A respected pioneer of social innovation, consultant of the British Government, prophet of the future of public policies and professor at Harvard, but also former cultural impresario, former Buddhist monk and expert on happiness. Adventurous anti-conformist choices mark the life of Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, the foundation for innovation in the United Kingdom, which he, as the master of versatility, has been able to sew together in such an exceptionally coherent way, transforming every experience, even the most extravagant, into a key instrument for growth in his career.
"I have a rather confused background that perhaps makes me very suitable for these confused times", he explained in the opening comments of the speech he made at TED in2009,in the wake of the financial crisis that, just a few months before, had upset the world. And it was precisely on that occasion that Mulgan, founder among other things of Demos, the first British think tank on social policies, had identified this moment of crisis as an opportunity finally to change the economic paradigm, transforming the society of consumption in a society capable of responding to the real needs of people. "Leadership could be defined as the ability to exploit a crisis in order to obtain the greatest possible effect (…) and if we think about it, the Great Depression led to the creation of a welfare state in the Thirties," he said. "I believe that today we can see around us the buds of a kind of capitalism and of a different economy that is not centred on consumption and on credit, but on the things that are important to us. Wherever there is a proliferation of local exchange and trading systems, of complementary currencies, of people who use smart technologies to connect the resources, people, homes and the earth to meet real needs".
Assessments which, interpreted in the light of the times nine years ago long before the idea of sharing became a mainstream concept, actually sound prophetic thanks to the boom of the sharing economy and underline the great capacity of Mulgan to read trends and anticipate the future.
I have a rather confused background that perhaps makes me very suitable for these confused times.
In fact, despite the "confused background", the father of social innovation made in the UK can boast of a wall covered with certificates of the most prestigious universities: a degree at Oxford, a Ph.D. in telecommunications from Westminster University, in addition to a fellowship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The first job however arrived in the eighties and it was a long way from academic excellence: he became the van driver of the Red Wedge, a collective of musicians and comedians who supported the labour party. A first job with a slightly hippie bent, certainly picturesque but what he defined as "very interesting", since it enabled him to get his foot in the door of the cultural industry and another foot in the door of politics, thus making a first small step toward Downing Street, where he would become Policy Director for the government led by Tony Blair.
"That first job enabled me to relate public policies to the artistic industries,' explained Mulgan who, starting as a simple driver moved up and acquired a managerial role for the collective, becoming impresario and reaching a key position in the creative side of London in the early nineties, becoming a sort of bridge between the city administration and cultural world. "I contributed to forming the first network of creative cities, from Helsinki to Barcelona, starting up the first business incubators and ad hoc funds and tax deduction policies for the artistic districts". An initial experience that he told us proved useful: "Today one of the most interesting projects in Nesta is precisely the manifesto for the creative economy which relies on analysis of the new trend of artistic consumption in the digital age".
Growth is not synonymous with progress
And if the job as driver unexpectedly steered Mulgan closer to the palaces of power, it is not the only unconventional experience of life that helped to make the daddy of social innovation made in UK a true guru of public policies recognized globally.
In reality what led him to be concerned with social innovation was precisely his involvement with Buddhism, at the tender age of barely 17. "I was lucky enough to cross paths with Nyanaponika Thera, one of the main Buddhist thinkers and pupil of Jung that inspired me more than any other person I have ever met in my life," said Mulgan who in fact studied with Thera in a Sri Lankan Monastery. "I was not cut out to be a monk, nor for a mystical life, but he was an irreplaceable source of wisdom for me. I learned more from him than anyone else". The main teaching for Mulgan concerned awareness, an aspect that should drive innovation and social policies. It is precisely the awareness that is in fact the key to identifying the real needs of people and fundamentally important for understanding how to achieve well-being.
I believe that the objective of the governments and the policy should just be happiness.
"I think that the most important aspect of progress is not the accumulation of objects, technology and knowledge, but that which regards instead awareness', he explained. "It is increasingly clear that economic growth does not automatically turn into social or human growth. It does not always produce what we need. I do not want to say that thinking in terms of growth is wrong, but I find it very striking that in these years of growth many things have not improved", he pointed out, recalling that, just before 2008 the West had experienced the longest lasting boom recorded in history. "If we think about it, in recent years the cases of depression have increased in the western world. In the United States the percentage of people who say they feel all alone has increased by one tenth to a quarter and likewise our lifestyle often makes us less satisfied. For example the time needed to get to work has increased but it has been demonstrated that the length of the daily journeys has a very negative effect on the happiness of commuters".
Moreover, recalls Mulgan, reasoning in terms of growth often means neglecting the measurement of other aspects such as relations, empathy, compassion and, as already mentioned, happiness, all elements that are however determinant in evaluating the quality of life of people. "Perhaps I owe this conviction of mine to Buddhism, but I firmly believe that the objective of the governments and politics should just be happiness". So strong is this conviction that Mulgan is one of the founders, together with the Dalai Lama, of another organisation in the UK, Action for Happiness, which aims to educate people to positivity to help them to live more happily.
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Progress should bring happiness, otherwise it is not progress
It is precisely this idea that pushes Mulgan to deal with social innovation. "I started to become interested in the relationship between public policies and happiness at the beginning of the nineties, when I was hosting a radio program for the BBC. I interviewed the top psychologists and analysts, but when I tried to involve politicians nobody seemed interested". Yet Mulgan does not surrender and he is sure that this is precisely one of the key themes of public policies in the future. With Demos, the think tank founded by him, he began to deal with this and in the early two thousands contributed to the research of the OECD on the development of other indicators in addition to the GDP. Gradually, with a work of advocacy and awareness raising, even the political class is beginning to understand the importance of the subject. In 2004 when he became director of the Young Foundation, the main British institution that unites social impact and innovation, Mulgan launched an experiment to activate laboratories of resilience and happiness in schools. "Until recently it was thought that happiness depended on things outside our control, such as our state of health or the state of our relations. In reality there are aspects that can be taught or cultivated" he explained, underlining that in reality a margin of control, albeit limited, may be exercised, by taking care of the relations with others and conducting a style of healthy life, for example, which are all the key themes of social innovation.
What we need to change is the approach to the problem, to do this we must experiment.
"David Cameron came to see one of the workshops in schools and decided to introduce the happiness and well-being of people among the most important policy considerations of his government. It was an important step, a paradigm shift".
It is starting from the concept of happiness and satisfaction that Mulgan has developed some of his most interesting social innovation experiments including the Study Schools, a new model of state colleges for teenagers from 14 to 19 years in connection with the world of work, developed internally with the Young Foundation. "The question we started with was how to make the school into a place where children who have difficulties can go willingly", he explained. "We transformed the school into a place of work, where children were taught concrete jobs, by involving them in the activities of local enterprises. The result was incredible. Many of those that in the traditional curriculum had had problems in this school model have become some of the best students. It is an important lesson. It means that, sometimes, what we need to change is the approach to the problem, to do this we must experiment".
And it is precisely the experimentation that is a fundamental matter for Mulgan: "If we already invest 4% of our GDP in research and development, could we not invest 1% of public expenditure in social innovation, in care for the elderly, new types of education, new ways to help people with disabilities? Perhaps we could obtain increases in social productivity similar to those obtained in economy and technology". In fact according to Mulgan it is precisely the third sector that will be the economic environment of the future: "Just think of the fact that the health sector, which already constitutes 18% of the American economy, is expected to grow by 30-40% by the middle of the century. Care for the elderly and children already employs more people than in the car industry. Education represents 6-8% of the economy and is growing", he recalled. "To seize these opportunities, however, a desire for change is needed. Still too many people today feel disconnected and left behind, there is great inequality and too many resources are invested in the armed forces and too few in social solutions. Fortunately, however, despite the climate that often seems distracted and hostile, innovators remain optimistic and I, as Martin Luther King said, want to plant my apple tree today, even if there is the possibility that the world will collapse tomorrow".