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Scotland’s Futures Forum ‘Rethinking Wellbeing’ series
‘Different routes to enable greater wellbeing’- Matthew Taylor

The final seminar in the Scotland’s Futures Forum ‘Rethinking Wellbeing’ series was held at the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday 12 June 2013, and featured a presentation on ‘Different routes to enable greater wellbeing’ by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA and former Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

Scotland’s Futures Forum (SFF) was created by Scottish Parliament to consider future challenges and opportunities, and stimulate debate and understanding on public policy issues. The central theme of the seminar series is that we need to consider the environment, the economy and society holistically in order to tackle complex interdependent issues. We need to devise ways to break down silos and help design effective policies and partnerships at local and national level. Notes from the first three seminars are available here.

On a practical level, the objective is to set the context for:
• Improving the environmental regulatory framework
• Maximising the benefits of preventive spending
• Understanding and improving quality of life

Dr Aileen McLeod MSP introduced the speakers and highlighted some key themes emerging from the seminars, which included:
• Current structures mitigate against a holistic approach, and fail to handle complexity
• As a society we are living beyond our means
• Economic growth has failed to address poverty and inequality
• The importance of an ecosystems services approach that values the intangible and less visible
• A need for local capacity in problem solving, foster behaviour change, and a longer term view

Matthew Taylor started by acknowledging Scotland’s lead in thinking about wellbeing through setting out National Performance Indicators, as recognised by the Nobel prize winning economist Professor Stiglitz. He went on to say that in discussing ‘wellbeing’ we need to take account of the attitude that people have to the society within which they live. He proposed that in recent times there has been a trend that people have lost faith in society (evidenced in a decline in congregating institutions; e.g. church, trade unions…) and there is an urgent need to engage in a debate, and develop a theory, about the kind of society we want.

He suggested there are three major forces that drive change in any society (+ a fourth):

  1. Hierarchy – agency; leadership / followership
  2. Individualism – desires/appetite of the individual
  3. Solidarity – a sense of being part of a group; loyalty and commitment – collaborativeness
  4. Fatalism – change is not possible

The Olympics were referred to as a positive model of where the factors worked in balance and there was a sense of collective belief. The example of climate change was used to illustrate how the separate forces can generate differing responses:

  1. Hierarchical – we need to develop policy and come together
  2. Individual – technological and market advances will solve the problem
  3. Solidarity – we need to stop flying, or change our lifestyles
  4. Fatalistic – we’re doomed; or it’s a ‘put-up’!

In a healthy society, the three forces operate in balance and in continual tension (fatalism always exists) without any one dominating the others. However, we live in a time of imbalance where ‘individualism’ is strong, but ‘hierarchy’ and ‘solidarity’ are weak. Trust in ‘institutions/hierarchies’ is at a low (e.g. BBC; police; banks; politics); solidarity is undermined by pace of life and diversity; organisations are driven by highly personalised and individual ambition (banks). Furthermore, we are less deferential and not prepared to believe what we are told; technology gives power to individuals (through social media; Facebook; tweeting) and away from blind respect for institutions.

As a consequence of the imbalance and a strong ‘force of the individual’ we come to solutions that reflect that bias; e.g. individual solutions to problems that are really about solidarity (targeting social welfare claimants as a way of addressing societal challenges).

In reconnecting wellbeing with how we feel about our society, we need new forms of hierarchy, and new leaders that we want to follow; new forms of solidarity; a new definition of the individual which is less about accumulating and more about making. Matthew suggested that bottom up ‘clumsy’ solutions are more likely to occur at the local level where there is closer appreciation of issues, where it is easier for communities to engage, and where local leaders enjoy stronger legitimacy for action.

We need to grow from paternalistic, bureaucratic models to models where people are enabled to help each other. We need to support and challenge communities who have overcome problems to design solutions on the basis that those who have experienced problems are best placed to provide a solution. In this context communities are seen as assets, not as bundles of need.

Matthew described the Labour Government’s commitment to abolish child poverty as a ‘glorious failure of hierarchy’, where the presumption had been that the situation would be solved through a policy led approach; but had failed to mobilise the 3 power sources. Instead of telling people what to do and driving initiatives across and through existing social networks, we need to engage people to make positive change happen. The example was quoted of the Mayor of Oklahoma who inspired local people to work together to tackle obesity and overweight issues, and only introduced tax measures after people had bought into an idea that change was possible.

A range of topics emerged in a subsequent Q+A panel session Chaired by Tim Birley, which included Professor Jan Webb (University of Edinburgh), Claudia Beamish MSP and Patrick Harvie MSP.

  • There is an urgent need to ask what kind of society, and what kind of future we want?
  • We need a theory of what a good society is and where legitimate power comes from, that is different to a normal wellbeing index.
  • We need to be honest about whether we are doing the things we need to do in order to get the sort of society we really want.
  • Hope leads to action; action leads to hope
  • We require a model of society that enables people to engage
  • We need to support locally rooted initiatives and empower communities to help each other to do things for themselves
  • There is a myth of low aspiration and low expectations – what can I do to change things?
  • We have engineered conditions that have resulted in massive accumulation of wealth in the last 30 years and huge inequality across society with a reduction in wellbeing; we need a more equal fairer society
  • Not every local community model or action will be perfect and there will be mistakes, but we will feel better for it – we need to “replace psychosis with everyday melancholy” (Freud)
  • Cities (and Mayors) in USA are making progress in engaging local citizens, and are operating 20 year development plans setting out a vision for a positive future

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