Posts filed under ‘politics’

Anxious and angry: the view to 2013

Andrew Curry writes:

It’s that time of year when people are starting to look ahead to the business environment for next year. From the perspective of The Futures Company, we believe that two elements will dominate in Europe and the United States – and in some ways they represent different sides of the same coin.

The first is that consumers are ‘looking down’, fearful that as recession continues and social protection is weakened by austerity-seeking finance departments, that they are only a slip away from ending in the gutter. The fact that some consumers are increasing their debts to cover basic living costs underlines how fragile their world is. The dominant chord in this landscape is a deep anxiety. Companies will have to respond by changing packaging and positioning. As  Jan Zijderveld, the head of Unilever’s European businesses said in a recent interview:

“Poverty is returning to Europe. If a consumer in Spain only spends €17 when they go shopping, then I’m not going to be able to sell them washing powder for half of their budget.”

But businesses can do a lot more than just change their pack sizes. We have been talking to clients about the ‘5Ps’ of the post-recession landscape: Protection; Practical; Permission; Purpose; and Pride.

If that is the economic landscape, the political landscape is at least as edgy. Our Global MONITOR research identifies a new large group of the ‘globally enraged’, who believe that businesses and governments are, in effect, out to screw them. Globally, this group is around 28% of the population, but it is higher in Europe, peaking at above 50% in Italy. How do you spot them? Easy. The profile of the ‘Enraged’ group is almost identical to the population as a whole.

It can be taken as read, of course, that businesses will be operating in low-growth markets, which means that they have to be smarter about innovation. There are opportunities there, as we describe in our recent Unlocking New Sources of Growth report. But the risks are greater. Consumers have only one question for businesses in the current landscape: ‘whose side are you on?’ And beware the business that gets the answer to that question wrong.
The image at the top of the post is from Wikimedia Commons, and is used with thanks. The caption reads, “Not enough bread for so much chorizo [pork]” – meaning corruption.

9 October 2012 at 1:03 pm Leave a comment

The case against austerity

J. Walker Smith writes:

We’ve been having something of an economics-themed month at The Futures Company, with client presentations about recession hit consumers in the UK and the US, and Future Perspectives reports on doing business in slow-growth economies and the business opportunities in Europe after the eurozone crisis.

So it was useful when I was in London recently to catch Will Hutton, recently installed as Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, give his take on the economic prospects for the UK in 2012 at an event hosted by the HMRC.

It’s hard to summarize quite a rich talk, but some points shone through:

  • The UK is living through a once-in-80-year economic event, but this isn’t reflected in the scale or urgency of the political or policy response.
  • UK GDP is still 4% below where it was in 2008, and won’t regain that until 2014, on government figures. But this is a problem of demand deficiency, not a systemic market problem. (The importance of this idea is all about political narrative. If demand is the problem, the wisdom of austerity is in doubt.)
  • The level of private debt is enormous (320% of GDP), but debt service levels are low, by any historic standards. But cutting the debt aggressively (the current policy preoccupation) risks creating a Japan-style lost decade and a half.

If that’s the bad news, what should be done?

Hutton has quite a long list of suggestions, but two caught my particular attention. The first is the reinvention of fairness. This involves bringing down the ratio of top pay to median pay, and making sure that bonuses aren’t a one-way bet, as they are present. He’s proposed an ‘earnback’ scheme, under which executives put some of their salary at risk in case of under-performance. Unsurprisingly, not one single FTSE-100 is in favor. Hutton had an earnback clause written into his contract when he joined Hertford College.

The other big story is about innovation. Governments can’t pick winners, but they can create ecologies that help particular sectors to evolve. The catch is that these innovation ecologies need public investment – especially in research institutes and skills development. The German network of Fraunhofer Institutes is the benchmark, and, of course, they’ve spent billions developing them over decades. But that doesn’t mean that it’s too late to start. The wide range of emerging ‘general purpose technologies‘ means that there is quite a lot of competitive space to play for. But it does need some political will.

The Future Perspectives reports on the eurozone and slow-growth economies were published this week. They’re available, free, for download from the website. The picture of Will Hutton is from Wikimedia Commons, and is used with thanks.

21 February 2012 at 7:25 pm Leave a comment

Copyright wars

Andrew Curry writes:

Watching the SOPA/PIPA saga unfold from the other side of the Atlantic, it was difficult not to see it as a ‘wave war’, in which companies which grew up in different technology waves compete to set the frame of economic and policy discussion. On the one side, the media companies, creatures of the mass production era that dominated much of the 20th century; on the other, the technology companies that have grown up in the digital wave that followed it. (We wrote about these waves in our Futures Perspective report, Technology 2020).

The technology companies seem to be on the right side of the generational wave. As we noted last week in Futures Five, our fortnightly US newsletter for MONITOR clients,

most [Millennials] see far more nuance in pirated content-sharing than other generations: According to the 2011 Yankelovich MONITOR, 70% of Millennials indicate it’s “sometimes forgivable” if a person “views or downloads pirated content online (such as movies, television shows, music or shows),” almost double the 34% of Baby Boomers who feel the same way.

Of course, this is not a uniquely American issue. The proposed international treaty ACTA has the same intent as SOPA, as do sections of the UK’s Digital Economy Act. My view on this was shaped by James Boyle, the Duke University scholar who wrote The Public Domain, and his view was shaped by Thomas Jefferson, the first policy-maker to think seriously about copyright (yes, that Thomas Jefferson).

In a nutshell, we need copyright to reward creators, but in creating this legal privilege, we need to balance it so we don’t kill off the social, cultural, and economic gains from the free flow of knowledge, which let creators and innovators stand on the shoulders of others. The hugely extended copyright periods we now have in the USA and the UK are a grotesque tribute to the lobbying powers of media owners and old rock stars.

There’s another point here, too, about the way in which the mental landscapes of politicians shift only slowly. It’s been said that American politicians were surprised by the strength of opposition to the SOPA and PIPA bills, and more surprised to discover that their media industries were small fry, in economic terms, when compared to the tech industries.

The UK had a similar problem, in a very different sector, a decade ago. In response to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the government closed off large swathes of the countryside, only to discover that rural tourism and leisure were worth far more to the economy than farming. The policy-makers understood this. The politicians didn’t, because they’d got used to the farmers’ lobby. But, as with SOPA, the noise of the lobbyists had drowned out the quiet shifts of long-term change.

The image at the top is from the Bangstyle blog, where you will also find a perspective from the independent music sector. It is used with thanks.

30 January 2012 at 11:59 am Leave a comment

Getting to the Big Society

By Alex Oliver

One of the more-commented on features of David Cameron’s Party Conference speech in Manchester was how little he mentioned the ‘Big Society’. Twice, in fact. You could easily have missed it. But maybe this is less surprising when you learn that the most recent figures from the government’s Citizenship Survey show volunteering and community participation rates at a ten year low.  These are tough times economically and socially. People’s resources are being squeezed. The scope for community involvement is reduced as a result.

However, in our research this year on volunteering, a programme conducted for our public sector think tank the IIPS, we found that belief and interest in the concept of community involvement is still strong.  33% agree “I would like to become more involved in my local area”, a rise of 3% since 2010[1].  People cite a whole range of reasons for involvement – from social benefits, to gaining more control over important local issues to directly self interested motives like gaining work experience to get ahead in a competitive job market.

But the barriers to involvement previously identified in IIPS research remain high: lack of time and energy, low levels of confidence, a fear of being excluded or not fitting in and perceptions of red tape.

And this year, more than ever, we saw a growing suspicion – even hostility – regarding the motives of ‘Government’.  Any suggestion of overt incentives, or even too much encouragement from government in the form of benefits, tax rebates or (heaven forbid) mandation, were roundly rejected by our respondents.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that community members leading local clean-up operations after August’s riots (cited by David Cameron in his speech as a great example of a ‘social movement’), rejected the Big Society label.

So should the government should forget about the Big Society and stop investing in the range of initiatives kicked off to make it a reality? Well, not necessarily.  Our research clearly shows that there is a real need for more facilitation to get a wider range of people involved – particularly beyond the so-called ‘civic core’. The Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign is an example of how inviting people to get involved has resulted in large numbers of new volunteers from previously under-represented groups like younger men. And there’s still a need to reduce bureaucracy, create structures and share information to support and enable those willing to get involved.  Government at all levels could have an important role to play here – along with other public service providers and indeed the private sector.

It seems that there might still be life in the Big Society, even if some of the language has been wrong. But it will take some commitment from the government, as well as citizens, to make it work.


[1] The Futures Company Global Monitor UK only, 2011

The image at the top of the post was shown as part of a presentation on citizens and the Big Society at The Futures Company last month. It is shared here under Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

27 October 2011 at 4:45 pm 1 comment

The happiness question

Rebecca Nash writes:

If you’ve been following the ‘happiness debate’, you’ll know that policy makers are increasingly asking if it is potentially a better indicator of social progress than the economic measures represented by GDP. But diving into the happiness sciences you quickly find that it raises as many questions as answers: What is happiness? According to whom? Can it be measured? And if we can measure it, what will the policy response be to unhappiness? What practical steps can be taken to make people happier?

And another question from our end: What does happiness mean to business? Generating happy moods is nothing new to consumer goods manufacturers, where short-term happiness and consumption go hand in hand. But there are a number of potential happiness platforms which business can work from to create more sustainable happiness – building social justice, delivering meaning and value, employee satisfaction on organisational levels, and simply being associated with happiness in its pure form (but beware of ‘happy wash’).

In the research on this which I’m leading for The Futures Company, I’ve become really interested in ‘restoration’ – an approach to happiness which involves making people happy who once were not, and I think it produces challenges that matter to both business and government. When I attended a happiness panel earlier this year at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, panellists drew strong links between happiness sciences, psychotherapy, and opportunities to self-repair. Psychotherapist Phillipa Perry advised a laughing audience that, if we want to be happy, we should ‘choose our mothers very, very carefully’. She also gave us tips on how to be happier if early childhood didn’t give us the personal tools we needed for a happy life.

Perry’s take on happiness as something that needs to be re-learned drew some connections for me between what is happening on individual and broader social levels. It reminded me of a recent drivers scan we did for our Government 2020 project, a project on the future of government. One of the most influential drivers of change which emerged – to our surprise – was a trend toward anger, which shaped a few of the future worlds we brought to life. Happiness is more private (although the notion of ‘social wellbeing’ can give it a public face).  Anger is evident and more public, and we’re seeing more of it, more often, in public protest, in generational conflict and in economic frustration.

A key challenge, then, for any organisation taking on happiness, is how to tackle other complex emotions – because as we’re seeing, if happiness goes public, so too can its opposite.

The picture at the top of this post is taken from Stephanie Price’s Borderline Personality blog, and is used with thanks.

25 March 2011 at 12:43 pm 2 comments

Is small always beautiful?

Eleanor Cooksey writes:

I had the opportunity to attend a public sector conference last week where my colleague Alex Oliver was giving a talk about our recent research on the Big Society. The focus of the conference was to examine the strategic challenges facing those who manage our public services – people, as we kept being told, who will need to ensure they can deliver more for less – much less – in a time when budget cuts are going to be considerable.

A variety of speakers touched on different aspects to this overall challenge, but one recurrent theme which struck us was the idea that ‘small is beautiful’. Let me explain more what was meant by this – picking up on the three examples:

  • Small government – This goes without saying: departmental budgets are to be slashed by 30%.
  • Small and medium-sized enterprises – Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, highlighted that 25% of government contracts will be awarded to SMEs (in terms of volume).
  • Small customer base – Many services will now be commissioned and delivered at the very local level. Andrea Hill, Chief Executive of Suffolk County Council, described how, instead of tendering an unprofitable rural bus route, the service was delivered by a Demand Responsive Transport scheme, which can include people using their own cars.

If some things are getting smaller, it begs the question of what’s getting bigger. There is an obvious answer: ‘Society’.

However, there are some other ‘bigs’ implicit in the ‘smalls’ outlined above, which challenge the notion of ultra-responsive, locally-driven operations. John Collington, Head of Government Procurement at the Cabinet Office, talked about the need to consolidate the existing 16 government procurement frameworks into a smaller number. With possibly less choice at the very top and a plethora at the bottom, one of the challenges will be to ensure all decision-makers, at whatever level, feel confident they understand what their customers want and need, and are able to navigate this range of choices to deliver it effectively – for less.

The photograph at the top of this post was taken by Daniel Greene. It is from the blog Konsthuset.se, and is used with thanks,

2 December 2010 at 6:09 pm 2 comments

Government 2020

Rebecca Nash writes:

We’re only a week away from our Government 2020 event – which we’re running jointly with Oxford Economics – so we’ve been putting the final touches to a new set of scenarios about the future of Britain’s political landscape.

The scenarios have been developed by our internal Knowledge Venturing team on the future of the public sector, and we’ve built them up by identifying the drivers of change of government, public finance, and public service, and also by conducting a range of interviews with experts in different parts of the world (New Zealand, Sweden, the UK, China, Latin America, and the US).

I’m not going to give away the scenarios here – they’ll be unveiled on Wednesday – but having gone through a pretty robust development process, they seem to add a dimension to our Feeling The Pinch research (here and here) which suggests that the experience of the financial crisis and economic downturn could lead to deep changes in political and social attitudes.

Oxford Economics, through its thought leadership team, will be offering an assessment of the economic impact of the spending plans in the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, and also adding an extra economic dimension to our understanding of the scenarios. The panel is looking feisty as well: David Muir, previously an adviser at No. 10; Dominique Lazanski of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Anne McCrossan of Visceral Business, and Nick Temple, of the School for Social Entrepreneurs. We look forward to seeing you there.

25 November 2010 at 3:56 pm Leave a comment

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.


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