The Big WHY?
There’s an awful lot of advice out there at the moment, about how to cope with / take advantage of / simply survive the new economic and social climate (not to mention the environmental one) which we are assured we now all face. Well, I’m sure it’s true that things are changing, but my guess is it’s less certain that we actually know in what way or ways.
Is it time to shift the vantage point a little, and ask more often not just How?, but also Why?
Perhaps I’ve been a social scientist for too long, but what I’d like to propose is not another set of guidelines for adapting perspectives and practice for the future, useful as these may prove to be. What I’d like to suggest is that we, all of us, start more assiduously to ask, Why?
Why does Pundit A tell us we must do such and such? And why does Commentator B suggest this perspective? What is Politician or Decision-Maker C doing when s/he tells us the facts point to a particular conclusion? And especially why does Person-in-the-Street D wonder what on earth (or in the big TV in the sky) is going on?
Forget the motive, look at the ‘facts’
In proposing adoption of the Big WHY? I’m not as it happens suggesting we need to check out people’s motives. Usually, this takes us nowhere and wastes both time and energy.
Rather, I think we simply need quite urgently to begin as a cultural shift to understand that there is almost always evidence somewhere which has led whoever it is to the conclusions they want us to accept. So the big question is, what’s the evidence, and how did it arise?
Engaged rather than enraged
It’s true that people often ignore public debate, whatever it genesis, until they disagree with the outcome. Then the Big Fuss begins. There’s nothing like an apparently done deal to bring out the Nimby in all of us.
So why not turn things around and expect from the very beginning of an issue or problem that people of all sorts actually want to debate and challenge emerging analysis and options?
Can we as those on the regeneration and sustainability front line find a way to say, bring on the conversation? And could this apply not only between ourselves as practitioners, but also with and between those whom we want to work with as clients, customers and wider stakeholders?
Are we brave enough – and, to be fair, do we have the human and material resources and systems – to say: Look, we think this is the problem or challenge, but we’re willing quite openly both to question each other and to answer the questions of all of you, customers, stakeholders and the wider public, before we move on? Here’s our evidence to date, what do you think?
Positive scepticism (and curiosity) for a changing world
In other words, can we nurture a sort of positive scepticism in the face of undoubtedly massive change? The sort of enquiring curiosity and scepticism which will help everyone to see that flexibility and change is inevitable, but doesn’t have to be handed down as a list of what one Must and Must Not do?
The Big WHY? is not the mode in which most of us have been trained, and it can be very uncomfortable (not least for those who currently set and lead the agendas) but could be a real help towards accommodating constant change. We may think we live in an open society (and, let it be said, modern democracies are certainly the most open so far), but we still often find it difficult to navigate towards complete transparency in our dealings with each other, let alone our customers and stakeholders.
Transforming agendas from Stop to Go
And, strangely enough, we might even find it fits the wider political agenda too – politicians know very well that they can deliver only what (they believe) the electorate will tolerate. But we know that time is now running out, especially for resources and sustainability, in a way which has never really been the case before. It’s truly critical right now to move from whingeing and worrying (or denial) to facing up to the (thoroughly scrutinised) facts.
Perhaps more insistence on the Big WHY? in public debate, by encouragement and by example, might even result in helping those same publicly accountable politicians, the people who ultimately decide for us all, to support difficult but unavoidable decisions which need to be taken very soon.
A version of this article was first published as a New Start Blog on 17 January 2010.