We’re all drifting out to sea, and struggling to chart a course to the island of hope. Could the rise of citizen leaders finally shift the global tides?
Back in the summer, Pokémon Go drew a great deal of criticism, mostly from those who found the augmented reality phenomenon so bafflingly trivial they argued this latest passing expression of modern technology was, at minimum, a waste of time or, at worst, another signpost of the dissolution of society. But for those not waving a shotgun and shouting ‘get off my lawn’ there was something compelling happening with the sudden release of energy and joy caused by the game, particularly in counterpoint to the jarring U.S. election results last week.
Pokémon Go reminded us, again, of the possibility of the potential energy citizens can channel when sufficiently motivated. The question that lingers as a rocky 2016 nears its close is – how can we inspire citizens to willingly direct their energy in ways that will not only amuse but substantively benefit societies?
Or more to the point – is it already happening?
How we arrived at now
In the U.K. the Brexit referendum vote was poorly attended by the younger people most likely to suffer its consequences. The wider international community continues to struggle with the U.K.’s future outside of the European Union even as Brits themselves wonder at the unintended consequences of their votes. Across the Atlantic, the post-mortem is still in progress but it’s fair to say that American voters rejected a candidate tied to conventional, corporatized power structures in favour of an unhinged demagogue riding an ugly populist wave.
These two destabilizing economic and political happenings are playing out against an anxiety-inducing global backdrop that includes a downward spiral across the middle east where the promise of the Arab Spring has been drowned out by the chaotic blowback of post-9/11 invasions and conflicts. This backdrop also takes in the Panama Papers leak which itself nods back to the once promising Occupy Wall Street movement with a sad knowing glance. Our landscapes have been increasingly scarred by a numbing series of terrorist attacks across continental Europe and the simmering racial discontent at the heart of every new cell phone video of police brutality or outright murder surfacing (not just) in the United States.
A revolution without form or name
I grew up in England, and during the 1970s and 1980s we lived with the constant threat of the I.R.A. carrying out politically motivated bombings of pubs, hotels, and city centres across the U.K. mainland. We’ve seen the likes of these things before. However, it has become increasingly apparent that the current economic and societal models are wholly inadequate when it comes to the needs of people around the world.
As middle classes expand across developing parts of the world, what kinds of societal organizational lessons can they learn from the West? We’re governed by politicians who lack the leadership and fiscal skills required for high office. We have business leaders who are still clinging to a command and control, winner-takes-all approach to business. The demands we are facing require something different.
The truth is that millions of energetic people have ideas and intelligence that are rendered superfluous to the decision-making apparatus within and between countries. This is untenable, especially in a time of technological and intellectual empowerment. People are slowly beginning to realise that the societies we live in are far from normal.
Something has to give.
I believe we need a new breed of citizen leaders who can bring societies together and help us navigate the challenges that lie ahead. They can help us inspire a new kind of political and business leadership. They can help craft a new deal between people, a new social contract about how we work together, treat each other and what’s right or wrong.
2016 has reminded us, yet again, that this change is not going to come from the people at the top. It will have to happen somewhere far from the traditional centres of power.
The API of WE
I believe the influence of citizen leaders is going to prove key in the shift towards a more inclusive and caring society. Increasingly, we’re seeing people taking more ownership of their lives, employing ideas outside the mainstream to build a life disconnected from traditional structures. These ideas are being quietly shared with others and propagating across communities. The resulting grassroots innovation will likely emerge with a dose of apathy, if not hostility, towards the way things have been done before. The broad disinterest of the U.K.’s youngest citizens in the Brexit referendum may not ultimately be productive, but it’s a sign that they are disconnected from the existing hierarchies. Truth be told, many of the ways communities and micro-societies are evolving are out of view not just of those in power, but those of us who try to keep our ear to the ground and eye to the horizon.
At Better Ventures, we call this groundswell the API of WE. The API of WE is in some ways formless, but it echoes with the notion that tens of millions of people don’t see their story in the global narrative – so they’re going to write one themselves, in a way that honours their connection with other human beings.
What will all this look like as it unfolds? The final form is inescapably unclear but certain things strike me as true:
- We’re suffering from a compassion and integrity deficit. And this matters a lot more to most of us than we dare to admit.
- We need a radical change in attitudes in the society of which we are all active participants.
- We need to support each other in the quest to take the sustained action that will eventually lead to lasting societal change and economic reform.
- We need a collective realization that when one knows another, there is then a real possibility to transform the way we live, love and collaborate together.
- We are undergoing a cultural revolution, one that may not look like any that have come before it.
My hope for our future is that we can shift from a winner-takes-all, materialistic and consumption-obsessed society to one of shared abundance in which everyone can be an active participant and have the opportunity to get a fair slice of the cake they baked. Most people aren’t in search of seismic societal and economic change but it is happening, and now we need to work together to ensure we can all look forwards to a brighter and more beautiful future. ∎