IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

Topic: Evidence and policymaking

Accountable for what?

📥  Culture and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Evidence and policymaking

Stephen Muers is Head of Strategy and Market Development at Big Society Capital. This blog post is based on his time as one of IPR's Visiting Policy Fellows while in his previous role as Director of Criminal Justice Policy at the Ministry of Justice.

Accountability is fundamental to democracy. Holding decision-makers to account for what they do and the impact they have can be seen both as a good in itself and a way of aligning their choices with the interests of the public at large. So effective democracy needs effective accountability, defined here as a system that holds decision-makers to account for things they control in a way that is meaningful and legitimate in the eyes of the public, and which is likely to promote desired outcomes. In turn, therefore, accountability needs to be based on an understanding of what different decision-makers can and should be doing, to fit with public expectations and to promote effective outcomes. Without such an understanding there is a risk that the accountability framework creates the wrong incentives and promotes neither legitimacy nor the right decisions.



What should decision-makers be doing?

In a previous piece[1] I argued that policy outcomes are heavily influenced by culture and value systems, that governments are part of the prevailing culture and, crucially, that they can also affect it. Therefore a critical role of decision-makers is to embody and shape a culture that supports the outcomes they (and in a democracy those who elected them) desire.

One of the most important ways in which culture and values shape policy outcomes is through the individual choices and decisions made every day by the people responsible for implementation: teachers, social workers, employment advisers, police officers and so on. They interpret and act on policy according to their values and the values embodied by the organisations they work in. As I argued in another previous piece[2] these front-line decisions create constant mutation and evolution in what policy means on the ground. As with evolution in the natural world, the resulting pattern is one of periods of stability interspersed with large and often unpredictable shifts.[3] Decision-makers need to recognise this unpredictable dynamic of front-line evolution, and use their position to shape a culture that supports positive experimentation and learning.

If this understanding of how policy works is correct, then central decision-makers should be focusing on shaping a culture that promotes desired outcomes, and that supports front-line decision-makers in a process of learning that leads towards those same outcomes.

What are decision-makers held to account for?

Does our current system of accountability promote such behaviour? In one respect I believe that it does. The central form of accountability in a democracy, the way citizens choose to cast their votes, does reflect a view of political leadership that is centred on values and system oversight. There is evidence that views of a candidate’s cultural values and overall competence in overseeing a system are important in determining voter choice. Put simply, you vote for someone because you think they share your values and will promote them, and you think they are going to be OK at running a government that does so.

Some models of politics assume that people vote for the candidate who espouses the policies they want. However if the argument above about how policy feeds through front-line evolution into practice is correct, it would make little sense to vote on the basis of policy specifics. They will end up being reshaped and mutated by the time they reach individual voters. It is therefore entirely rational for voters to invest little in the highly costly effort of understanding detailed policy propositions (which will change through implementation) and instead form a view of whether a candidate or party has values congruent with their own. There is evidence that fundamental values (e.g. around openness, security and tradition) are significant drivers of voter choice.[4]

Policy proposals therefore become a way of signalling what values a leader will embody and promote, rather than firm statements of what they will deliver. Politicians have always understood this: policies are announced to send a signal and create a narrative about what kind of person or party you are. A good recent example is Donald Trump’s infamous promise to build a border wall and get Mexico to pay for it. According to one poll around the time of his inauguration only 14% of Americans believed he would actually build a wall paid for by Mexico.[5] But the announcement was an extremely strong signal of a value system (against immigration and cultural change) and an attitude (aggressiveness to other countries and a willingness to break the perceived “rules of the game”). It is those values and attitudes that people are choosing and against which they are holding people to account. In doing so they are showing a genuine understanding of what really matters for senior decision-makers.

And what are they not held to account for?

Therefore there is a fit between what it makes sense for leaders to be accountable for, given how we know policy actually feeds through into practice, and what voters use as the basis for deciding how to cast their ballots. So what is the problem?

There would be no accountability problem if political leaders did indeed devote their efforts to affecting values, culture and the overall properties of the system within which they sit: voters are good at holding them to account for that. The problem arises in that in practice they do a lot of other things. Political leaders devote considerable time and effort to designing and implementing detailed policy changes. Democratic accountability for such changes is weak. This is for two reasons.

First, a policy change can be completely disastrous in its own terms without seriously impinging on the welfare of individual voters. Very large sums of money lost to the public purse are hardly noticeable to individuals, especially if such losses are from future potential value rather than current income. A good example would be under-valuation when privatising an asset: no voter feels an immediate loss even if they are in fact worse off because their share of a valuable asset has been given to someone else. But this is true of any large policy failure that wastes money, makes a large service incrementally worse or damages the environment in lasting but not immediately apparent ways.

Second, even if voters are aware of a policy (usually not the case) and are affected by it, it is unlikely to change how they vote. In fact there is evidence that the causation often runs the other way: how someone is inclined to vote affects their understanding of what a policy has achieved. Whether or not someone is aware of a policy and what they believe its effects to be are influenced by their political starting point. This is down to confirmation bias: we interpret information in line with our starting positions. A recent piece of research showed that people’s ability to interpret statistics correctly is dramatically worse when the same statistics are used to describe a divisive political topic (immigration) rather than a neutral one (effectiveness of a skin cream)[6]. When political control changes after an election, partisan perceptions of other events changes dramatically. To use another contemporary US example, there was an 82% net positive swing among Republican voters in perceptions of how the US economy was doing in six months Trump’s election as president, at a time when objective economic indicators were fairly stable.[7] So if we believe a political leader is acting in line with our values, that shapes how we see policy and we will tend to register information that implies they are being successful. This dynamic gives politicians considerable leeway to implement policy that is damaging as long as a majority believe they have the right values.

In an attempt to remedy this weakness, we have created a structure of accountability intended to expose policy failure and thereby create incentives for politicians to do the right thing. In the UK this includes the National Audit Office and Select Committee scrutiny. The media also performs an important function in exposing policy failure. Part of the thesis behind such structures is that the appearance of competence is vital to politicians and so methods that expose the opposite will create a strong drive towards successful policymaking.

These structures are, however, unlikely to succeed. Media coverage of a damning NAO report on a multi-billion pound policy will still go unnoticed by the vast majority of the population. And there is no evidence (or even a very plausible theoretical case) for arguing that such a report is likely to contribute to any significant change in party perception and voting behaviour. Confirmation bias is important here too: even if a hypothetical damning audit of a policy became widespread news, people would interpret that news according to their existing cultural framing of the political situation and use it to confirm their existing biases about what policies are or aren’t desirable. It is much more psychologically plausible to believe that a report is biased or wrong than to change your view of a policy and political leader with whom you identify in a deep-seated cultural sense.

Audit and scrutiny take a long time, because of the understandable desire for thoroughness and rigour. This creates two further difficulties. The first is that, because ministers and civil servants – especially in the UK system – move around frequently and fast, by the time a major project or policy is evaluated, those needing to explain it are probably not those responsible for implementation. Again, this means that the incentive to make good policy created by this part of the accountability system is limited.

The second is a more fundamental point. I argued previously that the evolutionary nature of policy means that rapid feedback is critical. It is important to know immediately whether a deliberate or inadvertent change has started to make a difference, allowing the front-line policy implementers to adjust accordingly. The clearer and faster the feedback, the more likely it is that people will learn and iterate towards improvement. In technology projects it has become the norm to use “agile” techniques: build something small, test it with users, learn fast and make repeated small changes. Such techniques have evolved as a way of coping with uncertainty about how people will behave in the face of change and the fact that requirements and goals shift as we find out more about what the front-line users actually want. Such uncertainty and changing goals are a strong feature of policy implementation and so these techniques, and the rapid feedback on which they depend, could have major benefits. However the norm in the public policy field is one of long-term detailed studies that aim to assess, retrospectively, the impact of a whole programme against its stated objectives once enough time has passed to measure progress against them.

What should we do differently?

In an ideal world, political and administrative leaders would devote their efforts to the kind of activity that they are able to carry out effectively and for which we have accountability mechanisms that work: embodying and shaping values and setting the overall parameters for how policy systems work. Alongside this, we would develop rapid feedback mechanisms that enable empowered front-line policy implementers to innovate and iterate within those overall system parameters.

This is, of course, an unrealistic ideal. Political leaders are not going to deny themselves the possibility of pushing through large scale detailed policy change, despite the evidence that complexity and uncertainty means the results will almost certainly not be as promised. They may do this because, contrary to that evidence, they believe that they will be able to deliver the specific promised results. However there is also a more sophisticated view available: a leader can believe that although uncertainty means that exact results are unpredictable, launching a large systemic change is one tool for beginning the process of shifting culture in a policy system. Therefore the real goals of the policy are not specific changes in some output metrics but a much longer-term, more fundamental and hard-to-measure shift in attitudes, values and the way people behave.

One good example of a large, detailed change programme with cultural objectives was the privatisation programme in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s. There were plenty of technocratic claims and counter-claims about the merits of access to private capital and management, and whether the receipts realised in the sales were appropriate. But the bigger-picture goal, explicit in some of the government communications at the time, was to change culture both within the companies themselves and in society more widely by spreading share ownership and a sense of investment in the capitalist system.[8]

So if one of the aims of major policies should be, and often is, cultural change, what do we need to do to make accountability more effective? For a start, accountability and audit could look at the impact policy has on culture, rather than a pure financial and service quality focus. To take the privatisation example, did attitudes to private capital and entrepreneurship change more among people who received shares than in the general population? The tools for this kind of evaluation exist: attitudes and values can be measured and compared over time (e.g. through the British Social Attitudes Survey or World Values Survey), and specific behaviours that are symptomatic of underlying values can also be identified. Of course it is hard to attribute cultural change to a specific intervention, but attribution difficulties also apply to many of the effects (e.g. behavioural or economic) that policy evaluation is usually concerned with. This is not a reason to put culture to one side.

Such an approach would make the issue identified above about the time that scrutiny takes even worse: it only makes sense to think about culture change over a long period. Also, just because an audit report looks at cultural change won’t give it any additional traction with voters in determining how to exercise their powers of democratic accountability. However if the real aim of a policy is (or should be) culture change, evaluation done in those terms is at least more honest and more likely to lead to valuable learning.

As well as shifting assessment and audit towards culture, we could shift it towards the sort of front-line feedback that agile and iterative working needs. If large-scale technical analysis of policy is ineffective in delivering accountability, as argued above, then the resource could be better deployed. Emerging technology offers plenty of opportunities to create ways for front-line workers to get more rapid feedback on the effectiveness of their practice and new initiatives. For example, schools are already using sophisticated and continuous tracking of how pupils are progressing and to inform and improve teaching practice. The “Friends and Family” test in the NHS was introduced to provide immediate and specific feedback on patient experience. If government gave a clear signal, backed by a financial commitment to invest in new tools, that such real-time accountability was a priority then it is very likely many more methods would emerge.


These two suggestions – switching resources to front-line feedback and putting greater weight on evaluation and audit in understanding impact on culture – are not revolutionary. They will not immediately solve fundamental issues around what a democracy actually holds leaders to account for, or how that relates to what they are able to do. But they may help us make better policy within that environment, and have a more honest conversation about what that policy is trying to achieve.

[1] http://blogs.bath.ac.uk/iprblog/2016/08/12/culture-comes-first-putting-culture-and-values-at-the-centre-of-public-policy/
[2] “Is your policy a dodo?” Civil Service Quarterly October 2014
[3] Agendas and Instability in American Politics Baumgartner and Jones 1994
[4] “Personality and Politics: values, traits and political choice” Capara et al Political Psychology 2006 Vol 27 Issue 1
[5] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/eight-in-10-americans-think-u-s-will-pay-for-u-s-mexican-border-wall/
[6] “Personality, Authoritarianism, Numeracy, Thinking Styles and Cognitive Biases in the UK’s 2016 Referendum on EU Membership” onlineprivacyfoundation.org 2017
[7] Marquette University Poll in Wisconsin reported at http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/blogs/wisconsin-voter/2017/04/15/donald-trumps-election-flips-both-parties-views-economy/100502848/
[8] “The United Kingdom: Privatisation and its Political Context” David Heald West European Politics 1988 vol 11 issue 4


Kerbside recycling: does it deliver?

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Public services

Dr Lucy O'Shea is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Bath's Department of Economics

At first glance, recycling figures in this country seem overwhelmingly positive; the recycling rate for UK household waste, for example, has increased from 0.8% in the 1980s to 43.9% in 2015.[1] The figure steadily rose until 2011, but has since levelled off – and the 2015 figure is now 0.9% lower than it was in 2014 (Defra, 2017).

This apparently meteoric rise masks a considerable variation in recycling across different UK local authorities. The recycling rate can vary from 15% to 67% by area (Defra, 2017), and this variation has been persistent over time.



In a 2011 study, my colleagues – Dr Shasikanta Nandeibam (University of Bath) and Professor Andrew Abbott (University of Hull) – and I identified a key factor responsible for the dramatic rise in recycling: the introduction and expansion of kerbside recycling (Abbott et al., 2011). We therefore set about trying to explain the reasons for regional variation in recycling by looking at aspects of kerbside collection and socioeconomic characteristics. We found that differences in the frequency of collections, types and sizes of containers and population density go some way to explaining the variation in household recycling rates. In a further paper (Abbott et al., 2013) we found evidence for the existence of a social norm for recycling. In that paper we categorised the reference group along different dimensions: age, education, income, ethnicity and proximity. We were able to demonstrate a social norm effect, showing that recycling habits were influenced by age, ethnicity and proximity to other recyclers. This effect is also present in Defra’s 2017 Digest of Waste Statistics (Defra 2017), where local authorities close to each other have a tendency to have similar recycling rates. Thus, despite a dramatic improvement in overall household recycling performance, there are some aspects of recycling that have remained persistent over time.

Prior to kerbside recycling, the main outlets for recycling were recycling centres and ‘bring sites’. Bring sites cover dedicated containers usually located in supermarket car parks, whereas recycling centres receive a variety of waste and recycling and cover much larger areas. By providing kerbside collections, the local authorities increase the convenience of recycling – and there is a consensus that by increasing the convenience of recycling behaviour, individuals are more likely to engage in it (e.g. see Ando and Gosselin, 2005, Saphores et al., 2012).[2] However, the question that arises is whether the increase in recycling at the kerbside has occurred at the expense of recycling through other outlets such as recycling centres and bring sites. On the one hand, if (as has been the case) waste arising from households has been fairly stable, the physical limit on the amount that can be recycled is relatively fixed.[3] On the other hand, increased opportunities to recycle may act as a spur to further recycling as households become more aware of what can be recycled and develop the recycling habit.

The policy question that arises, therefore, is whether kerbside recycling has been as successful in driving up recycling rates as at first appears. If households merely switch to kerbside from other recycling outlets, then the impact on recycling behaviour is less positive than if households continue to use previously available recycling methods as well.[4]

This question gains added importance when the current stalling in the overall recycling rate is considered. The target for household recycling is 50% by 2020. We already observe that securing gains above 40% is becoming increasingly difficult; thus, local authorities have to think carefully about what activities will contribute most to closing the gap between current recycling levels and the EU target of 50%. In contributing to this question, my colleagues and I have recently published a new study asking the question of how households view different policy instruments, such as kerbside recycling and recycling centres, provided by the government to encourage them to recycle. Do they view them as complementary or as substitutes for each other? The more households view kerbside as a substitute for going to the recycling centre to recycle their paper, card, plastic etc., the less successful kerbside collections will be in securing additional gains in recycling performance towards the 50% target. Although the focus of this research is on policy instruments related to recycling, there is a wider message: regardless of the domain of policy, potential trade-offs between policies should be explicitly considered, as new interventions can offset the contribution of pre-existing measures.

We can look at the policy question in more detail. In our new paper we show that the decision to recycle at the kerb and/or at the recycling centre will depend on the time saved in doing so. Characteristics of the kerbside collection scheme can affect this time saving, such as frequency of collection, number of materials collected and size of containers. Factors that determine the time taken to bring material to the recycling centres will include distance to the recycling centre. Thus, local government decisions regarding the provision of kerbside and siting of recycling centres will affect the time taken to carry out recycling using different outlets and hence the interaction between them. The general conclusions that emerge from the study are that there is a trade-off when it comes to green recycling (compost waste) but that there is no trade-off when we consider dry recycling (paper, card, glass, aluminium, plastic). Thus, improving access to kerbside collection, providing larger receptacles or arranging more frequent recycling collections can benefit kerbside recycling of dry materials without any measurable loss in returns of dry materials to recycling centres. If we relate back to our earlier discussion of the reasons why such a trade-off might exist then, in the case of green recycling, we deduce that the nature of the activity – occurring infrequently and at specific times, together with relatively fixed nature of the production of such waste – means that households view recycling at the kerbside or at the recycling centre as substitutes for each other. On the other hand, we find that households view dry recycling differently, and the two methods of recycling are seen as complementary – with enhanced kerbside provision promoting recycling at the kerb while not significantly reducing recycling at the recycling centre.

It should be noted that our findings for the UK differ to those found in other contexts. For example, Beatty et al., (2007) find that there is a trade-off between beverage can (glass and plastics) recycling at the kerbside and at the recycling centre, although not for aluminium. Their study, which is based on Californian data, is set against the backdrop of a deposit-refund scheme; such monetary schemes are as yet not permitted in the UK. Although it is difficult to draw conclusions from the difference in the findings as the two studies differ in many respects, the trade-off in the Beatty study occurs for those materials that are heavier. Thus, the convenience of recycling heavier materials at the kerb offsets the loss in the refund which is redeemable at the recycling centre. If a similar deposit refund scheme were to be introduced in the UK it would appear at first glance not to substantially change our results.

This blog post is based on a recent paper published by Dr Lucy O'Shea and her colleagues Dr Shasikanta Nandeibam (University of Bath) and Professor Andrew Abbott (University of Hull).



[1] It should be noted that the definition has changed from ‘household waste’ to ‘waste from household’ in 2014. The latter is a slightly narrower category which excludes street waste.
[2] https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/recycle-challenge/ideas/make-recycling-more-convenient (Accessed 5/5/2017).
[3] This assumes that the composition of consumption and technical aspects related to packaging and the capacity of local authorities to recycle these remains the same.
[4] There may be other benefits from kerbside recycling in terms of time saved by households by recycling at the kerb as well as fuel savings and avoided pollution that arise by replacing many individual trips to the recycling centre with local authority/private contractor collection and disposal.


Abbott, A., Nandeibam, S., O’Shea, L., 2011. Explaining the variation in recycling rates across the UK. Ecological Economics 70, 2214-2223.

Abbott, A., Nandeibam, S., O’Shea, L., 2013. Recycling: social norms and warm-glow revisited. Ecological Economics 90, 10-18.

Abbott, A., Nandeibam, S., O’Shea, L., 2017. The displacement effect of convenience: the case of recycling, Ecological Economics 136, 159-168.

Ando, A.W., Gosselin, A.Y., 2005. Recycling in multifamily dwellings: does convenience matter? Economic Inquiry 43, 426-438.

Beatty, T.K.M., Berck, P., Shimshack, J.P., 2007. Curbside recycling in the presence of alternatives. Economic Inquiry 45, 739-755.

Defra 2017. Digest of Waste Statistics, March 2017 Edition.

Saphores, J.D.M., Ogunseitan, O.A., Shapiro, A.A., 2012. Willingness to engage in a pro-environmental behaviour: an analysis of e-waste recycling based on a national survey of US households, Resources Conservation and Recycling 60, 49-63.


A purpose in life acts as an antidote to adversity

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Security and defence

Professor Bill Durodié is Professor and Chair of International Relations in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies.

‘Despair is suffering without meaning’ proffered the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in an interview once. In his most famous work ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, he paraphrased Nietzsche to the effect that: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’. So, in gauging how the people of Manchester and across the UK pursue their lives in the trail of the nihilistic act of destruction following a concert there last Monday, as well as in the aftermath of other recent attacks, it ought to be to the question of meaning and purpose that we all turn.



I once interviewed two Singaporean citizens subsequent to their returning home from Mumbai after the incidents there in November 2008. Ten supposed affiliates of a Pakistani Islamist group had pursued a coordinated series of bombings and murderous attacks across the City over a period of four days, killing 164 people and wounding 308.  The company the Singaporeans worked for asked me to do this to offer support – if any were needed – beyond that to be provided by their government.

I thought long and hard about how best to go about the task and determined to keep my questions simple and objective: When did you fly out? What were you there for? What did you do that day? When did you first notice something was wrong? What did you do then? What happened next? How did you get out? At the end I left an opening for them to contact me again should they want to.

Many imagine that asking: ‘Were you affected by anything you experienced?’ might have been somewhat more sensitive. But in whatever way they would have answered, the power of suggestion could then readily have elicited manifestations of psychosomatic trauma in them at a later date. Our minds work in mysterious ways. Singapore suffered its first ever fatality at the hands of terrorists during those attacks and so the media were keeping the matter salient in the popular imagination. It was to their credit that they did so in a considerably less protracted, shrill or emotional way than I have witnessed elsewhere after similar incidents.

Both of my respondents had spent many hours cooped up in their rooms at one of the hotels attacked, the Oberoi, before being freed. One had focused variously on his faith and on his family during his time there. The other had made some rather dangerous, if somewhat understandable, decisions – first trying to escape down a smoke-filled stairwell and then almost being unable to find his way back to his room before trying to smash the window open with an armchair and ultimately lacerating his leg on the fractured glass while trying to kick it out. Oddly maybe, it was the need to stop the bleeding from this wound that then allowed him to remain calm and collected over the ensuing hours.

Frankl proposed that it is down to each individual to attribute an appropriate meaning to situations of adversity and that nobody else can do it for them, however well intentioned. We may offer too much support and sympathy at such times. Calls from loved ones, concerned employers, government agents wanting to support their citizens and all manner of other professionals engaged by all of these, let alone the media, can cause additional stress and confusion during an emergency, as well as, in many instances, perpetuating suffering long after it.

‘Whatever you do, don’t give your name to any journalist’ my friend Simon Wessely would aver following the London bombings in 2005. ‘They’ll never let it drop and will call you on every anniversary thereafter’. I guess he knew what he was talking about seeing as he is now President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. People can and do forget. For many that really is the best option. Short-term anxieties rarely last.

Of course, participating in communal events like a mass vigil may seem positive to others, though I suspect that these will mostly not have been those most directly caught up in the incidents. Surveys showed inordinate numbers of people across the US claiming to have been affected by 9/11, even when their only exposure had been through the medium of television. Well-meaning as such gatherings and online statements of condolences may be, these can also be superficial and self-serving. Some turn it into an identity. We live in the age of virtue signalling, after all. And if the best response to such incidents is to go about our lives as normal, as politicians assert at such times, then this is hardly normal.

Another friend of mine, sociologist Frank Furedi, pointed out to me once that if the Israeli state held a few days of national mourning after every terror incident there, as the Spanish government did after the train bombs in Madrid of 2002, then at times it could be almost permanently closed down. Like it or not the Jewish people have had to habituate to the circumstances they are in, supported maybe by a narrative of being God’s chosen people (irrespective of truth) and of having endured suffering throughout their history. Of course, Palestinians also suffer there and their way of explaining this to themselves has also been through a narrative of resistance and future liberation.

At the beginning of 2001, before the attacks on New York and Washington, there had been a series of throw-back incidents in Northern Ireland from a time before the peace process there. For weeks, hundreds of Loyalist protestors tried to stop young Catholic schoolgirls from traversing their Protestant enclave to reach the Holy Cross Primary School in Belfast. They hurled abuse, as well as urine-filled balloons and improvised grenades, at them. Police and soldiers had had to escort the parents and terrified children through.

The school, as was already a growing norm then, offered the families counselling. There was no indication of what type of therapy this was to be or whether there would ever be any follow-up to verify if it had worked, so I later commissioned research to assess its effects. What my collaborator discovered was that the girls most affected and offered up for support had been those with younger parents. These had been less able to situate the incidents within the political framework of the long-standing ‘Troubles’. To them, the violence appeared simply mindless and random. But this also left their daughters unarmed conceptually.

Encouragingly, there appear to be plenty in Manchester and beyond who are not so afraid of articulating why what happened there did, and who are keen to show their defiance. Their framing may be rudimentary. It is certainly far less equivocal than that of the authorities who appear, as the British journalist Brendan O’Neill has noted, simply to offer vapid appeals for unity and harmony. But to not be angry at these events, argues O’Neill, is to be dead already.

Amazingly, at the height of the Mumbai attacks, one of the perpetrators used the mobile phone of someone he had just killed to conduct a live interview with newscasters at India TV. When the anchors asked him in succession for his demands, he was heard putting the phone down and asking another of the attackers what these were. Almost nine years on, no-one has yet articulated these. Not even those held to have planned and controlled those events from afar. That the so-called terrorists today have no explicit agenda or purpose is surely the element we should be exploiting the most. That is, so long as we are clear about our own.

This article originally appeared in The Weekend Australian.

You can also listen to him discuss this issue in an interview with BBC World Service's Newshour Extra here.


Do Warnings Work?

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Health, Security and defence

Professor Bill Durodié is Professor and Chair of International Relations in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies. The narrative presented here was supported by an award from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung under their Special Programme 'Security, Society and the State'.

It is commonly asserted that the first duty of government is to protect its citizens. But one of the challenges confronting authorities that produce advice and issue alerts is the extent to which precautionary messages have become an integral part of our cultural landscape in recent times. From public health to counter-terrorism, climate change to child safety, a profusion of agencies – both official and unofficial – are constantly seeking to raise our awareness and modify our behaviour whether we know it or not. This may be done with the best of intentions – but we should be mindful of where that may lead.



Issuing a warning presumes negative outcomes if it is not heeded. Accordingly, it transfers a degree of responsibility to recipients who may not have sought such counsel – or been consulted. Indeed, these may come to interpret it as a mechanism to deflect blame and accountability. And, aside from the intended response – presumed appropriate by those imparting the information – others may dispute the evidence presented, its interpretation, and the intentions behind these, as evidenced by acts of complacency and defiance.

Such negative consequences – deemed maladaptive by politicians and officials who have swallowed the psychologised lexicon of our times – reveal an important truth in our supposedly post-truth societies, and that is that people are not driven by evidence alone. Addressing their core values and beliefs is more critical to motivating change and achieving influence. This requires respecting their moral independence and recognising the importance of ideas. Process and data-driven, protectionist paternalism, on the other hand, reflects a low view of human beings, which is readily self-defeating.

Altering our choice architecture, as some describe it, encourages self-fulfilling prophecies that interfere with our autonomy and undermine consent in the name of improving welfare or keeping us safe. And while there is a wealth of literature regarding such interventions and their purported effectiveness, most relates to single cases or relies largely on precedent – such as preparing for terror attacks or controlling tobacco use – rather than examining the implicit assumptions and the wider, societal consequences of such approaches.

Responses like overreaction, habituation and fatigue derive not so much from specific instances of warning as from the cumulative impact of a cultural proclivity to issue such guidance. This latter, in its turn, speaks to the growing disconnect between those providing advice – even if at arm’s length from the state (thereby inducing a limited sense of civic engagement) – and those charged with living by it. To a self-consciously isolated political class, proffering instructions and regulating behaviour appears to offer direction and legitimacy in an age bereft of their having any broader social vision.

Yet, reflecting on the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office provision of travel advisories before and after the 2002 Bali bombings, the distinguished Professor of War Studies Lawrence Freedman noted how such guidance ‘is bound to be incomplete and uncertain’. ‘[I]t is unclear’, he continued, ‘what can be achieved through general exhortations’. Far more important to averting accusations of complacency or alarmism on the part of government – ‘the sins of omission and commission’, as he put it – is the need to impart and share in a sense of strategic framing with the public. We might call this politics.

In his 2002 speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, advised how intelligence on possible security threats crossed his desk ‘all the time’. Only some was reliable. The remainder included misinformation and gossip. He sought to distinguish between specific intelligence, suggestive intelligence and acting ‘on the basis of a general warning’, which would effectively ‘be doing [the terrorists’] job for them’.

Blair explained how there was a balance to be struck and a judgement to be made ‘day by day, week by week’ in order not to shut down society. He noted that keeping citizens alert, vigilant and cooperative would test ‘not just our ability to fight, but … our belief in our own way of life’. In doing so, he implicitly pointed to the need for wider critical engagement and our having a sense of collective purpose beyond the immediacy of any threat.

But nudging people to act without their conscious support and endlessly raising awareness about all manner of presumed risks and adverse behaviours precludes both of these essential elements. Indeed, when some suggest that the general population are inherently ignorant, not qualified or too immature, or that they cannot be relied on to handle complex evidence to determine matters for their own good (an argument as old as Plato), they display a considerable complacency of their own, as well as an unwillingness to engage and inability to inspire a broader constituency to affect change.

People can only become more knowledgeable, mature and reliable when they participate actively in matters of consequence. There can be no shared sense of social purpose if citizens are not treated as adults. Otherwise, official pronouncements come across as the disengaged exhortations of remote authorities, and warnings – as with the increasingly graphic images on cigarette packets – simply become the background noise of the self-righteous.

The refusal to be inoculated against H1N1 pandemic influenza once a vaccine was developed for it in 2009, for example, did not stem from social media propagation of ‘rumours’ and ‘speculation’ on ‘volatile’ public opinion as some supposed. Rather, and more damagingly still, it was a conscious rejection led by healthcare workers themselves, informed by their own experience of the virus, and inured to the declarations of senior officials who announced that ‘it really is all of humanity that is under threat’, as well as those who responded uncritically in accordance, developing models where none applied.

The language of warnings has shifted over the years from articulating threats, which could promote individual responsibility, to simply eliciting desired behaviours. Indeed, the proliferation of biological metaphors – ideas go viral, individuals are vulnerable, activities are addictive – reflects the demise of any wider moral or political outlook. But encouraging a responsive sensitivity and tacit acceptance by evoking negative emotions can readily backfire. It is unlikely to generate a critical culture or social solidarity.

So – do warnings work? It depends. Facts alone do not motivate many. It is how they are interpreted that matters. And the framing of these today often dismisses our agency and promotes a powerful sense of determinism. The Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahnemann noted how ‘[t]here are domains in which expertise is not possible’. Decision-making – like democracy – is a moral choice in which we are all equals.

Not everything of value has a value and few things that are worthy have a worth. That is why the sole pursuit of evidence and data by those in authority, with a view to inducing acceptance and behaviour change, fails to inspire those who seek more to life than the mere protection of the state. Where are the ideas and ideals capable of leading us beyond a narrow, existential concern for our own well-being and towards a broader appreciation of the potential of the collective human project?

This piece also appeared on The Policy Space.


Expecting the unexpected: what resilience should mean to policymakers

📥  Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking, Housing

Dr Kemi Adeyeye is Senior Lecturer in Architecture in the University of Bath's Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering. This post draws on material first presented in a recent published paper.

Evidence, and perhaps the experience of seemingly perpetual rain on one’s face, suggests that the weather is one thing that is increasingly variable and difficult to predict. The impact of this goes beyond deciding whether to take an umbrella, or wear an extra layer of clothing, when you go out in the morning. Like other shocks, temperamental weather can and does affect various aspects of economic, environmental and social life. In an ideal world, both policy and the built environment would be developed with a level of inbuilt resilience (that is, the capacity to cope with and absorb shocks), a recognition of the need to adapt, change and reorganise, and measures to mitigate the impact of future shocks.



Indeed, most human and physical systems are designed to cope with ‘extremes’ – but often within the range of what is ‘expected’. ‘Unprecedented’ is now a common term used by politicians, the media and some experts to describe current weather events that are extreme, but not within the expected range of extremity. One unprecedented event soon supersedes the next, however, and the next one after that – so to what extent are these events really unprecedented? And to what extent can the impact and consequence of weather events such as flooding be considered a surprise? For scientific answers to these questions, I encourage the reader to review the work of my colleague Dr Thomas Kjeldsen. In this piece, however, I will spend some time considering the concept of anticipation, before concluding with what resilience should really mean to urban planners and policymakers.

Anticipating change

Studies show that, as human beings, we are ontologically programmed to engage in ideations that allow the anticipation of space, time, causality and subjective probability. This is referred to as our evolutionary potential[1] – i.e. our ability to promote preparedness and maximise the probability of proactive change through historical memory, knowledge, expertise and experience. Anticipation is innately formed through memory and experience rather than the unknown. To this end, we are prone to engage in mental time travel, reliving past experiences as the basis for imagining the future. However, we should also be aware of the fact that experiences are carried forward in time through memory (individual or collective), which means that such practices can affect welfare. That is, the effectiveness of memory and/or experience to engender actions and preparedness for resilience can vary depending on how we remember, with a consequent impact on the actual outcomes of shocks. The problem with relying too much on memory is that we soon forget – another useful evolutionary skill to help to cope with trauma.

Anticipation can be both forward- and backward-looking. Using the term ‘unprecedented’ suggests that the extent of our anticipation remains backward-looking, and this supports the prevalent reactionary approach to resilience – whereby capacity is only expanded after it has been overwhelmed by an extreme event. But we need both; forward-looking anticipation, particularly in the context of climate change, needs to be underpinned by past learning. Now, I am sure that scenario planning is taking place across the policy realms at present, building on our current tools and codes to explain and take action when the unexpected event happens. However, this approach does not always translate into dynamic planning for potential future uncertainties – when a comprehensive, flexible response may be required for the next unprecedented scenario.

Rising above the flood

Take flooding. There are some good social and economic reasons for current and future developments on or near water. There is also little choice in some instances. For example, most of the Netherlands lie several meters below sea level. As mentioned later, their planning and building developments have therefore advanced to effectively manage the associated risks. For others, flooding can be cyclical, but also sudden. This introduces general and specific issues to the equation to do with quality of life; economic, environmental and social vulnerability; security; physical, urban and building resilience; and so on.

These are factors that should not be ignored. The OECD forecasts that without effective change, the total global population exposed to flooding could triple to around 150 million by the 2070s due to continuous sea-level rise and increased storminess, subsidence, population growth and urbanisation. Further, asset exposure could grow dramatically, reaching US $35 trillion in the same period – roughly 9% of projected annual GDP. The NHS budget for instance is at present around 7% of UK GDP. Unlike the NHS, however, inaction on resilience is a bill that is best avoided. Exposure to risks does not necessarily translate into impact when resilience is “designed in” through coping and adaptive mechanisms.

So how can we design systems that are resilient and able to contend with unpredictable challenges, such as environmental change? Staying with the theme of flooding, we can learn from approaches that have worked at other times and in other places to better anticipate the future. We can learn not to be so set in our ways, but to dare to be flexible and embrace new ways of working. This is particularly important in the UK context, where our planning rules are entrenched in tradition and our design and building practices can be slow to evolve. Although innovative practices have started in some areas, changes remain piecemeal, and inconsistently applied across the country. Unlike global exemplars of building codes and standards, resilience requirements are still not explicit in the UK Building Regulations – so we are therefore missing out on a more consistent, widespread implementation, in addition to losing the opportunity to promote resilience alongside current sustainability standards, especially in housing developments.

Facing the future

Better integration of good governance, planning, infrastructure and architectural design would be a good first step towards closing the gap between where we are today and our future potential. On governance, there need to be visionary, non-ambiguous and tangible planning policies and regulatory requirements for resilience – particularly in the built environment. Formal building and planning policies, as they stand, could do more to promote forward-looking design and planning solutions, or to facilitate the development of resilience and adaptive capacity against natural events.

But new laws and regulations will not be enough. More should also be done to better equip individuals and communities for the task of planning and acting in their own best interests, or even actively participating in or influencing policy processes. It should also be possible to improve individual and collective anticipation by the positive utilisation of experiences of and effective responses to past climatic extremes – “memory”. Actions taken to improve agency by making better use of wider communication networks to provide access to information, raise awareness and improve action for resilience would also be a positive step.

Building resilience

Examples as old as the Indus Civilisation[3] and as contemporary as the Waterwijk in Ypenburg show that good governance and social measures are not enough on their own. Effective planning, good infrastructure and innovative architecture should be combined to reduce physical and social vulnerabilities. This underpins the argument for an integrated design approach to resilience (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Combined: Integrated resilience map showing applicability and impact [Read more]. The chart (after: Roberts 2013 ) presents combined case study findings along two axes, in four quadrants. The x-axis shows the contributions of important stakeholders including governance representatives; professionals such as architects, engineers and planners; and the people. The y-axis shows the physical outputs through planning, building and infrastructure solutions. The content of the map presents the physical and social solutions, highlighting impact (the size of the circles), and the range, based on the 6 applicability measures presented in the conceptual framework. In many instances the applicability measures overlap, and the map therefore shows the most relevant measure for the particular case.

Figure 1. Combined integrated resilience map showing applicability and impact
The chart (after: Roberts 2013 ) presents combined case study findings along two axes, in four quadrants. The x-axis shows the contributions of important stakeholders including governance representatives; professionals such as architects, engineers and planners; and the people. The y-axis shows the physical outputs through planning, building and infrastructure solutions. The content of the map presents the physical and social solutions, highlighting impact (the size of the circles), and the range, based on the 6 applicability measures presented in the conceptual framework. In many instances the applicability measures overlap, and the map therefore shows the most relevant measure for the particular case.

Policymakers and planners of the built environment who plan to adhere to such an approach should aim to achieve three major goals. Firstly, to deliver solutions that emphasise social place-making and capacity building – building communities whilst placing water at the forefront of communal consciousness, for example. Secondly, to implement resilient infrastructural solutions that are flexible but future-proof. Thirdly, to encourage solutions that are not all about hiding water in underground drainage networks, but rather integrate water into the social fabric of a community through planning, engineering and architectural design.

Collaborative working between policymakers and diverse stakeholders – including building professionals – is key to achieving this. Planners should work positively with architects and engineers to deliver the most effective solution possible within the individual context. Innovative architectural ideas and solutions should be encouraged and, further, the needs of the public should be fully integrated within the decision-making process. For this to happen, government departments will need to talk and work more effectively together at the national, regional and local levels. There also need to be better mechanisms to include knowledge agents and the public in solution-forming conversations; technologies such as smart web-tools, and innovative apps can help to facilitate this process.


[1] Read: Sahlins, M. D., and E. R. Service, editors. 1960. Evolution and culture. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
[2] Roberts, C. (2013), Planning for Adaptation and Resilience, In: McGregor, A., Roberts, C., & Cousins, F. (Eds.). Two degrees: The built environment and our changing climate. Routledge.
[3] Part 1 of Dr Sona Datta’s BBC documentary series on the Treasures of the Indus may still be available on BBC Iplayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030wckr/p030w89h


Shifting the public conversation on mental health – understanding the social conditions that shape private troubles

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Health

Professor Simone Fullagar is Professor of Sport and Physical Cultural Studies in the University of Bath's Department for Health

Mental health professionals, NGOs and a variety of service-user groups have all called for greater funding for local and global mental health services, as well as for greater parity of esteem between these services and broader health policy and service provision in the UK. The Mental Health Taskforce’s 2016 report details the need to address chronic under-spending on mental health services in the UK as demand continues to increase and inequalities widen. NHS spending is increasing in areas that support a medicalised response to mental health issues, with prescriptions for antidepressant medication doubling over the last decade in the UK. The taskforce’s report recommends a billion-pound investment in 2020/21 and calls for fresh thinking to shift cultural attitudes that stigmatise mental ill health as an individualised problem. Recently Theresa May announced a review of child and adolescent services in England and Wales and investment in mental health first aid training for schools. This is an important step, but how far will it go, given that from 2010 to 2015 there was a reduction of 5.4% in the funding of child and adolescent mental health services in the UK?



Young people are a major focus of concern, as they suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and are vulnerable to developing more severe and enduring conditions. National survey data indicates a worsening picture for young women (15-18), who have the highest rates of depression and anxiety in the UK. Suicide rates have increased, with young men experiencing higher rates of suicide than young women, who in turn have higher rates of hospital admission for self-harm. One in four (26%) women aged 16 to 24 identify as having anxiety, depression, panic disorder, phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder.

The case for greater funding for mental health services is supported by a growing body of evidence which points to the value of investing in appropriate support and early intervention. Recent psychological research in the UK identified how different therapeutic approaches (cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychosocial interventions) for adolescent depression have been found to have similar beneficial effects. Across different approaches there is a common thread emphasising the importance of developing a ‘therapeutic alliance’ with a young person so they are able to effectively engage with support (feeling heard and respected, avoiding further stigmatisation, being involved in coproducing services, etc). This question of what works best for young people with a range of needs and diverse social backgrounds is an important one, given the role of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme in increasing access to psychological therapy via CBT as a technical formula. Research has identified that 40–60% of young people who start psychological treatment also drop out against advice. A high proportion of people also do not seek help from professionals despite the recurrence of common mental health issues. All these factors point to the complexities surrounding clinical and community-based mental health provision. A positive shift in recent years has been an increasing recognition of the importance of involving people with lived experiences in the coproduction of localised services that move beyond privileging biomedical treatments, and support a recovery-oriented approach (for example, the Wellbeing College for adults has been created in Bath).

While this focus on funding more personalised support is incredibly important for people experiencing all kinds of distress, we also need broader public conversations and policy approaches that offer a critical understanding of how private troubles connect with our public lives to acknowledge the social determinants of mental health. Mental health problems are associated with social injustice, marginalisation and the embodied distress of trauma – poverty, discrimination (class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc), poor housing, unemployment, social isolation, gender-based violence, childhood abuse and intensified bullying in the digital age. In the context of austerity measures and cuts to public funding across a range of areas, it is perhaps not surprising that private troubles and social suffering are exacerbated.

Mental health and illness are also highly contested concepts with diverse, and often competing, trajectories of thought about biopsychosocial causes and conceptualisations of distress. Public knowledge of ‘mental illness’ is historically shaped by our diagnostic cultures of psy-expertise (from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to digital self-assessments), the rise of brain science and research funded by Big Pharma, and the less-often-heard accounts of those with lived experiences (including a diverse range of identities – service users, consumers, and members of anti-psychiatry, hearing voices and mad pride movements). While there is often great media interest in studies claiming to identify the biological cause of problems in the brain (often visualised via high tech images), many people would be surprised to know that there are no specific biomarkers for ‘mental illness’ – and theories about why anti-depressant medication works for some people (and with similar effects to placebo and other non-pharmacological treatments), are based on hypothesis rather than fact.

If we look at the national data cited earlier we can see how gender figures as an important variable – yet there is a curious absence of gender analysis in the context of mental health policy and service provision despite the growing research in this area.  My own sociological research into women’s experiences of depression and recovery identified the often highly problematic effects of antidepressant medication that was prescribed to help them recover. Women spoke of how their embodied distress was heightened by side-effects, and how feelings of emotional numbness exacerbated their sense of ‘failing’ to recover despite following expert biomedical advice. Suicidal thoughts and attempts were evident alongside guilt about not living up to the normative ‘good woman ideals’ of self-sacrificing mother, productive worker or caring wife. Others identified a feeling of being paradoxically trapped in a sense of dependency on a drug that helped them to feel more ‘normal’ and thus able to manage the gendered inequalities and pressures of their lives with demanding caring roles, work or unemployment. Restrictive gender norms, experiences of inequality that intersect with class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and age, as well as a lack of gender-sensitive provision within mental health services and beyond (childcare, housing, domestic violence support, access to low-cost community activities that support well-being) were key policy related issues. The policy challenge ahead of us is to understand the complexity of how mental health is affected by, and affects, all aspects of social life. Social science research has a unique contribution to making critical issues (such as gender inequalities) visible in the development of a whole range of approaches, decision-making processes about resources and public dialogue about how we understand the social conditions that shape distress and support wellbeing in the contemporary era.


The World in 2050 and Beyond: Part 3 - Science and Policy

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy, Security and defence

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the third in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February. Read the first part here, and the second part here.

Even in the 'concertina-ed' timeline that astronomers envisage – extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past – this century may be a defining era. The century when humans jump-start the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities that eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth, and far transcend our limitations. Or – to take a darker view – the century where our follies could foreclose this immense future potential.



One lesson I’d draw from these existential threats is this. We fret unduly about small risks – air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, etc. But we’re in denial about some newly emergent threats, which may seem improbable but whose consequences could be globally devastating. Some of these are environmental, others are the potential downsides of novel technologies.

So how can scientists concerned about these issues – or indeed about the social impact of any scientific advances – gain traction with policy-makers?

Some scientists, of course, have a formal advisory role to government. Back in World War II, Winston Churchill valued scientists' advice, but famously kept them "on tap, not on top". It is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But scientific advisers should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties.

President Obama recognised this. He opined that scientists' advice should be heeded "even when it is inconvenient – indeed, especially when it is inconvenient". He appointed John Holdren, from Harvard, as his science adviser, and a ‘dream team’ of others were given top posts, including the Nobel physicist Steve Chu. They had a predictably frustrating time, but John Holdren 'hung in there' for Obama’s full eight years. And of course we’re anxious about what will happen under the new regime!

Their British counterparts, from Solly Zuckerman to Mark Walport, have it slightly easier. The interface with government is smoother, the respect for evidence is stronger, and the rapport between scientists and legislators is certainly better.

For instance, dialogue with parliamentarians led, despite divergent ethical stances, to a generally-admired legal framework on embryos and stem cells – a contrast to what happened in the US. And the HFEA offers another fine precedent.

But we've had failures too: the GM crop debate was left too late – to a time when opinion was already polarised between eco-campaigners on the one side and commercial interests on the other.

There are habitual grumbles that it’s hard for advisors to gain sufficient traction. This isn’t surprising. For politicians, the focus is on the urgent and parochial – and getting re-elected. The issues that attract their attention are those that get headlined in the media, and fill their in-box.

So scientists might have more leverage on politicians indirectly – by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice, for example – rather than via more official and direct channels. They can engage by involvement with NGOs, via blogging and journalism, or through political activity. There’s scope for campaigners on all the issues I’ve mentioned, and indeed many others. For instance, the ‘genetic code’ pioneer John Sulston campaigns for affordable drugs for Africa.

And I think religious leaders have a role. I’m on the council of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which is itself an ecumenical body: its members represent all faiths or none). Max Perutz, for instance, was in a group of four who acted as emissaries of the Pope to promote arms control. And recently, my economist colleague Partha Dasgupta, along with Ram Ramanathan, a climate scientist – two lapsed Hindus! – achieved great leverage by laying the groundwork for the Papal encyclical on climate and environment.

There’s no gainsaying the Catholic Church’s global reach – nor its long-term perspective, nor its concern for the world’s poor. The Encyclical emphasised our responsibility to the developing world, and to future generations. In the lead-up to the Paris conference it had a substantial and timely influence on voters and leaders in Latin America, Africa and East Asia (even perhaps in the US Republican Party).

Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments to straddling political divides. The Pugwash Conferences did this in the Cold War – and the governing board of Sesame, a physics project in Jordan, gets Israelis and Iranians around the same table today.

Of course, most of these challenges are global. Coping with potential shortages of food, water, resources – and the transition to low carbon energy – can’t be affected by each nation separately. Nor can threat reduction. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness. Indeed, a key issue is whether nations need to give up more sovereignty to new organisations along the lines of the IAEA, WHO, etc., And whether national academies, The World Academy of Sciences, and similar bodies should get more involved.

Universities are among the most international of our institutions, and they have a special role. Academics are privileged to have influence over successive generations of students. Indeed, younger people, who expect to survive most of the century, are more anxious about long-term issues, and more prepared to support ‘effective altruism’ and other causes.

Universities are highly international institutions. We should use their convening power to gather experts together to address the world's problems. That’s why some of us in Cambridge (with an international advisory group) have set up the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks, with a focus on the more extreme ‘low probability/high consequence’ threats that might confront us. They surely deserve expert analysis in order to assess which can be dismissed firmly as science fiction, and which should be on the ‘risk register’; to consider how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones; and to warn against technological developments that could run out of control. Even if we reduced these risks by only a tiny percentage, the stakes are so high that we’ll have earned our keep. A wise mantra is that ‘the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable’.

I think scientists should all be prepared to divert some of their efforts towards public policy, and engage with individuals from government, business, and NGOs. There is in the US, incidentally, one distinctive format for such engagement that has no real parallel here. This is the JASON group. It was founded in the 1960s with support from the Pentagon. It involves top-rank academic scientists – in the early days they were mainly physicists, but the group now embraces other fields. They’re bankrolled by the Defense Department, but it’s a matter of principle that they choose their own new members. Some – Dick Garwin and Freeman Dyson, for instance – have been members since the 1960s. The JASONs spend about 6 weeks together in the summer, with other meetings during the year. It’s a serious commitment. The sociology and ‘chemistry’ of such a group hasn’t been fully replicated anywhere else. Perhaps we should try to do so in the UK, not for the military but in civilian areas – the remit of DEFRA, for instance, or the Department of Transport. The challenge is to assemble a group of really top-rank scientists who enjoy cross-disciplinary discourse and tossing ideas around. It won’t ‘take off’ unless they dedicate substantial time to it – and unless the group addresses the kind of problems that play to their strengths.

So to sum up, I think we can truly be techno-optimists. The innovations that will drive economic advance, information technology, biotech and nanotech, can boost the developing as well as the developed world – but there’s a depressing gap between what we could do and what actually happens. Will richer countries recognise that it's in their own interest for the developing world fully to share the benefits of globalisation? Can nations sustain effective but non-repressive governance in the face of threats from small groups with high-tech expertise? And – above all – can our institutions prioritise projects that are long-term in political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet?

We’re all on this crowded world together. Our responsibility – to our children, to the poorest, and to our stewardship of life’s diversity – surely demands that we don’t leave a depleted and hazardous world. I give the last word to the eloquent biologist Peter Medawar:

“The bells that toll for mankind are [...] like the bells of Alpine cattle. They are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a tuneful and melodious sound.”


For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.


The World in 2050 and Beyond: Part 2 - Technological Errors and Terrors

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy, Security and defence

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the second in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February. Read the first part here.

I think we should be evangelists for new technologies – without them the world can’t provide food, and sustainable energy, for an expanding and more demanding population. But we need wisely-directed technology. Indeed, many are anxious that it’s advancing so fast that we may not properly cope with it – and that we’ll have a bumpy ride through this century.



Let me expand on these concerns.

Our world increasingly depends on elaborate networks: electric-power grids, air traffic control, international finance, globally-dispersed manufacturing, and so forth. Unless these networks are highly resilient, their benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns – real-world analogues of what happened in 2008 to the financial system. Our cities would be paralysed without electricity. Supermarket shelves would be empty within days if supply chains were disrupted. Air travel could spread a pandemic worldwide within a week, causing the gravest havoc in the shambolic megacities of the developing world. And social media can spread panic and rumour, and economic contagion, literally at the speed of light.

To guard against the downsides of such an interconnected world plainly requires international collaboration. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness.

Advances in microbiology – diagnostics, vaccines and antibiotics – offer prospects of containing pandemics. But the same research has controversial aspects. For instance, in 2012, groups in Wisconsin and in Holland showed that it was surprisingly easy to make the influenza virus both more virulent and transmissible – to some, this was a scary portent of things to come. In 2014 the US federal government decided to cease funding these so-called ‘gain of function’ experiments.

The new CRISPR-cas technique for gene-editing is hugely promising, but there are ethical concerns raised by Chinese experiments on human embryos and by possible unintended consequences of ‘gene drive’ programmes.

Back in the early days of recombinant DNA research, a group of biologists met in Asilomar, California, and agreed guidelines on what experiments should and shouldn’t be done. This seemingly encouraging precedent has triggered several meetings to discuss recent developments in the same spirit. But today, 40 years after Asilomar, the research community is far more broadly international, and more influenced by commercial pressures. I’d worry that whatever regulations are imposed, on prudential or ethical grounds, can’t be enforced worldwide – any more than the drug laws can, or the tax laws. Whatever can be done will be done by someone, somewhere.

And that’s a nightmare. Whereas an atomic bomb can’t be built without large scale special-purpose facilities, biotech involves small-scale dual-use equipment. Indeed, biohacking is burgeoning even as a hobby and competitive game.

We know all too well that technical expertise doesn’t guarantee balanced rationality. The global village will have its village idiots and they’ll have global range. The rising empowerment of tech-savvy groups (or even individuals), by bio as well as cyber technology will pose an intractable challenge to governments and aggravate the tension between freedom, privacy and security.

Concerns about bioerror and bioterror are relatively near-term – within 10 or 15 years. What about 2050 and beyond?

The smartphone, the web and their ancillaries are already crucial to our networked lives. But they would have seemed magic even 20 years ago. So, looking several decades ahead, we must keep our minds open – or at least ajar – to transformative advances that may now seem science fiction.

On the bio front, the great physicist Freeman Dyson conjectures a time when children will be able to design and create new organisms just as routinely as his generation played with chemistry sets. If it becomes possible to ‘play God on a kitchen table’ (as it were), our ecology (and even our species) may not long survive unscathed.

And what about another transformative technology: robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)?

There have been exciting advances in what’s called generalised machine learning: Deep Mind (a small London company now bought up by Google) has just achieved a remarkable feat – its computer has beaten the world champion in a game of Go. Meanwhile, Carnegie-Mellon University has developed a machine that can bluff and calculate as well as the best human players of poker.

Of course it’s 20 years since IBM's 'Deep Blue' beat Kasparov, the world chess champion. But Deep Blue was programmed in detail by expert players. In contrast, the machines that play Go and poker gained expertise by absorbing huge numbers of games and playing against themselves. Their designers don’t themselves know how the machines make seemingly insightful decisions.

The speed of computers allows them to succeed by ‘brute force’ methods. They learn to identify dogs, cats and human faces by ‘crunching’ through millions of images – not the way babies learn. They learn to translate by reading millions of pages of (for example) multilingual European Union documents (they never get bored!).

But advances are patchy. Robots are still clumsier than a child in moving pieces on a real chessboard. They can’t tie your shoelaces or cut old people’s toenails. But sensor technology, speech recognition, information searches and so forth are advancing apace.

They won’t just take over manual work (indeed plumbing and gardening will be among the hardest jobs to automate), but routine legal work (conveyancing and suchlike), medical diagnostics and even surgery.

Can robots cope with emergencies? For instance, if an obstruction suddenly appears on a crowded highway, can Google’s driverless car discriminate whether it’s a paper bag, a dog or a child? The likely answer is that its judgement will never be perfect, but will be better than the average driver – machine errors will occur, but not as often as human error. But when accidents do occur, they will create a legal minefield. Who should be held responsible – the ‘driver’, the owner, or the designer?

The big social and economic question is this: will this ‘second machine age’ be like earlier disruptive technologies – the car, for instance – and create as many jobs as it destroys? Or is it really different this time?

The money ‘earned’ by robots could generate huge wealth for an elite. But to preserve a healthy society will require massive redistribution to ensure that everyone has at least a ‘living wage’. A further challenge will be to create and upgrade public service jobs where the human element is crucial – carers for young and old, custodians, gardeners in public parks and so on – jobs which are now undervalued, but in huge demand.

But let’s look further ahead.

If robots could observe and interpret their environment as adeptly as we do, they would truly be perceived as intelligent beings, to which (or to whom) we can relate. Such machines pervade popular culture —in movies like Her, Transcendence and Ex Machina.

Do we have obligations towards them? We worry if our fellow-humans, and even animals, can’t fulfil their natural potential. Should we feel guilty if our robots are under-employed or bored?

What if a machine developed a mind of its own? Would it stay docile, or ‘go rogue’? If it could infiltrate the internet – and the internet of things – it could manipulate the rest of the world. It may have goals utterly orthogonal to human wishes, or even treat humans as an encumbrance.

Some AI pundits take this seriously, and think the field already needs guidelines – just as biotech does. But others regard these concerns as premature, and worry less about artificial intelligence than about real stupidity.

Be that as it may, it’s likely that society will be transformed by autonomous robots, even though the jury’s out on whether they’ll be ‘idiot savants’ or display superhuman capabilities.

There’s disagreement about the route towards human-level intelligence. Some think we should emulate nature, and reverse-engineer the human brain. Others say that’s as misguided as designing flying machine by copying how birds flap their wings. And philosophers debate whether “consciousness” is special to the wet, organic brains of humans, apes and dogs — so that robots, even if their intellects seem superhuman, will still lack self-awareness or inner life.

Ray Kurzweil, now working at Google, argues that once machines have surpassed human capabilities, they could themselves design and assemble a new generation of even more powerful ones – an intelligence explosion. He thinks that humans could transcend biology by merging with computers. In old-style spiritualist parlance, they would 'go over to the other side'.

Kurzweil is a prominent proponent of this so-called ‘singularity’. But he’s worried that it may not happen in his lifetime. So he wants his body frozen until this nirvana is reached. I was once interviewed by a group of 'cryonic' enthusiasts – based in California – called the 'society for the abolition of involuntary death'. They will freeze your body, so that when immortality’s on offer you can be resurrected or your brain downloaded.

I told them I'd rather end my days in an English churchyard than a Californian refrigerator. They derided me as a 'deathist' – really old fashioned.

I was surprised to find that three academics in this country had gone in for cryonics. Two had paid the full whack; the third has taken the cut-price option of wanting just his head frozen. I was glad they were from Oxford, not from Cambridge – or Bath.

But of course, research on ageing is being seriously prioritised. Will the benefits be incremental? Or is ageing a ‘disease’ that can be cured? Dramatic life-extension would plainly be a real wild card in population projections, with huge social ramifications. But it may happen, along with human enhancement in other forms.

And now a digression into my special interest – space. This is where robots surely have a future.

During this century the whole solar system will be explored by flotillas of miniaturised probes – far more advanced than ESA’s Rosetta, or the NASA probe that transmitted amazing pictures from Pluto, which is 10,000 times further away than the moon. These two instruments were designed and built 15 years ago. Think how much better we could do today. And later this century giant robotic fabricators may build vast lightweight structures floating in space (gossamer-thin radio reflectors or solar energy collectors, for instance) using raw materials mined from the Moon or asteroids.

Robotic advances will erode the practical case for human spaceflight. Nonetheless, I hope people will follow the robots into deep space, though it will be as risk-seeking adventurers rather than for practical goals. The most promising developments are spearheaded by private companies. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, who also makes Tesla electric cars, has launched unmanned payloads and docked with the Space Station – and has recently achieved a soft recovery of the rocket’s first stage, rendering it reusable. Musk hopes soon to offer orbital flights to paying customers.

Wealthy adventurers are already signing up for a week-long trip round the far side of the Moon – voyaging further from Earth than anyone has been before (but avoiding the greater challenge of a Moon landing and blast-off). I’m told they’ve sold a ticket for the second flight – but not for the first.

We should surely acclaim these private enterprise efforts in space; they can tolerate higher risks than a western government could impose on publicly-funded bodies, and thereby cut costs compared to NASA or the ESA. But these they should be promoted as adventures or extreme sports – the phrase ‘space tourism’ should be avoided. It lulls people into unrealistic confidence.

By 2100 courageous pioneers in the mould of (say) the British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes – or Felix Baumgartner, who broke the sound barrier in freefall from a high-altitude balloon – may have established ‘bases’ independent from the Earth, on Mars, or maybe on asteroids. Musk himself (aged 45) says he wants to die on Mars – but not on impact.

But don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth. Nowhere in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems. There’s no ‘Planet B’.

Indeed, Space is an inherently hostile environment for humans. For that reason, even though we may wish to regulate genetic and cyborg technology on Earth, we should surely wish the space pioneers good luck in using all such techniques to adapt to alien conditions. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species: the beginning of the post-human era. And it would also ensure that advanced life would survive, even if the worst conceivable catastrophe befell our planet.

As an astronomer I’m sometimes asked: ‘does contemplation of huge expanses of space and time affect your everyday life?’ Well, having spent much of my life among astronomers, I have to tell you that they’re not especially serene, and fret as much as anyone about what happens next week or tomorrow. But they do bring one special perspective – an awareness of the far future. Let me explain.

The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture (outside ‘fundamentalist’ circles, at any rate). But most people still tend to regard humans as the culmination of the evolutionary tree. That hardly seems credible to an astronomer. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out, and the expanding universe will continue – perhaps forever. To quote Woody Allen, eternity is very long, especially towards the end. So we may not even be at the half-way stage of evolution.

It may take just decades to develop human-level AI – or it may take centuries. Be that as it may, it’s but an instant compared to the cosmic future stretching ahead.

There must be chemical and metabolic limits to the size and processing power of ‘wet’ organic brains. Maybe we’re close to these already. But fewer limits constrain electronic computers (still less, perhaps, quantum computers); for these, the potential for further development could be as dramatic as the evolution from pre-Cambrian organisms to humans. So, by any definition of ‘thinking’, the amount and intensity that’s done by organic human-type brains will be utterly swamped by the future cogitations of AI.

Moreover, the Earth’s environment may suit us ‘organics’ – but interplanetary and interstellar space may be the preferred arena where robotic fabricators will have the grandest scope for construction, and where non-biological ‘brains’ may develop greater powers than humans can even imagine.

I’ve no time to speculate further beyond the flakey fringe – perhaps a good thing! So let me conclude by focusing back more closely on the here and now.

For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.


How do we decide what works in wellbeing?

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Health

Emily Rempel is an interdisciplinary PhD student in the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath.

The region around the University of Bath is a relatively ‘well’ local authority. By this I mean that Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) consistently ranks at or above average on the ONS measures for wellbeing, which include population scales of life satisfaction, anxiety, worthwhileness and happiness. B&NES, and other surrounding authorities, are committed to providing services that address these kinds of measures and seek to increase the wellbeing of the people that use their services. Examples include the Wellbeing College, Developing Health & Independence and Second Step Housing Association. While one can assume there is significant worth in increasing the wellbeing of a community for that community’s own cohesion and happiness, there are also more economically minded ideals behind the push for wellbeing. The main driving concept is that happier, more stable people are healthier people and that healthier people use public services less and ultimately save money for institutions like the NHS. This sounds all well and good: people are happier, governments are spending less money and we all end up better off. But the reality is far more complex. That basic assumption that happiness leads to cost savings requires, for lack of a better word, evidence.



What constitutes evidence in wellbeing is both politically and practically challenging. An essential first question is: what do we mean by wellbeing? Professor Sarah White, Professor of International Development and Wellbeing at the University of Bath, has written extensively on this issue. She argues that wellbeing includes a variety of factors from subjective assessments of happiness to objective ‘quality of life’ measures1. Professor White also describes key differences between individual concepts of wellbeing and collective wellbeing – personal happiness versus national economic health, for example. While there is no easy answer to the question of what wellbeing consists of, local and national governments have provided several frameworks in order to measure wellbeing (and provide services that address it). The aforementioned ONS scales are one example of measuring and defining wellbeing at the national level. Another commonly used framework is the New Economics Foundation’s commissioned work on the Five Ways to Wellbeing. This distils subjective wellbeing into five key areas: be active, take notice, connect, giving and keep learning. Although they consist of a frustrating mix of participles and infinitives, the ‘Five Ways’ are often used by both third sector organisations and local authorities to conceptualise wellbeing. However, none of these definitions offer a holistic and comprehensive concept of wellbeing. To add a bit more complexity, when it is difficult to define it is also difficult to measure – how, for example, do we measure the Five Ways? And more specifically, how do we measure whether programmes like those listed above address these areas? What constitutes success?

From my own experience, measures of wellbeing are at least as complicated as definitions. Assessments of local wellbeing services often contain a battery of different kinds of measures. Much of this diversity is due to diversely vested interests in what these wellbeing services do. Is the purpose of the service to address personal wellbeing, save money or improve health? Or all three?  From a subjective wellbeing perspective, measures like the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) are appropriate. However, this does not capture economic wellbeing or objective measures of personal environment. For example, knowing that someone has a score of 56 out of 70 on the WEMWBS tells us nothing about whether they live in a stable and safe home environment. From the health and economic perspective, administrative data is often used to see if individuals who participated in wellbeing courses or activities used health services less. But can we be sure that a decrease in health services use is not due to other factors? There are seasonal, regional and personal variations in health services use that are difficult to capture with administrative data. Furthermore, how can we be sure that using health services less indicates people are healthier? From an individualistic perspective, the Five Ways to Wellbeing could be measured simply by asking people how they ‘connect’ or how much they ‘connect’ in their day-to-day lives. But does every individual interpret ‘connecting’ in the same way? As always, it is difficult to create consistency in subjective, individualistic measures. More broadly, how can we expect a wellbeing service to show success on all of these different kinds of measures? When there is a lack of conceptual clarity, muddles in measurement will follow. The solution is not to throw everything at the wall and hope that something will stick in the name of evidence. There needs to be a better understanding of what these services and activities offer if ‘wellbeing’ is to be addressed in the community.

It would be logical to assume that the solution to this lack of evidence in wellbeing services is simply more evidence. However, as outlined above, the answer is not so simple. Instead of more evidence, there must be a shift towards the right kind of evidence on whether services improve individual, and therefore community, health and wellbeing. First, there must be a critical review around the causative assumptions of wellbeing activities. This means picking apart the impact a typing course has on wellbeing versus a yoga class. Each has value, but measuring them the same way would be a misstep. This means taking a step back from the assumption that improved subjective wellbeing leads to, and necessitates, cost savings. For example, administrative health records are unlikely to tell us if a basket weaving course is effective. Furthermore, basket weaving is unlikely to put the NHS in the black. It may be more effective to evaluate the impact of basket weaving via measures of social isolation. We need to unpick and critique the aspects of wellbeing that individual activities and courses address, and then apply the appropriate metrics to assess whether wellbeing improves. After those steps are achieved, there may be an opportunity to truly test if that personal wellbeing leads to improved health leads to cost savings causative narrative persists. In the end, measuring and commissioning wellbeing services is a national initiative that will continue whether we agree on what wellbeing means or not. And commissioners will likely project onto wellbeing services the kinds of changes they want to see in health services in general – specifically, less money, fewer patients and better population health. It is impossible to predict where this push for wellbeing will take us, but – as with any change in community health and public services – we need to be critical of how ‘well’ we really are doing.

1 White, Sarah (2014). Wellbeing and Quality of Life Assessment: A Practical Guide, Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing.


Policymaking, Citizenship and Democracy in a Complex World

📥  Evidence and policymaking

Professor Graham Room is Director of Research and Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences at the University of Bath

Complexity Science

Recent decades have seen a dramatic growth in the literature on complex systems. Much of this has developed in mathematics and in the natural and computational sciences. Increasingly however it is also infusing the social sciences.

This has in many ways been a breath of fresh air. It has got social scientists drawing upon dynamic models from the natural sciences that can be extremely fertile in suggesting new insights – in terms for example of tipping points, bifurcations and co-evolving systems. It has created much greater interest in the non-linear dynamics of the social world – and in the macro-patterns that emerge unanticipated from the micro-interactions in which we are all involved.



Nevertheless, in applying these perspectives to the social world, we need to take care. How human beings interact depends on the subjective meanings which they construct and negotiate with each other. These interactions involve them in exercising and contesting power. All this also involves uncertainty – and efforts by the powerful to offload that uncertainty onto others. Yet these have been rather neglected by much of the complexity writing within the social sciences.


Evidence-based policymaking brings together robust evidence as to the outcome or impact of a particular intervention. Evidence is collected, evaluated and aggregated – ‘systematically reviewed’ – across as wide a range of contexts as possible. The gold standard remains the randomised controlled trial.

The prominence given to this gold standard can be explained in part by its high status within medical science and clinical practice. What may also be relevant is the ascendancy of the 'contract culture' for the commissioning of public services from multiple providers – contracts that need to specify the impacts against which the service providers will be judged, and which depend therefore on a well-established evidence base for such impact (and a policy research community that endorses such an approach). This may also explain why impacts which can be couched in terms of ‘behaviour change’ are especially attractive, if they seem readily identifiable and measurable.

This tends to assume that any particular intervention can be assessed in isolation from others. The complexity literature however tells us that we live in a connected world – and that these connections require us to pay attention to the dynamic interactions among policy interventions. Any new intervention is an intrusion into a dynamic policy ‘ecosystem’ and must be evaluated as such.

Government leaders warn that conventional methods of policy intervention no longer seem to work. New models of a dynamically interconnected world are needed, if they are to anticipate, steer and control its turbulent behaviour. It is just such models that the literature on complex systems affords. One of the simplest and most elegant is Schelling’s model of residential segregation in cities.[1] His agents have different addresses on a grid or lattice. Schelling posits a ‘tolerance schedule’, a preference not to have within one’s immediately adjacent neighbourhood more than a certain proportion of another race: the general racial composition of the city at large is however of no concern. Starting with an initially random distribution of households across the city, Schelling conducts repeated simulations, as households walk step-wise to an adjacent address, whenever their immediate neighbours exceed this racial threshold. He shows that even a rather mild level of racial antipathy – and concerned only with immediate neighbours – will quickly generate zones of racial segregation across the city.

Schelling’s actors react to the racial composition of their immediate neighbourhood. As they do so, their actions affect the composition of adjacent neighbourhoods, and the society as a whole moves progressively to a more segregated state. Any particular individual may find that, whatever the level of their own tolerance, the ethnic composition of their neighbourhood is increasingly likely to exceed that threshold, obliging them to move. Even the most tolerant finds that their neighbourhood steadily loses all diversity. In this way the rate of segregation accelerates, through processes of positive feedback.  What this means is that the level of social segregation that results is quite other than the individuals in question themselves anticipated or sought.

This is a simple model, but one which illustrates well how ‘macro’ emerges from ‘micro’ in non-linear ways and with counter-intuitive results. Policy interventions launched with insufficient thought, as to their interactions with the wider policy ecosystem, are unlikely to be sufficient to the task. No policy is launched onto a greenfield site: it is an intervention in a tangled web of institutions that have developed incrementally over extended periods of time and through a succession of political struggles. Complexity analysis can play a central role in the analysis of such policy dynamics.

Where much of the complexity literature is weak however is in recognising the exercise of power and interests in human societies and social interactions. What works for whom? By reference to which interests do we assess the significance of the effects of any intervention? In what ways do power inequalities ‘emerge’ from the complex social interactions to which complexity writers refer?

Of course, there is much that remains stable: otherwise we would hardly be able to live our everyday lives. Nevertheless, it is easy to take this stability for granted and not to notice the small changes that are continuously underway. It is also easy to focus on the stability that may be evident at home, while overlooking developments elsewhere. Stability and freedom of manoeuvre do not descend equally on all, as manna from heaven: they are the distributed through positional struggle.


Policymakers – and their academic policy advisers – adopt a variety of assumptions about the citizens they serve and what motivates those citizens to behave as they do. These assumptions are not immune to successive intellectual fashions.

Rational action theories remain dominant across much of social science: here social actors assess the menu of choices available to them in terms of their costs, benefits and consequences. The rational citizen deserves to be provided with clear information about the public services that are available and those services should embody variety and choice.

There is however increasing recognition of the bounds to such rationality, because of the partial information that actors have at their disposal and their limited ability to assess risk. This is true not just of the person in the street: it was also only too evident in the 2008 financial crisis, when the ‘rationality’ of the financiers produced risky behaviours that almost led to systemic collapse. The complexity literature reinforces that recognition of the bounds to rational choice. The lesson of Schelling’s model, discussed above, is that aggregating individual choices can produce counter-intuitive results for the individuals in question, as well as being non-optimal socially. This fundamentally challenges the central place that has been given to individual choice in the rhetoric of policy reform over recent decades.

Meanwhile, recent years have seen growing interest – especially on the part of economists – in behaviourist perspectives. These in some degree abandon orthodox models of rational economic behaviour, especially as far as ‘ordinary’ people are concerned, instead pointing to the biases and blunders that they display in many of their decisions. These behaviourist perspectives – based on empirical studies of individual behaviour – have increased the attention given in policy debate not only to the contribution of psychologists, but also that of neuroscientists, claiming to measure wellbeing in a far more rigorous manner than social scientists could ever offer.

This is the realm of ‘nudge’, with policymakers seeking to structure the ‘choice architectures’ that face citizens, so that even with their innate biases and short-sightedness, they will make choices that align with their own best interests. Nudge has been well-described by Thaler and Sunstein as ‘libertarian paternalism’. [2] This might however seem a very modest form of paternalism, compared with that which traditional welfare states are often accused of embodying, where the citizen is said to be left with few if any options. Nudge leaves the citizen to make the final choice: government can structure the choice architecture, but if, despite this, citizens still make the wrong choices, that is their responsibility.

What if the citizen, however – far from being lazy or short-sighted – is simply but profoundly unsure what to do, given the insecurity and instability of the world around them? It is after all not with all citizens that Thaler and Sunstein are equally concerned: their particular focus is on ‘the least sophisticated’, who they reckon to be in greatest need of such guidance. These are precisely those who are most exposed to such insecurity and instability. The citizen may want not more choices, but a guarantee of wellbeing and security instead.

Consider instead therefore an account in terms of agile actors. This depicts social actors as probing the complex and turbulent landscapes on which they find themselves, but only if they can do so from the vantage point of some stable and settled ground. In contrast to rational action theories, it sees social actors not as menu-takers but as menu-shapers, re-working and contesting the social and economic world in which they find themselves. In contrast to behaviourist perspectives, it understands any biases and blunders by reference to the settled ground from which social actors draw their routines and practices: a ground which may be extensive or shrunken, and which must be understood in terms not of psychology but of sociology and political economy. The result is a perspective on social action that sharply distances itself from the abstract individualism of much contemporary writing.

This gives a central place to uncertainty and instability and to the efforts by agile actors to offload their costs onto others. The social distribution of uncertainty thus moves to centre-stage. But of course, this is a struggle played out on unequal terms. Those already at a positional disadvantage are likely to carry a disproportionate share. They may end up with hardly any stable and settled ground from which to shape their world, and with little option therefore but to hunker down and cling to a precarious existence.

A New Social Contract

It is from this analytical standpoint that we examine the social and political conditions under which agile citizenship may be possible for all.

Citizens need to be secure, resilient and adaptable, if they are to survive and thrive in a complex world. No less than the earlier leitmotifs of rational consumer choice and nudge, our notion of agile actors suggests an agenda of policy reform. This involves public policies to provide a stable and secure ground for all – and investment in the creative energies of everyone.

The recent direction of UK social policies has been to push as many as possible into the market place, narrowing public generosity towards those who remain. The burden of austerity has fallen on the most disadvantaged, multiplying the uncertainties to which they are exposed. This is the politics of fear and surrender to the global market, of insecurity and hunkering down.

In contrast, the post-war social contract between state and citizen, across the western world, involved a pooling of risks and uncertainties through systems of social security. It set the fraternity and mutual interdependence of citizenship against the divisions and inequalities of class and against the turbulence and insecurity of an urban-industrial society. The same period saw governments confronting the economic instability of capitalist society. This has sometimes been characterised as a consensual process, the benign fruit of economic progress. Nevertheless, as T H Marshall warned: ‘in the twentieth century, citizenship and the capitalist class system have been at war’. [3]

If the social changes of the 21st Century are to be managed successfully and with public consent, they need a new social contract to underpin them. We need to mobilise the energies and talents of all sections of society, and we are more likely to pull together if the distribution of rewards is less unequal. Such a contract would need to include several interrelated elements, going well beyond traditional welfare systems:

·         Individual security against risks of income interruption: the heartland of traditional welfare states, albeit in the last half century on the defensive, across much of the industrialised world, in face of neo-liberal hostility to state welfare;

·         Investment in everyone’s capabilities, not just in those with parental wealth: what many have referred to as the ‘social investment state’. There is good evidence that for a given financial outlay, it is investment in the lowest-skilled that can produce the greatest benefit for national productivity; [4]

·         The rebalancing of our economies to provide ‘decent jobs’ which make use of everyone’s capabilities;

·         Investment in vibrant local communities, as places of education, learning and creativity for all – in particular for disadvantaged communities, which are often poorly connected to the society at large;

·         Involvement of all in the governance of social, political and economic institutions, with active citizenship and scrutiny of public policies, and of the corporate interests which might otherwise detract from such a contract.

Such a contract would involve a broad range of policies of relevance to all citizens, rather than focussing just on society’s casualties. It would need to go far beyond the notion of a basic income, which in various guises has again reared its head across the political spectrum. It would limit the risks of poverty but also promote economic growth; promote individual security but also collective resilience and adaptability. It would also go far beyond the extension of choice in public services, with the citizen seen primarily as a consumer. It would involve rebuilding local and national communities, as points where these different policies can be connected up. It would leave the market where it belongs, as the servant of the community not its master.

This would also reshape the debate on immigration. First, by investing in the skills and creativity of our own population, we reduce the need for employers to look elsewhere – for nurses, for IT specialists and others – in ways that denude poorer countries of those in whom they have invested their slender national resources. Second, by taking collective responsibility for the infrastructures of those communities to which large numbers of immigrants come, rather than ‘devolving’ this burden to the local areas in question, we reduce the risk that those communities will see immigrants as a threat.

It is not however enough for government to provide stability and security and to invest in agile and creative citizens; those citizens must also be able to hold government to account. This means government being placed under critical scrutiny by citizens, rather than vice versa. This gives a fundamental role to citizens in policymaking as well as in policy implementation. Nudge, in contrast, makes little or no attempt to engage citizens as active, critical and responsible partners; they are deemed hardly up to that.

A Self-Organising Democracy?

By the start of the new century, New Labour had in some measure joined the Conservatives in their celebration of market capitalism, with philosophical underpinnings that owed much to Hayek. The economy was a decentralised system, best left to self-organise and self-steer. Government could not expect to second-guess the market and had therefore better stay out.

In the public services, both parties sought to expand individual choice: in many cases by expanding the role of the market and its self-organising virtues. Government would nevertheless maintain its overall grip, albeit at arm’s length – and even under conditions of austerity, big data and smart government would enhance its effectiveness. Public services would become leaner and fitter and more tightly managed, so as to be better-tuned to consumer choice.

Hayek’s vision likewise resonates with many of those who have been attracted by the literature on complex systems. He describes a complex and interconnected economy peopled by a myriad of micro-decision-makers – but one which has generated wealth on an unprecedented scale. This would seem an obvious example of the processes of ‘self-organisation’ with which the complexity literature deals, and one with socially benign consequences. In contrast, the complexity literature might well seem poorly aligned with the sort of social democratic vision that has been outlined above.

There are however several important caveats.

First, the complexity literature gives little attention to uncertainty (as distinct from risk) and its implications for social actors. As argued above, uncertainty makes people hunker down. On the economic and on the social front, government has a strong role to play in building stability and confidence – on the part of businesses, communities and individual citizens. This was of course a major tenet of Keynes’ analysis of economic recession, differentiating him from Hayek. In conditions of great uncertainty, businesses would not invest; strong government action was needed, to boost confidence in the future buoyancy of the economy. Otherwise the economy would ‘self-organise’ at sub-optimal levels of activity.

Second, Hayek pays insufficient attention to power differentials among social and economic decision-makers. The same goes for much of the complexity literature, including writers such as Schelling, concerned with a mass of micro-decision-makers, each following a simple algorithm as to whether to move house. The real world of contemporary capitalism gives scope for large corporations to shape the rules of those micro-interactions in their own interests. Not least, the more powerful are able to offload the costs of uncertainty onto others. Complexity analysis must be conjoined with political economy.

Third, there is little reason to confine the vision of a complex and interconnected society to the economy and market agents alone. The complexity literature can also inform our thinking about citizens and communities, their networks of interaction and the public services on which they draw. These too we can think of as decentralised systems with distributed intelligence, connecting a myriad of agile actors, with their varied projects and visions of change. Here too we might examine the counter-intuitive outcomes that can emerge and how these vary, depending on the institutional conditions.

Finally, while the complexity literature can help us to understand the non-linear emergence of macro-patterns from micro-interactions, it helps little in evaluating those macro-patterns in terms of how socially benign or otherwise they are.


Complex dynamics can produce a tangled knot of institutions and policy interventions, with path dependencies and lock-ins which are hard to escape, and trade-offs which allow of no easy resolution. ‘Wicked’ problems of this sort are unlikely to be solved by leaving them to the market, or by improving the technical skills of those in government. What is needed instead is the distributed intelligence and wisdom of all those involved and cooperative solutions that include citizens, their communities and the public services on which they depend.

The literature on complex systems demonstrates that quite small changes in initial conditions can result in dramatically different dynamics and directions of travel. It underlines that the future is open: there is always an alternative. This chimes well with longstanding critiques of ‘futurology’. [5]  Nevertheless, faced with an open future, the more powerful do not hesitate to intervene, to ensure as far as possible that their interests are protected, their position consolidated and the costs of uncertainty displaced onto others. To expose how these powerful groups narrow the range of possible futures is one of the tasks of the social scientist.

A second is to illuminate other possible paths of development, thereby enriching democratic debate. This is no merely technical matter. These alternative futures span the different values by which citizens live their lives and express their hopes and their fears.

A third is to fix responsibility and enable powerful actors to be held to account. But is this even in principle possible, given the unexpected and unintended dynamics that can emerge from simple individual choices? Think for example of Schelling’s interconnected city residents who collectively produce a segregated city – and which in the real world may mean the dramatic narrowing of choices and life chances for some of those ethnic minorities. Complexity analysis can enrich our analytical toolkit and illuminate these tangled processes.

Nevertheless, in a complex social system it is never wholly possible to allocate clear responsibility for such effects; it is necessary for the State to take ultimate responsibility for solidarity and compensation across the society as a whole. Civility does not ‘self-organise’ – it must be politically constructed, and we cannot escape the social and political choices of our time.

This blog post draws on Graham Room’s recently published book Agile Actors on Complex Terrains: Transformative Realism and Public Policy (Routledge, 2016)
[1] T C Schelling (1978), Micromotives and Macrobehaviour, London: W.W.Norton
[2] R H Thaler and C.R. Sunstein (2009), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Revised edition), London: Penguin
[3] T H Marshall (1950), Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
[4] S Coulombe, J-F Tremblay and S Marchand (2004), Literacy Score, Human Capital and Growth across Fourteen OECD Countries, Ottawa: Statistics Canada
[5] J H Goldthorpe, J.H. (1972), 'Theories of Industrial Society: Reflecrions on the Recrudescence of Historicism and the Future of Futurology'', European Journal of Sociology, 12: 263-88.