Thinktank forecasting from the New Weather Institute

A co-operatively run thinktank is drafting an ambitious blueprint for a better society. The New Weather Institute launched in November last year, set up by four colleagues. Economist David Boyle,...

A co-operatively run thinktank is drafting an ambitious blueprint for a better society. The New Weather Institute launched in November last year, set up by four colleagues.

Economist David Boyle, described by Co-operatives UK General Secretary Ed Mayo as “the finest radical voice of this generation”, is the author of a host of books about history, social change, politics and the future. He shares with colleagues a distinguished track-record at the New Economics Foundation, a leading UK thinktank which promotes social, economic and environmental justice via ground-breaking research.

He says: “One of the difficulties with thinktanks is that, because of the way most are funded, they tend to be big lumbering beasts which take a very long time to decide what to do. Our purpose is to be small and nimble so we can intervene at critical moments in the debate.”

The  team includes designer and printer Sarah Burns, who has worked in schools, health centres and across the public sector to transform the services they use, and former Guardian journalist Lindsay Mackie, who has worked with the New Economics Foundation as a campaigns consultant contributing to programmes on local economies, banking reform and heading the campaign for a publicly owned Post Office Bank.

The fourth associate is Andrew Simms, a political economist and environmentalist who has written a number of reports on climate change, globalisation and localization. In 2008 he co-authored The Green New Deal, which called for a £50-billion-a-year investment programme to boost economic activity, providing jobs on a living wage in every community in the UK.

The institute was set up, he says, as “a way of forecasting the potential for, and arrival of, sweeping fronts of progressive change – ways through which we might all live and share good lives within our planetary boundaries. We are not just interested in reporting the economic, social and environmental weather; we are interested in the people and ideas that are going to make the weather. Our remit is to ensure that transformational ideas and projects get seen and heard.”

“What we all have in common is that we broadly agree with each other,” adds Mr Boyle, “and have all been involved in starting organisations from the green movement to the mainstream. We also bring our different experiences to the table.”

New Weather’s wide-ranging remit includes media, arts and culture as well as economic debate. Recent initiatives have included a project with the Friends of Provident Foundation (FPF), a grant-making charity that focuses on exploring the role of money and financial systems as a force for social good.

“One of the first things we did was help to run an informal dialogue between the Treasury and the emerging micro-local economic sector in fields like community banking and energy,” explains Mr Boyle. “We wanted to know why it is so difficult to communicate between the two sides and why neither side really understood each other. The FPF is helping us interview a number of economists to try and break that logjam.”

He says that one of the key barriers to change is the fact that all economic policy is operated from Whitehall. “What we have is a waste of resources like buildings and lands, but there are levers emerging which can use those resources more effectively. However, at the moment, this is only available at local level.

“All the projects we are thinking of doing have been very specific things like local banking.”

Mr Boyle points out that in the UK, just 3% of banks are local, compared with 34% in the USA, 33% in Germany and 44% in Japan.   

“Co-operative and savings banks reduce the drain of capital from urban centres and foster regional equality because of their ability to lend to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Our lack of local banks means that our recessions are likely to be deeper than theirs, and our SMEs are at a disadvantage.

“When you are talking about very specific changes there is a whole range of people who need those things to happen. It’s our job to identify those benefits, articulate then in the right way and find out what the logjams are.”

“We need to begin to change the debate and find allies in all parties, so our next step is to tackle mainstream thinking.”

But he is aware of the challenges: “If it was an easy thing to do we would not be required to do it.”

Mr Boyle has also written a paper on setting up an ‘Ethical Wonga’ published by the New Weather Institute, with help from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which looks at options including making short-term loans available through the welfare system.

“One of the things we have learned is how intractable government is,” he said. “Even when you are in charge of it is hard to make things happen. But we can change the weather by intervening in very specific ways where we have the opportunity to do so.”

Mr Boyle says that as a co-operative, the New Weather Institute is uniquely placed to bring about change. “I think the co-op movement is hugely important and a critical part of what we do. Ed Mayo persuaded us to make New Weather Institute a mutual and he was right. It gives an edge to what we’re doing.”

Andrew Simms agrees. “The co-op movement is central to challenging the notion there is only one way to do business – through the standard shareholder, private profit-driven model. Co-operative structures are more open to influence and to working toward other ethical and environmental agendas, too. They are by definition more inclusive.

“Where the mainstream political parties are concerned I think they tend only ever to lead from behind. Change will come from elsewhere and they will be dragged kicking and screaming along. It took the unfunded enthusiasm of UK Uncut to put large scale corporate tax evasion on the political agenda. I suspect more new social movements will arise to challenge the parties and they will be forced to respond. The weather is changing and we will be looking at how and why and which way it is going.”

So it is in this arena that New Weather’s forecasts can make a difference, adds Mr Simms. “There is a powerful sense all sorts of systems are failing us – from economic and democratic to food and energy.

“But in spite of the awareness of failure, mainstream politics and media cling tenaciously to what we already have, and seem terrified of considering better ways of doing things. Yet problems like climate change and inequality, science and the threat to social cohesion all tell us this is urgent and necessary.”

The institute’s current projects include a study of radical new approaches to money and the delivery of key public services.

Adds Mr Simms: “I am interested in practical utopias, by which I mean bringing together examples from the worlds of food, energy, transport, banking and more to show those who argue that ‘there is no alternative’ are wrong and that we are in fact already surrounded by a host of adjacent possibilities, which if brought together would belie doom sayers, and demonstrate the practical opportunity for rapid transition to good lives that don’t have to cost the earth.”

In the next 12 months the New Weather Institute plans to publish more policy ideas and host a series of public events and seminars.

“This a time of increasing flux in which new ideas, or good old ones brought back to the debate, will matter more and more,” says Mr Simms. “The New Weather Institute will be a success if we are able to enlarge the public debate about ‘big change’ rather than the current politics which seems trapped in minor shades of difference within one fundamentally unchallenged economic system.”

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