Yesterday over 100 people gathered in Horizon at Brewery Wharf on the paved over flood plain of the River Aire in Leeds. While the warm air of Storm Ciara ripped at the cladding and dumped its increased burden of rain onto the hills and valleys it transpired that our keynote speaker was unable to make the journey from the south coast due to widespread transport failures.
Brewery Wharf itself was looking tired and grey, with apologetic sandbags burst open and significant building works underway. I had cycled down with the wind and rain ripping at me. I’d been abused by a driver who narrowly avoided ‘left hooking’ me on Regents St as he was unable to progress, stranded across the bike lane. His anger transmuted into an order for me to go forth and multiply. When I arrived I struggled to find anywhere to lock my bike. Leeds.
After the formalities of the welcome Tom Riordan, CEO of the council, spoke to us and answered questions for the best part of an hour to fill the gap left by our stranded speaker. I thought the almost biblical conditions might provide the perfect space for a city to pause, reflect and ponder whether a course correction might be required.
Tom started off sharing his expectation that about 15 people would show up, given the weather and the warnings. But loads had turned up and how very ‘Leeds’ that was. To not let ‘a little weather’ stop us. To carry on regardless. This might turn out to be our Achilles’ Heel.
He acknowledged the tremendous work of the council teams and volunteers who had worked since 4am on Sunday to avert a flooding disaster in the city. He thanked the engineers of the moveable dams first used in Portugal and now here in Leeds to manage the unprecedented river flows. He acknowledged the floods further up the valley and the damage and suffering that had been caused. But WE had escaped with a close shave thanks to investment in technology.
Can we outpace climate change?
I wondered, as the climate continues to warm and the atmosphere holds even greater quantities of water ushered in on even higher wind speeds, for how much longer our flood defences could outrun the climate. 20 miles up the valley and 4 significant flood events already this century in the city (remember those assurances about once in a hundred years?) hinted at a possible answer.
I reflected on the advice of one of the worlds leading systems thinkers, Gregory Bateson, to be “alert to the tendency to let technological possibility or economic indicators replace reflection; for the effort to maximise a single variable, like profit, rather than optimising a complex set of variables.”
Perhaps this was a space for reflection and alertness?
Tom described the great successes of Leeds, the city and its economy, and the councils’ progress. Homelessness is lower than our neighbours. We are going to double the size of the city centre. We are going to develop strategic partnerships with developers and business. We are going to take the idea of ‘anchor institutions’ pioneered in the voluntary, civic and social enterprise sector and bring it to the world of the large employers who could do more to recruit and develop local talent. He spoke of new roles being pioneered at the hospital combining a health care assistant with a social prescriber (an opportunity for a new TLA surely) to provide career opportunities for local people in the ever expanding illness business.
I reflected on how much of this burden of illness was significantly contributed to by poverty, debt, anxiety, addiction, poor air quality, poor housing, homelessness and loneliness, and how much of that was contributed to by ‘strategic partners’ in the city like William Hill, Sky, and Channel 4 with adverts for consumption and gambling inclusively beamed into nearly every front-room and smart phone in the city.
The price of prosperity is rarely paid by the prosperous.
We Can’t Stop Capitalism. Can We?
Tom reminded us that ‘we can’t stop capitalism’. I’ve heard him talk before about the importance of ‘going with the grain’.
And I’m not sure that is what any of us wanted. The end of capitalism. Not overnight anyway. Some of us just wanted, as good credit card carrying capitalists, to recognise those that were excluded from growth, damaged by it, discriminated against and left behind by it. To consider how we might use it to care for the planet rather than to kill it. And to reflect on what we might be able to do about it. How we might change things. For the better.
To reflect on the way that growth was a problem as well as an opportunity. It really IS easier to imagine the end of humanity than the end of capitalism.
Tom then talked about the vibrant ‘third’ sector. It is often described as vibrant in Leeds. And it does have some incredible people who have been working for inclusion and equality for decades, using hard won funding cocktails of heavily scrutinised, usually short term, contracts and philanthropy. When money is on the table ‘vibrant’ is a good persona to adopt.
I’ve known many of Leeds ‘third sector’ leaders for decades and I know that for some, accompanying their ‘vibrancy’ is anger, frustration and exhaustion.
Tom was brilliant. Engaging, witty, informed. But I’m not sure we grasped the nettle of who was left out of the economic growth and why. No mention of ‘discrimination’. Or whether economic growth was as much part of the problem as the solution. The message seemed to be that we need to double down on our efforts.
Economist Serge Latouche has developed the concept of de-growth as a way of averting the crisis that may (or may not) be looming. After decades of speculative and financial euphoria, punctuated by the odd crash and policy of austerity, the Leeds economy is ‘doing well’. But many of its people aren’t because of displacement, the retreat of the welfare state, the increased precarity of the gig economy and under-employment.
What if we put human wellbeing before, or at least alongside profits? What if we tried to optimise many variables, instead of focussing on one?
The Wellbeing Economic Alliance seem to be working on this and are well worth a look.
Perhaps there is an opportunity to develop de-growth initiatives in a spirit of solidarity, working together to create a new era that aims for a calm, responsible decrease in consumption fostered by a love of all species and our planet? Rather than putting humans, especially those with ‘potential’ at the centre of things, what about if we saw ourselves as just a small part of a much larger and complex ecosystem? What if we were able to change the paradigm? But such radical thinking was not, apparently, on the agenda.
After a well resourced break it was workshop sessions.
I attended one on ‘Culture and Place’ and one on ‘Thriving Communities’. We had just over an hour for each workshop and the majority of the time was spent with speakers addressing the room with very little opportunity to really get into the complex issues in table discussions.
The variety of different perspectives on the same issue were leading to conflict especially where third sector knowledge of communities and private sector enthusiasm to help were at odds. At one point I could not hide my frustration when a session that should have been exploring our role, and what Leeds could do to help, collapsed into a conversation about how two big businesses with mixed reputations in the city might effectively provide enterprise training as part of their CSR work, because “it is better than painting fences”. The long history and experience of doing enterprise development work in Leeds counted for little in the face of four sessions of training that ‘worked’. Enthusiasm from the private sector unless melded with the experience of the third and civic sector and local community developers really IS likely to do more harm than good. One of our table explained that community and business were miles apart. I wondered if they had ever visited Harehills where community and business are intertwined both spatially and through familial ties.
It was a strange moment for me. I was starting to ‘other’ my colleagues from business, but without the time or the safe pace to really have the conversation I felt left with little alternative. And even though I know this is a dangerous and destructive dynamic I felt myself falling into it.
It wasn’t about personalities. It was about paradigms. Some were in the paradigm of ‘big business as a force for good full of good people that care‘. Others were in a paradigm that said ‘beware big business, knowingly or not’ it damages people and planet and shows little real intention or desire in stopping’. Some were in the paradigm that said ‘growth is sustainable’. Others in a paradigm that said ‘growth is not sustainable’.
Some were in a paradigm where they had answers. Others were in a paradigm full of curiosity and questions. Some were in a paradigm of making nips and tucks to the existing way. Building better dams and higher walls. Others were in a paradigm that that sees the need for a fundamental change in what we value.
Would we be able to hold both paradigms respectfully? To learn from each other? To support each other to move forward with love and kindness? Not in the few minutes in which we had for our paradigms to collide. No.
I have been working on the idea of paradigms and how they shift for a while now. I have written a little about it here. And run workshops to help leaders explore their role in developing and shifting paradigms.
Much was made of Leeds diversity as a strength. But unless we find the time for the diverse perspectives and different paradigms to listen to each other with respect and care the diversity is more likely to lead to chaos than creativity. To less inclusion rather than more.
In the plenary session one of the speakers quoted a piece of radical engagement work in Copenhagen that took place after riots had rocked the city. As a city and a region we have a history with riots and I hope that such unrest is not necessary to trigger a genuinely creative and transformational response to our times.
Im not a great one for celebrity leadership. But when I got home Joaquin Cortez gave me hope…
“We fear the idea of personal change, because we think we need to sacrifice something; to give something up. But human beings at our best are so creative and inventive, and we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and the environment.”Joaquin Phoenix – Oscar Acceptance Speech 2020
We need a space for thinking and imagining where the realists and pragmatists can take a back seat while the idealists and the imagineers can develop ideas about how things might be. To build a consensus and commitment to move towards a very different but eminently possible future.