Transition and a language of change

May 22nd, 2012

Some people, and I’m one of them, are very lucky to find their personal and professional lives merge.  I guess there’s a work-life-balance risk associated, but on the whole give me work that I’d do unpaid any day.

Yesterday I was invited to a seminar on researching the Transition movement which was  a mix of researchers and activists – I’m both.  I gave a short presentation which you might call a provocation along these lines.  It was surprisingly provocative!

The Transition movement has both a research AND a communication challenge. We need to show impact, but we need to do it in a language that others care about.  My proposition is that we use the language of wellbeing.  Then what we need to do is really clearly make the link between environmental sustainability and well-being as expressed so readably in Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without Growth” for the Sustainable Development Commission.  Here then, is a key role for arts and museums. (By the way, Tim Jackson is an economist AND a playwright).

There are three languages we can use.  The environmental language has failed to capture the collective imagination.  To me that’s no surprise.  Even though I care profoundly about climate chaos, I’m not interested in climate science or CO2.  Apologies, but there it is.

The second language of economic impact was used with spectacular profile by the Stern Review of 2006.  It’s undoubtedly a language that speaks to many (surely a cost of 5% – 20% of GDP should focus the mind?) but not only is it reductionist in content, but it too seems to have failed to motivate.

Finally then we have the language of social impact, in the form of a personal and collective sense of well-being.  To date well-being has been valued using monetary equivalents based on what people do or what they say they would do to achieve well-being (revealed or stated preferences).

Now however, there is a new opportunity to value well-being according to how happy people say they are.  The opportunity presented by the ONS new life satisfaction data has been explored in detail in Daniel Fujiwara’s work on well-being valuation which adds to the Green Book discussion about social cost benefit.  By way of a simple example:

If a 20% reduction in local crime rates increases the life satisfaction of an individual by 1 index point, and an increase in household income of £5K also increases their life satisfaction by 1 point, we can conclude the value of 20% crime reduction is worth £5K to them.

Once the economists, psychologists and neuroscientists (or neuroeconomists – yes really) have done their research on making this robust, I’m sure we could make the case for arts and museums more strongly.  They are places that can get across messages – anyone who saw the When The World Tips production last year will vouch for that – but can also make people happy.  The Happy Museum is an obvious example which at its halfway point now needs to make really clearly that link between well-being and less consumption.

Locally In Kendal we have a little project through which we’re doing our bit.  Biked Up Pedal Powered works with local young people to choreograph a bike-stunt dance for our local street arts festival, Mintfest, with the music powered by audience members cycling bike-generators, which we’re building this summer.  To make sure we speak the three languages described above, we’re working to a cash, social and environmental budget. So far, we’ve lots of credits on the social and environmental side, with in-kind hours and pedalled miles given.  We will see how this simple technique affects our activities and those of our partners in the arts and funding world.  Hurrah for multi-lingualism!

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