The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: innovation

Innovation Agents



ONE OF THE GREAT CRITICISMS THAT HAS that always confronted the World Economic Summit in Davos each and every year is that its pronouncements sounds so grandiose and global when in fact little, if anything, concrete seems to come from all that talk and collaboration. We need evidence, the kind that is supposed to emerge when connected minds and collaborative intelligence get together and map out a way forward. Proof of what is possible is far more important to the billions in this world than mere projections of what could be.

In numerous and provocative dimensions this is what billionaire and elite rebel Nick Hanauer has been prodding his peers to do: get real. Yet he understands that financial reform will prove impossible without political renewal. As long as the political spectrum remains as rigid and ideologically fixed as it has shown in recent decades, any sense of change in world finance won’t find a willing partner in transformation politics.

Hanauer points out that many of the greatest democratic movements occurred far away from the apex of power, in regional areas where citizens successfully mobilized on issues ranging from pensions to affordable health care. Often the reason is not merely due to the dynamic resources of those pressing for change, but the demoralizing inflexibility coming from party central – all parties.

“The politicians just don’t get it, and haven’t for years,” he observes. “The Right screams for growth and the Left keeps calling for fairness – and they both just keep losing legitimacy.”

It’s really not in the nature of government to innovate, except on rare occasions. Governments have historically been viewed as providing stability, maintaining the status quo, but that has become precisely the problem in the modern era. Political parties remain entrenched, making renewal all but impossible. In such a setting, how will they take risks, thinking radically outside the box, or even take the lead from outside forces. It’s true that governments around the world became far too easily influenced by free market ideologies, but that has now left both politics and capitalism as appearing unable to solve our greatest problems. While political leaders in places like Davos acknowledge that financial inequality has become one of our greatest challenges, they see no desire for change from the financial order and so remain mired in their redundancy. The status quo no longer works because far too many people are being left out of the wealth being generated.

Not even a year ago, the Coordination of National Digital Strategy of Mexico launched a program called “Innovation Agent.” They invited leaders from within both government and capitalism and asked them to think of the great global challenges in the way average people would see them. Over the course of time the organizers easily spotted the true innovators from both sectors and were amazed at how they worked together to formulate solutions.

Yet the success of the exercise wasn’t so much predicated upon the ability of the participants to start thinking like average people as it was the freedom the innovators felt once removed from the stifling orthodoxies and ideologies of both politics and business. The business innovators showed remarkable dexterity, not only in admitting corporate failures but of the need for governments to take on a more equitable leadership role. And the politicians? Once they were freed from partisan constraints, they were far more effective in designing collaborate solutions that showed promise.

Participants in the exercise acknowledged that in order to build governments and businesses that truly apply themselves to the challenges before the world they must get out of being isolated from citizens in general. Innovation didn’t come for the participants until they were willing to entertain the possibility of destroying the old paradigms and partisan leanings.

To succeed in reforming both politics and business we must find some way to get them outside of their comfortable confines and into communities where the greatest kinds of innovations play out. The governing and corporate sectors have come to be exclusively defined by three general terms – size, money, and power. Until they both work together to change that perception, it will only be a matter of time, as Hanauer repeatedly claims, until everything collapses due to irrelevance.

Cheers For Fears


PARDON THE CHANGE OF WORDING REGARDING the famous new wave band Tears for Fears, but somehow it seemed suitable over these past few days.

Last week was like few others for those of us associated with the London Food Bank.  Following 28 years of service to our community, we decided the time was right to consider a new way of doing things, of helping those we traditionally assist to find a more dignified way of getting food than lining up at a food bank.

We had known this key moment would be coming for the past couple of years, but now that it had arrived we wondered how our community would react.  Some of it we already knew, through detailed discussions over the last two years with various agencies and institutions who, like us, felt there had to be a better way.  What if we could actually establish cheaper food venues (markets, co-ops, etc.) where our clients, instead of acquiring some $400 of food over the average year, could actually save thousands of dollars by accessing cheaper foodstuffs through these new locations closer to where they lived?  It was an intriguing question.  We would always keep the warehousing part of the operation going, along with food drives and donations, to collect food for the 25 other social agencies we consistently help, but the direct service part of what we were doing would slowly be moved out closer to where those struggling in poverty actually lived.  It made sense to a lot of groups, especially since London has recently launched a food charter designed specifically to bring about such changes.

But what of the broader public, or those businesses that have faithfully supported us over the years?  Would they be offended and perhaps stop giving?  The best way to find that out is to launch the initiative, provide information for the rationale, and wait to see the result.

We didn’t have to wait long.  No sooner had the media published the news than texts, emails, and phone calls began pouring in.  That very afternoon we attended a business venue where former Prime Minister Paul Martin was speaking.  We wondered what to expect.  Almost immediately we were met with handshakes and congratulations for attempting to break the cycle of poverty and for innovating in a time when our city feels stuck in ambivalence and negativity.

Now, a few days later, we have come to understand that our city is looking for change.  Across so many different sectors, leaders have opted to bypass our political dysfunction and take matters into their own hands.  Much grassroots work has been done in recent years and these individuals feel the time is right to grow our community from within instead of waiting for some ultimate, and perhaps impossible, political solution.  The steps we have just taken as a food bank have to be seen in that larger context – the desire for change is popping up everywhere.

In our 28 years of operation we have never experienced such a strong and positive response to any of our other announcements or initiatives.  Instinctively, local citizens know that for food banks, which were supposed to be temporary, to take on a growing role each and every year, was to give a kind of subtle admission that we couldn’t change our own fate, that poverty, and those living in it, were doomed to be an escalating sector in our city.  This they could not bring themselves to accept, and so they have opted to support those initiatives designed to give a sense of independence, dignity, and a sense of equal citizenship.  It has perhaps been the most heartening response we could have expected.

I’ve been our food bank co-director for the entire duration of the organization.  I have grown, been humbled, and learned during all those years.  But I am also getting older, so much so that I have come to expect pain and a sense of loss as I age.  And yet every so often I find myself delightfully surprised by those small miracles that make community living so worthwhile.  I was surprised and overcome in these past few days by a city that doesn’t quit and that believes to collaborate for the sake of those struggling to make ends meet is perhaps the highest civic honour.

Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote: “Do something every day that scares you.”  Well, after almost three decades we decided to take on a whopper and it left us biting our nails.  But when our community gathered around in encouragement, fear gave way to thankfulness and expectation.

I have always been moved by the sentiment expressed by poet and mystic Rumi: “Let the beauty you love be what you do.”  We have always loved this major undertaking of our lives at the food bank.  But this past week we have discovered anew that we are not alone in that love, but that it is a citizen right and responsibility shared by a deeply compassionate community.  So, yes, any fears we may have entertained concerning how Londoners would respond to this food bank change have been allayed by a sense of collective cheer when we acknowledge that we are our own solution and will write our own story that will include everyone. 

Conversations in City Building

My friend, Bharat Punjabi, a Visiting Doctrinal Fellow specializing in the field of political economy, sent me some information about a group called “Rethinking Economics.”  Based in Britain, they are a student-based movement determined to start a new conversation.  We’ll be talking about them more in a future post.  I love their set of three conclusions:

  • We are thirsty for new ways of thinking.  The economics we have been studying does not fit the economy we are living in.
  • We need to ask new questions to get new answers, and we need a greater diversity of ideas in economics.
  • We deserve new explanations and new responses to the economic, environmental, and social crises evolving on our planet.

You’ve got to love this stuff – the language, the chutzpah, the audacity, the dream.

Just this past weekend another group of rising thinkers and activists gathered in London, Ontario, and if you would have asked them, it’s likely they would have held out a set of aspirations close to those listed above.  Called “PreX,” the day-long event was hosted and organized by Emerging Leaders.  Their goal was simple: how to we create an energized city that brings in new dynamics while respecting the successes of the past.  You can find out more about it by watching the brief video above.

I used social media a lot while there, but at one point I tweeted: “Personally, I feel this is one of the most vital meetings I have participated with in London.  It gives me hope – and it’s coming.”  It was clear to me that what was happening was not just the rising presence of the next group of leaders, but the fact that institutional players were there to help open doors to a new kind of future that our city desperately needs.

Former head of Canada’s Privy Council, Alex Himelfarb, was there and opened the event with some interesting news: across the economic spectrum, people of various persuasions are requesting a new discussion on the subject of taxes.  What had once been a term banished to some kind of economic archipelago, a new consensus is emerging on the requirement for prudent public investments that comes with taxes.  It wasn’t so much a revelation as it was a kind of collective release.  Suddenly, through Himelfarb’s timely book, Tax Is Not A Four Letter Word, it’s permissible to talk about the public space and citizen/corporate investments again.  Himelfarb, with all his experience, opened the door to a subject those present at the conference had been wanting to talk about openly for a long time. Check out his words in the video.

Regardless of where our community heads in the future, without public investment we will never get there.  So, yes, I felt it was one of the most fundamental meetings I have ever had the privilege of attending.  Suddenly everything is on the table, and just as suddenly a new future is emerging.

History’s Trick

disappearing-jobsThere were many good responses to these last few blog posts on the future of work – some very worth exploring. But largely our leaders of politics and economics just return our questions with a deafening silence.  At the moment, there is no inclination to deal with the problem of the slow disappearance of work.

Political theorist, Judith Shklar, used to maintain that work is more crucial to the core values of democracy than anything else, including family or even government.  Shklar died some 20 years ago, just at the onset of burgeoning unemployment. What would she think of her theory today, now that work has been demeaned, or worse, done away with altogether?  Even if she were partially correct, then the loss of work would result in the threat of civic status, of community virtue, and ultimately the legitimacy of democracy itself.  Surely that is serious enough for us to consider how we might avert such a crisis and strike a new path forward.

Given how deeply the financial and political systems have failed, there is no shame in no longer possessing meaningful employment.  But consider the sheer waste of it – humanity arriving at the point of emancipation, sustainability, and citizen possibilities only to discover that it had constructed models of moral and financial diminishment.    The list grows longer everyday: unemployed, underemployed, homemakers, seniors, welfare recipients, disability, mental health, dislocated veterans, listless youth.  Surely there must be someplace of worth for such individuals in our supposedly wealthy societies, positions of work and worth.  Why can’t civil society have its own work force?  Is there not the possibility of an army of employed caregivers at every level of society?  

Have we arrived at this point in our human journey only to discover that history has played some coy trick on us, that the “survival of the fittest” is alive and well in our cities, communities and neighbourhoods?  Can we rehabilitate ourselves, bring ourselves back from the brink of inanity and lack of purpose in a fashion that will put work – meaningful work – in it proper place in society?  Whatever the solutions to our predicament will be, they will surely involve a more refined capitalism and a more engaged citizenry.


Generations (16)

If the future of our cities is in our youth, then what is the future of youth?  It’s a simple question that carries profound implications for our communities if we don’t get that answer right.  Some communities in North America have been working hard at creating diverse and welcoming initiatives designed to attract and retain those creative classes of young people who could spell the solution to the invigoration of the places we live.

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

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