Robert Phillips

Expert Adviser; Visiting Professor; Author & Commentator

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"The future lies in what we do, not what we say"

Age Of Engagement

25th October, 2012 in Article


Just as literature is punctuated by visions of utopia and dystopia, so the history of social progress is littered with the effluent of the productive tensions between conflicting and emerging ideologies.

Hegel famously explored contradictions and called synthesis from two polarities, while the Social Contract – which finds equilibrium between the state and the individual in order to help better define ‘authority’ – emerged at the leading edge of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Two centuries later, and new tensions, new contradictions and and new polarities should lead us to ask what is the Age of today – and where to next?

The Enlightenment of course became spoken of as the Age of Reason. Its urge towards social reformation based on rational and scientific thought, rather than on mystery, revelation and faith, was more than a mere philosophical indulgence – it became the cornerstone of a new political order that spawned the citizen-centric constitutions of France and America. Reason was indeed revolutionary.

Our modern history is captured beautifully by the Marxist writer Eric Hobsbawm in a series of ages: from the Age of Revolution to the Age of Extremes, by way of the Age of Capital and the Age of Empire. All are simple titles that conceal the socio-economic tumult beneath, not least the conflicts between communities, nations and classes: heavy, ugly prices paid for social, economic and political progress; horrific deaths in order to spark new lives; tensions with often hideous undercurrents but ultimately progressive results. There are truism in here about the world of work. It is not just about the nation state.

I would like to think we have now entered the Age of Citizenship, but I am not so sure.

Four years on from the election of the United States’ first African-American President – the Man of Hope who spoke of ‘a new age of citizenship and responsibility’ at his own inauguration – we remain a world in crisis: from a shaky and dysfunctional capitalism and corrosive behaviours in business, to burning issues of food, energy and water security. Despite our algorithmic, binary reason, we continue to frequently sleep-walk towards disaster in politics, economics and the environment. Extremes persist. Two hundred years after Thomas Malthus, we are still figuring out how to feed an exponentially growing planet, and how to do so equitably. Generations and nations remain trapped in poverty and therefore in states of economic and political servitude. Moribund and bureaucratic structures of authority imperil the advancement of humankind and question the social contract on a grander scale, while global businesses are now able to adopt the (better) behaviours of states, whose GDP they can comfortably outstrip.

The optimist in me believes that we can break through – that a new class of citizen influencers is emerging, challenging the historic dominance of those moribund elites but not yet fully ‘bottom-up’ in nature. This is not the Marxist class struggle of old. Instead, dramatic societal change is being driven by (access to) technology and by the behaviours that a more social world is shaping. Peer-to-peer trust is increasing, just as trust in traditional authorities (whether in government or in in business) continues to fragment and decline. Those at the vanguard of today’s revolution understand that information needs to be likeable, shareable and atomic – and that ‘business’ now sits properly within the contract between the individual and society. Reason alone is not enough to drive change, not is it any longer a linear relationship between citizen and state.

Those at the leading edge of this change are in effect witnessing the re-distribution of trust and influence, rather than wealth. Here, values are being re-appraised: making money is no longer the primary driver of reputation or benefit, as societal and social factors become more central to the story. Transparency is the default position of today’s leaders and new, fully accountable expectations are rightly being placed on those nominally in control. Smart governments and smart corporations recognise the shifts and are embracing them with re-imagined approaches that look to regular people (employees, mums, citizen journalists) to build new relationships; new paradigms of trust; different channels of communication; and refreshed values that speak to the more enduring truths of citizenship: wisdom, fortitude, prudence and justice. The Age of Engagement might yet build a fairer society.

Technology is the great enabler. Clouds see no borders. Solving the Big issues of our time can become a collaborative, crowd-sourced effort. New networks of shared values and shared interests can determine the better path forward. ’People power’ is therefore no longer a threatening, revolutionary concept, but rather the axiomatic thrust of the Social Digital society. The wisdom of the crowd should usher in a new accountability – to people and to planet. And, I would argue, it would of course be madness to ignore it. Utopianism might soon be proclaimed as properly shared and social, rather than abstract or paternalistic.

This is the optimistic view.

But not everything always runs to plan. The crowd may be as wise as Plato’s (with some license; the guy was an intellectual elitist) but it could equally be as frenzied and as atavistic as Hobbes’.

Trust in Citizenship remains something of an Anglo-centric, even selfish, view. ‘Autocratic’ governments can still enable society by enhancing the economic and social welfare of citizens, who therefore may mind less that there are no pesky, democratic elections to get in the way. A perversity prevails: the autocrats wield a very specific brand of trust and influence (centralised and controlled) but still build confidence and material well-being through wealth-creation. Only corruption tends to be their undoing. These governments are essentially behaving like business states – earning their license through a combination of economic and social reform – and their citizenship is of a very particular flavour. Paradoxically, ‘democratic’ leadership (in government and in business) can fall quickly: penalised by citizen-stakeholders when seen to be not caring, not listening or not delivering. Here trust erodes fast and the License to Influence is quickly removed.

The middle way might simply be classified as an era of proper collaboration and better behaviour, within a new, tri-partite contract between Government, Business and Civic Society. This has echoes of the first draft of Citizen Renaissance, published in 2008.
Engagement will sit at the intersection of regular people, governments, business and the Third Sector. Citizen values will radiate outwards and will ultimately endure as we learn to do ‘what is right’. Here perhaps starts the transition from the Age of Engagement to the Age of Citizenship.

Today’s Age of Engagement will bring inevitable challenges. The twentieth century imperial model – whether of nation states or globalised corporations – is no longer enough. A social, networked world is unlikely to want to drive forward its new model army of twenty-first century citizens on a redundant chassis. The inconvenient truth for leaders, whether in government or in business, is that the pursuit of sustainable growth through an expansive, dominating geographical footprint based on exhausted structures is probably not consistent with a networked society that sees instead communities and people: real people with real values and real empathy to connect them. As Charles Leadbeater has argued, systems alone are not enough: human empathy is the key to social progress.

And existing systems continue to fail us anyway. In the Eurozone, the mismatch between political structure and economic resolution is all too evident. In global politics, the 1950s expansionist model needs urgent re-appraisal. It cannot be mapped onto a 21st century globalised and networked economy. In business, organisational systems designed on power-based silos (from the Board of Directors ‘downwards’) will most likely eventually fall victim to employee, supply-chain, stakeholder and customer networks that rightly choose to see no false boundaries. The Age of Engagement is properly horizontal because shared interests defy hierarchy; shared values deliver better ideas; and mobility increases connectivity, speed and dispersion of influence and response.

Those who care about what social progress needs to look like should start thinking with a new honesty based on these new realities – and use this honesty to reform from within. Powerful city states – the hallmark of the Renaissance – may well supplant Nation States (think London or Frankfurt, Singapore or Shanghai), just as global corporations could form de facto states of their own. Their scale already speaks volumes in this direction; their systems are well-crafted and their people properly recruited; capitalism has made them efficient. Their challenges are to engage with their constituencies and to ensure a rectitude of conscience that legitimises their assumed positions of leadership and influence. Engaged corporations within The Age of Engagement need to be transparent, bottom-up, values-led and rooted-in-action. They need to walk the walk.

The Age of Citizenship, to paraphrase Obama, may yet properly emerge from today’s Age of Engagement. But engagement is the first imperative. Tensions and polarities persist. Ideologies are not aligned. The world is neither balanced, nor fair; neither top-down, nor bottom-up. Technology is driving real social change, and at speed. Just as Marx saw an impending struggle between the owners and the workers, and the Enlightenment saw the battle between reason and faith, so we now have to confront the polarities and extremities of our times in a constructive, open and honest way. From thesis and antithesis, we can find synthesis. This search from within deserves and demands an engaged society.

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Copyright 2015 Robert Phillips. Jericho Chambers