Shifting from dynamic conservatism to dynamic innovation

In the context of how to address the global challenges ahead, Joan O’Donnell looks at the role of the State in rethinking economics

Mary Murphy of Maynooth University; Ian Gough of London School of Economics and Political Science; and Mariana Mazzucato of University College London with President Michael D Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin. Picture: maxwellphotography.ie
Mary Murphy of Maynooth University; Ian Gough of London School of Economics and Political Science; and Mariana Mazzucato of University College London with President Michael D Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin. Picture: maxwellphotography.ie

A gaggle of economists, a smattering of social justice advocates, with a generous helping of academics and environmentalists, gathered recently at the invitation of President Michael D Higgins to begin a conversation about the role of the State in rethinking economics.

We were joined by economists Mariana Mazzucato and Ian Gough, both prominent voices in shaping international thinking on how to address the challenges ahead. And while the main focus was ostensibly shifting the economic paradigm, the question of how to do this within systems that are, by nature, “dynamically conservative” remains a challenge.

If, as Myron Rogers points out, the process we use to get to the future shapes the future we get, how do we develop the capability to engage in a process of transforming our institutions, as it seems, we must?

President Higgins spoke of the need to rekindle the social contract between citizen and State following decades of attack from the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy.

He attributed the hemorrhaging of solidarity, empathy, and cohesion to current economic models and he impressed upon us the need to combine the “radicalism that is in the consciousness of climate activists with the consciousness of egalitarianism and the programmes of inclusion activists and feminists” in the move towards a steady-state eco-social paradigm.

He evoked Hartmut Rosa, who calls for a shift from “consuming the world” to experiencing it and resonating with it, if we are to have any quality of life on this planet.

Prof Mazzucato laid out with great passion the case for reviewing how those who take value from the system present themselves as value creators.

We need to look towards creating social value for citizens through purpose-led innovation. She advocated for a shift in thinking that would see narratives that seek to “fix the market” morph into an understanding of co-creating and shaping markets, welcoming uncertainty as an antidote to “derisking”, and capacity building as a replacement for “outsourcing”.

The consequences of ignoring the need to change, and change at great speed, was brought into chilling clarity by Prof Gough, who put inequality and human need at the core of discussion on climate change.

Addressing climate change without accepting that those who are poor need a bigger slice of a cake that cannot grow is not tenable, according to Prof Gough, who also argues that in order to address global inequality, we must begin to accept that those who are poorer get a bigger slice of the entire cake, a cake that cannot grow, and yet necessitates reviving our welfare systems.

So the need to act fast is clear and the direction in which we need to travel is emerging, but the question of how we are going to disrupt ourselves and our current modes of thinking and ways of doing business is something we also need to address.

The OECD reminds us that the governance arrangements of the State were set up for more stable times, and cannot hope to govern well in a rapidly changing world, where national boundaries are porous and technology is developing at such speed.

The issues of power, who has it, who must give it up, and who needs more are things that we need to address. How do we ensure that investment in communities and rights-based approaches are adopted by Government and we shake off the rhetoric that austerity and the stripping away of (dissenting) community resources is an acceptable choice in a tight economic situation?

How do we move to more robust debate that reaches beyond the ash cloud of neoliberalism that has rained upon us?

Learning to collaborate rather than compete means developing a new range of capabilities that must be supported and encouraged by the State.

It is not enough to focus on shiny innovations that do not have the creation of public value at their core.

While there is a recognition that the State needs more dynamic capabilities, academics and policymakers know little about what makes governments and specific public organisations dynamic and able to respond to changing societal demands and needs.

As Prof Mazzucato points out, policymakers must be more than mere project managers or neutral implementers of a political will.

If we are to refocus attention on the State’s role in working purposefully towards providing public value and working with complex social issues, we require a new set of skills and competencies.

The most difficult thing is to develop the humility, patience, and openness to be in the world and access our inner wisdom and harness our collective capacities.

We can all do the math here. Two plus two can mean a whole lot more than four when we work together on shared outcomes, rather than minding our patch at all costs.

So how do we move towards a space that allows more robust dialogue, includes less heard voices, and listen so that we can co-create new futures together without retreating into siloed professional or role identities?

The first requirement is a new maturity that moves beyond defensiveness and sits in an open, more curious space of inquiry. Curiosity is one of the six core innovation skills for the 21st-century public servant listed by the OECD.

The others are being able to challenge the status quo, tell the story of how we need to change that builds supports and capacity to focus on solving and servicing citizen needs, in addition to developing policies incrementally and experimentally and being data literate.

The International Futures Forum cautions that competencies must be preceded by a psychological maturity that can move beyond defensiveness to embrace new information. The capacity to be reflexive — to reflect on what we are doing, as we are doing it — is a skill we are all going to need in the powerful times that lie ahead.

And while all this looks good on paper, we have the challenge of being reflexive ourselves: how do we stack up against these competencies, should we proclaim to have an interest in inequality, in the environmental crisis of our time?

How do we engage with the power structures that move around us? How do we use our own power in challenging the status quo?

For the challenge in learning to be, learning to be together, learning to know, and learning to do things differently is one that we cannot outsource.

The turn away from neoliberalism must involve an underpinning of a social economy that can address hyper-inequality and take decisive climate action.

An eminent economist left the Áras shaking his head, wondering why we need to discuss different models of economics and why we can’t just get on with the job of analysing quantitative figures.

A social justice advocate drove out arguing the same point he argued on the way in. An academic worried about getting back to the train station and an environmentalist left smiling on his bike. But make no mistake, the conversation has begun.

- Joan O’Donnell is a doctoral researcher at the School of Psychology, Maynooth University.

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