This is not a traditional book review. I've known the author Jon Yates for well over 10 years. We worked closely together during the launch of the National Citizen Service, which is mentioned at a number of points in his book. Many of the case studies and statistics, as well as much of the research he discusses, informed the ethos and practise of the Shaftesbury Partnership from the outset and continue to do so.
In this regard, I want to reflect on two elements in his analysis that have informed our own experience in multiple ventures and areas of work. The first is spatial, and relates to the nature and evolution of segregated communities. The second deals with the issue of coercion.
The key concept Jon uses to discuss how society evolves is the notion of people like me [PLM]. He argues, with a wealth of evidence, that we prefer hanging out with people like me like us, and early on cites the work by Schelling showing how a mild preference for PLM over time leads to strong segregation by neighbourhood. We can infer and observe similarities in associative life such as churches, community activities, and how we consume culture. Even in the workplace where there are strong protections under equalities legislation, we are finding artificial intelligence is busy replicating those biases.
He goes on to demonstrate the downsides to that segregation: it inhibits economic growth, innovation, and reduces overall levels of health. Most recently this has been brutally demonstrated by the unequal impacts of COVID.
One of my surprises in his analysis was the high level of segregation in cities. To me, cities are a place of coming together, of fusion, and have been for centuries the drivers of innovation, trade, economic growth and social integration. But Jon demonstrates that the greater the pace of change, the more we want to be with PLM - and that is city life. He also points out cities provide extra opportunities to exercise choice because we are part of a large dense population.
On reflection, I remembered how good we are at hiding away poor people, or people “not like us” – typically in “sink estates”. They are out of sight and out of mind. That's why we need statistics to correct our impressions.
It is really important we get to grips with this phenomenon. Riots are mercifully rare in the UK, but they do happen, and research has shown the alienation that Jon discuss in detail underpins the propensity to break legal and social norms - the visible signs of fracture.
The second issue is more contentious, which is the notion that freedom of choice is part of the problem. Towards the end of the book, he examines the policies of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, which are commonly described as benevolent authoritarianism. There is very little choice in education, or where you choose to live, and military service is compulsory. This would be hard to swallow in the UK and most Western countries. He also discusses how a more interventionist state could slow down the pace of corporate takeovers, bankruptcies, and hiring and firings - although he rejects these as impracticable.
One of the features of National Citizen Service was that young people were not able to go on the programme with their friends. The whole point was to spend time with people “not like me”. The programme demonstrated their experiences together lead to significant positive changes in expectations, both of themselves and other people. At The Shaftesbury Partnership, we are in no doubt that creating opportunities for social mixing at any stage in life can have similar positive results. But we have learned that the design of such programmes needs to consider the whole system that people live in: we must look at geography, education, the labour market, as well as ethnicity, gender and so on.
The organisational mind naturally compartmentalises these things, which creates more space for the PLM mindset to flourish. However, there are some reasons to be optimistic this can be overcome.
At an intellectual level, complexity theory has demonstrated the complete fallacy of believing you can compartmentalise and make things simple.
And in the real world, we have seen how the challenge of climate change has pushed decision makers across government, business and society to work together in highly complex ways - leading to significant changes in energy production, carbon footprints, recycling behaviours and other choices we make at individual and corporate levels.
One way this was facilitated was by making the environment a cross-cutting theme. Every business proposition, every government programme, every community funding application was expected to demonstrate its impact on the environment and climate change.
Jon has shown how, left to itself, a system evolves to push people into more segregated communities. As we seek a new settlement post-pandemic, we need to develop a similar cross-cutting approach to look at the impact of every decision on whether it brings us together or pushes us further apart.