On long-term ambitions in a short-term world

What do you do when the lessons of the past don’t necessarily apply to the future?  

Four out of every ten people starting their first year of school this year will celebrate their 100th birthday in 2112. We simply can’t imagine what the landscapes of their life will look like, what challenges and opportunities they will face, nor what pressures their longevity will place on the planet, on infrastructure, on services. In a 1917 world – which, for example, had no such thing as a weekend – we couldn’t have imagined today’s world. Artificial intelligence is the current dominant tech theme, driverless cars are an emerging reality, work is being transformed by algorithm-based automation…  

This context exposes the fundamental balancing act we face – how to deliver long-term ambitions for the places we govern within the context of short-term pressures. Political expediency driven by local electoral cycles inevitably places the desire to deliver tangible improvements in local quality of life within this short time horizon. This is of course compounded by frustrations over the often glacial speed of progress towards these ambitions – for all the reasons you’ll know and love. All of this takes place within the increasingly difficult battle to absorb budget cuts whilst not only meeting increasing demand, standards and expectations but also firefighting emergent daily issues.

This can feel like a daily battle for survival. But this will do little to shape the world today’s 5-year olds will inherit when they enter the workplace in 15 years or so. Who knows if there will even be local councils then or if they will have imploded under the weight of austerity. But we do know that – short of a cataclysmic global event the likes of which the dinosaurs were unable to effectively risk manage – we will be leaving them our towns, cities and villages to live in.

So how do you carve out the time and space to do long-term futures thinking and planning under the pressure of these immediate operational demands? It’s vital to put in place the building blocks of this strategic work; if they are already there, we must protect them from sacrifice on the alter of short-term organisational survival. Of course there’s an opportunity cost to this, but the greater opportunity cost is to the long-term relevance and viability of councils in shaping our places for the future. 

Our work through the Inclusive Growth Commission has shown us these building blocks must not only include co-ordinated planning for inclusive growth in terms of housing, infrastructure, skills, investment and employment. They must also include nuanced local engagement and listening to understand the lived reality of our residents. The use of open data to drive a wider, shared, understanding of place and allow the crowdsourcing of ideas. A ‘civic university’ perhaps, of the kind pioneered by the RSA and Nottingham Trent University. They must include mechanisms for liberating and harnessing social capital and assets within communities through which to integrate social and economic regeneration. And be supported by different ways of working – here at the RSA we call this ability to spot and respond to these opportunities in new ways ‘thinking like a system, acting like an entrepreneur’. Crucially this requires the time and space to develop trusted relationships and to join-up our thinking across boundaries in order to be ready to respond with joined-up action. 

We believe the future legitimacy and relevancy of local councils can only be founded on a clear role of custodian of place. Services will come and services will go; it’s not a big leap to imagine councils of the future not providing services themselves. But the democratic mandate used wisely can empower and legitimise Council’s efforts to engage stakeholders and stimulate local civic debate on the future of our towns, cities, communities, localities. The places where we live and work. No-one else will do this. And if it doesn’t get done, what future for these places we love? 

The big challenge facing councils is how to achieve this balancing act. We have to avoid being so busy chopping down trees that we forget the vitally important work of tending to the forest. Only then can we know that we are not saddling today’s five-year-olds with a whole host of complex social and economic problems to solve when they enter the workplace. This is our greatest responsibility as guardians of place. 

This is an amended and updated version of an original article first published in the LGIU ‘Councillor’ Magazine in early 2017.

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