Thinking Aloud : A Summary

Report on the two international seminars held at the London School of Economics (LSE), organised by Zamyn, 16-17 June and 30-1 July, 2005

1. Background

There is a disturbing problem at the heart of contemporary globalisation, which helps explain a great deal of politics and conflict today. There has been a shift from relatively distinct national communication and economic systems to their more complex and diverse enmeshment at regional and global levels, and from government to a multilevel governance. Yet, there are few grounds for thinking that a parallel ‘globalisation’ of political identities has taken place. One exception to this is to be found among many of the elites of the global order – the networks of experts and specialists, senior administrative personnel and transnational business executives. But these groups are not typical. Thus we live with a challenging paradox – that governance is becoming increasingly a multilevel intricately institutionalised and spatially dispersed activity, while representation, loyalty and identity remain stubbornly rooted in traditional ethnic, regional and national communities.

Hence, the shift from government to multilayered governance, from national economies to economic globalisation, is a potentially unstable shift, capable of reversal in some respects and certainly capable of engendering a fierce reaction – a reaction drawing on nostalgia, romanticized conceptions of political community, hostility to outsiders (refugees) and a search for a pure national state or pure religious identity. While this reaction is understandable – globalisation and political and cultural identities are pulling in different directions – it is highly unstable. The reason for this is simple: a resurgent political nationalism and religious identity cannot easily resolve the core political challenges of our global era. From the rules of trade and taxation, to those governing migration and the environment, an urgent new form of communication and collaboration is required – one that can accommodate the fact that the world is increasingly interconnected and interdependent.

2. The Seminars

The relation between culture and globalisation has never been more pressing and throws up issues that will affect the stability of the global economy and international politics in the years ahead. It is against this background that Zamyn and Professors Held and Moore of the London School of Economics agreed to organize two international seminars at the LSE. These seminars bought together an extraordinary group of intellectuals, cultural practitioners and business people to spend an intensive period exploring some of the key questions of communications and identity in a global age. The participants came from all corners of the world, different business and religious backgrounds, and very different intellectual traditions.

In an era in which it is often said that there is a ‘clash of civilizations’ – the West and the rest, Christendom versus Islam, the rise of new fundamentalisms (Islamic, Christian, Jewish among others) – it was found that there are indeed competing ideas of globalisation, political identities, wellbeing, and the future of culture. These ideas can readily seem like competing or incommensurable paradigms or frameworks of thought. And in some respects they are. Yet, it was shown that if differences of value and ideas are explored not by simply opposing one set with another but, rather, by focusing on common problems and common challenges, e.g., the relation between consumers and producers, the scarcity of natural resources, and AIDS/HIV, then mutually comprehensible ground can be uncovered. In other words, a focus on sectoral problems and particular challenges – a problem oriented approach – yields productive discussion and a reasonable hope of uncovering a feasible way forward.

3. An example: the relation between consumers and producers

These questions were explored via two different approaches:

a) The notion of creative consumers. We are moving from an era of mass production to one of mass innovation. The age of the passive consumer is over. If we aren’t happy with a piece of software, we change it. If we think the newspapers have got it all wrong, we write our own articles and post them on the Internet or develop blogs. And if we’re sick of George Lucas’s Star Wars sequels we make our own. And, strangely enough, big companies can’t get enough of it. Far from feeling displaced, they are making the most of a good thing, incorporating customers’ suggestions, copying customers’ modifications and generally benefiting from a free source of design innovation. Bell, the American manufacturers of cycle hats, have included a number of customer improvements in their new range of helmets, and BMW recently collected ideas online before inviting fifteen lucky ‘creative consumers’ to come and talk to their top engineers. Westwood Studios include game-development tools with all their computer games, encouraging players to make their own adjustments. These adapted games are often then posted on the Internet, where Westwood can track them down and include any improvements in the official version of the game. Maxis, the company that produces The Sims, claims that 400.000 people have downloaded their game-development software. In each case, all of the new ideas were donated for free. This trend is not new. But one difference today is the way in which technology is speeding up the whole process. Developments in open source software have made it possible for complete strangers to collaborate on designs for anything from sports equipment to entire buildings. Can we make use of this means to democratise innovation to tackle major global challenges? People from all over the world might get together on a single problem, solving it for fun or prestige – any reason other than money. Websites like already invite us to come up with solutions to problems as diverse as farming systems in developing countries and healthcare. Contributors are often doctors or agricultural engineers, happy to waive patent rights. Can companies – using creative consumers – become major engines for cultural change? Will this be the next phase of corporate social responsibility?

b) By exploring whether corporations can learn anything from the way individual artists work both alone and as part of creative networks. Art works challenge received forms of representation and ways of seeing and believing and yet conform to ideas about the value of art in society for reflecting on shared ideas about value and truth and/or submitting those values to scrutiny. If business and transnational corporations are to be involve in enhancing and/or developing community values and cultural dialogue – is there anything in the way artistic innovation and creativity works that could be built on.

4. The outcomes

The creative consumer idea needs further work, but is very promising and companies/corporates would have a role with governments in developing models to make this work. On the question of what business can learn from the arts – this was much more uncertain. The very terrain is difficult for both sides to explore because they lack a common language(s), but the next phase should be further problem oriented seminars to see what can be done together.

More generally, the two seminars explored the problem oriented approach to culture and globalisation in some depth by examining a series of puzzles that we all face in economic, political and cultural life. David Held and Henrietta Moore will develop this into a book on culture and globalisation in the months ahead, and through it make suggestions of how decision-making in complex conflict situations might find a productive way forward. They hope this will be a contribution towards the promotion of ways of creating paradigms of mutual tolerance and advancement at a time which cultural difference echoes through all the media and international politics.

David Held, Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science, The London School of Economics and Political Science
Henrietta L. Moore, Professor of Social Anthropology, The London School of Economics and Political Science