Can We Stop Talking About Transformation?
Posted July 7, 2014
Keywords: city transformation, Demographics, urban policy choices, Economic Sustainability, Communications & Messaging, Training & Education, Urban Planning, Populace, Economy, Urbanism, Policy
There are words that have all the impact of a car alarm going off in the middle of the night. They scream at you, but most of the time they mean nothing. One such word is 'transformation'.
I've lost count of the amount of transformation I've heard about. Housing estates have been 'transformed' by being sold to private developers. Communities have been transformed by turfing out people on low incomes. Cities have been transformed with the addition of 'iconic' buildings (though for every Bilbao, there's a West Bromwich).
If transformation is an over-used word when we talk about places, it has all the impact of a trapped wasp when it comes to public services. Councils are transformed at regular intervals. So are schools and hospitals. I even know people with 'transformation' in their job titles, which is a hostage to fortune if there ever was one.
Like a chameleon's skin, many of these transformations leave everything unchanged below the service. That's why I used the opportunity of the brilliant (but not transformational) HouseParty unconference last week to introduce the idea of slow policy.
Slow policy is like slow food: a rejection of the idea that faster is better and of the lack of thought, care and attention associated with living life on speed.
Slow policy doesn't give a monkey's about ministerial ego-massaging or media manipulation. It sticks two fingers up to political timetables and the need to be seen to be doing something, however ill-advised, in response to every headline. It takes pleasure in nodding off during the Queen's Speech.
There was a brief period when those who believed in slow policy had a foot in the door of Downing Street. Some still remember the work of the Social Exclusion Unit and Tony Blair's rash promise that within ten to twenty years, nobody would be seriously disadvantaged because of where they lived. There was some recognition there that change takes many years to get right. It was quickly forgotten.
Slow policy isn't the same as no policy. It recognises social and economic challenges and that government has an vital role in meeting them. But it understands first of all that those who have the greatest stake in the future of places and the effectiveness of the organisations that serve them are those who build their lives there, not those for whom the business of change is often mostly one of career advancement.
At HouseParty, which was mainly for people working in housing, I set out seven steps towards slow policy (you can see the slides here).
First is to design for permanence rather than transience, like Coin Street in south London. Instead of 'regenerating' places by removing communities (as Hammersmith and Fulham council planned to do) it changes places by building community.
Second is to support community by investing in local networks rather than top-down initiatives. Note the use of the word investing. Such networks need long term support, not policy interventions or visits from bigwigs seeking to gloss their credibility.
Third is to make welfare relational rather than adversarial. A state that treats the poorest as scroungers and blames them for their predicament encourages exactly the behaviour it condemns, forcing them on the defensive. Responsibility is built on trust, not on bullying.
Fourth is to let people use the spaces and places around them creatively. People love Incredible Edible Todmorden because it's creative and fun and changes things (don't take my word for it, read the book or see for yourself). But it engages more seriously with issues of food security, climate change and the local economy than many well-funded initiatives I've come across.
Fifth, design for life at walking pace. Towns with plenty to do and see and where priority isn't given to speeding in, out and around are places that are interesting and attract visitors. Designing cities for people is just common sense.
Sixth, make public services personal. Co-produce them and give the people who use them the chance to shape them. Turn them into conversations, not application forms.
Finally - and slowest of all - start seriously planning how to introduce a universal basic income that gives people the opportunity to make real choices about their lives. Break once and for all the myth that paid employment is more worthy and valuable than caring for friends or family, building community or acting creatively. Give people a minimum income that meets basic needs and allow them to choose how much more they will earn through paid work. It's an investment that will reap rewards for all of us.
Of course a basic income would utterly disrupt a labour market that depends on a growing army of low-paid, insecure workers and a punitive benefits system. It might take a generation to implement in a fashion that enabled society to adjust its thinking. But once again slow is better than no.
If history tells us anything about progress, it's that Great Leaps Forward tend to end in disaster. So if we want lasting change, perhaps we should look for less transformation.