Bring on the radicals

“You are a radical!” In my brooding teenage years, my father would mean this as a criticism. In the world we grew up in, being average was a good thing: the backbone of society was the middle class: ethnic majority, a high school diploma or a run-of-the-mill college degree, a steady job, a mortgaged apartment, 2.3 children and a trade union membership card. That’s where you wanted to be: in with the sensible people, under the protection umbrella of NATO and the European welfare state.

The dream of stability and social inclusion of a large chunk of the population (if certainly not all of it) was good while it lasted. But it seems like the hegemony of moderate thinking came with one very big string attached: the collective inability to recognize the rise of global problems (rampant inequalities, climate change, the feral rich, the surveillance society) and deal with it effectively, thinking out of the box. It is not so much a matter of knowledge (though of course we do need more, better knowledge); for at least some of those problems the science is there, as Stewart Brand pointed out (see also the video above). The cognitive capacity of the median elector, not so much.

So what do we do? In terms of response speed and value for money, far and away the best option is to call in the radical thinkers, and give them much more latitude and resources. We have some unused capacity there: as Vinay Gupta recently pointed out, many of the really important problems and most of the candidate solutions to attack them are being investigated by many interesting people. Almost all of them are poor, because their projects lie outside the fundable sphere (by this Vinay means that they are practically unthinkable by the sensible, dominant middle class decision makers in academia, business and government). That capacity could be used to shape an almost evolutionary policy response: give these people the space to prototype their ideas, deploying a lot of them in a controlled testing environment, each with limited funding. Try everything: geoengineering, space colonization, energy-sufficient communities, reputation as currency, you name it. Then drop what does not work, and follow up on what does. Iterate. Nassim Taleb would call this angling for positive Black Swans: each of these ideas has a small probability of bringing about enormous, off-the-scale benefits, so they should all be made small investment in, not cutting ourselves out from those benefits.

Given all that, we should all hail NESTA’s recent call for the radicals that could potentially transform British society. It is the first time I see the R-word used with a positive meaning in a public policy context. And it is no surprise it’s NESTA (the British National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), whose CEO Geoff Mulgan is one of the most interesting policy makers that I know of. The call is not very operational: there are no significant resources, or explicit plans to give the radicals some true leverage. But it is a start. I forecast a wave of increasingly radical thinking in public policy, as scientists and policy wonks hang out more together, and some of the hybris of the former rub off onto the latter. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

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