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What’s the Big Idea? PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Sunday, 08 February 2015 16:38

checking for a global pulseAll New Years invoke the making of lists, grand visions and battles for big ideas.  Now, just one month into 2015, everyday distractions are weakening the resolve.    

Whether it was manifesto-making, corporate master-planning, research goals or personal resolution, at the crack of the new dawn all had an urgency born of yesteryear’s sins of omission and upcoming deadlines. And in those battles for big ideas, the bullet points were shuffled, re-prioritised and re-phrased in the hope that this time around something might stick.

There were, of course, shifting perceptions.  Maybe this time the Climate Change penny had dropped?  Maybe folks now understood what a digital economy might mean?  Maybe evidence of extreme behaviours (terrorism, trolling, sex abuse, tax avoidance, corruption or fraud) signaled ‘something must be done’ and shifted the bullet point up two notches on the agenda?

This year heralds a General Election.  Politicians are forced to declare their priorities but no list of top ten goals seems ever complete without some over-arching umbrella of a mighty big idea.  Localism?  Devolution?  Equality? Collaboration?  Open Data?  Health? Transparency? Smart (anything)? Municipal Enterprise? Debt Deliverance?  Innovation?  Circular Economy?  Energy Conservation?  Infrastructure Planning? 

There’s no shortage of worthy candidates but still would-be leaders search for one tabloid headline of an idea under which, in our hierarchically honed minds, all lesser goals can be neatly ranked.  Avoiding ‘motherhood and apple pie’ and the ‘drift and decay’ of lowest common denominators adds to the pressure.

Another pressure arises from uncertainty.  We live in a world subject to repeated shocks – from severe weather to outbreaks of unexpected viruses.  It may take time but ‘evidence-based’ policy (‘made from real ingredients’) can lead to massive re-evaluations of long-standing ‘truths’.  Those things that we’ve all held as self-evident – as Prof. Mariana Mazzucato points out – are often delusions.

It may be, however, that the threats of uncertainties and the desire to avoid the next crisis (whatever that may be) provides an umbrella of a really big Big Idea.  We all know that a full-blown crisis can lead on to great ideas.  But why do we need to wait for disaster to strike?

I doubt there can only ever be one supreme theme lording it over all supposedly lesser ideas. The last 50 years have seen a determined destruction of hierarchical constructs – organisations have been flattened and people empowered.  But if, right now, we must rank and prioritise major themes then there’s surely one candidate that might just have the capacity to unite.  That theme is Resilience. As a central focus that would, however, need the broadest of interpretations to apply to whole societies & governments, organisations and individuals.

If the only constant is change – if we accept that none of us can ever really know what is around the corner – then we should all at least invest in being prepared.  Arguing against short-term expediency is always a challenge but the consequential costs of ‘fix and make do’ eventually fall on future generations.  Surely we could all benefit from leaderships (and market analysts) that fully value long-term commitments.

There’s certainly no shortage of research and advice on how to achieve that rebalancing in favour of the long term.  Judith Rodin’s book, The Resilience Dividend, is just the latest accumulation of evidence that refutes what the late Bernard Levin would also have dismissively described as ‘popular substitutes for five minutes thought’. 

Such is the reluctance to prioritise long-term needs that we suffer endless delay and dither over airport capacity or tidal energy and enjoy none of the leadership that enabled creation of the Channel Tunnel, the new British Library or the European Convention on Human Rights.  In 2018 Londoners will be travelling on Crossrail – 70 years on from first proposal in 1948

Proponents of infrastructure investment have always been accused of wasting resources but, more than a century on from Joseph Bazalgette’s plan to eliminate ‘the great stink of London’, the dividends are surely self evident. 

In my own field, broadband technology, cautious demand-wary investors have resisted the notion of ‘build it and they will come’ only to find that they should have bought into the design idea ‘build it so they will stay’ – a mind-set transposition that is attributed to Brian Condon at a conference in Aberdeen discussing the need for properly future-proofed fully-fibred networks (as opposed to short-term cul-de-sacs) in the long-term cause of local economic growth and retention of skilled young people.

But this is not only about capital projects.  It can also be about the resilience of major cities to cope with the unexpected.  Resilience can be about organisations that need to be agile when new market entrants disrupt their sector.  Resilience can be about individuals and their long-term health or investment in relationships.  Nation states can think through the implications of collaborative economies and scarce resources.

We do not need a crisis – though a good one should never be wasted – but we do need leaders who are sage enough to get their bullet points in a sensible order and have the guts to argue for goals that may at first glance seem impossibly far off.

The traditional time for ‘Things to Do’ lists may have been last month but, if, Leonard, ‘things gonna slide in all directions’, maybe it’s time to write a new list.

If you’re still casting around for really big Big Ideas, go and invest time in reading Rockefeller’s Rodin.  Then go figure how Resilience can be realised in your own world.


The Resilience Dividend by Judith Rodin. ISBN:  978-1610394703  Review



Last Updated on Friday, 20 March 2015 17:51

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