Wednesday 4 March 2015

Revitalising cities means escaping from acronym hell

I am now in my fifties - a bit of a shock and I still haven't got over it yet - and I have discovered over the past few years that one political objective above all others has gripped me.

I'm not saying it's the only thing that matters - just that it is what I want to do now.  I want to find ways that the mainstream and the radical thinkers and practitioners can learn from each other.

There is nothing so frustrating in UK public life - and in economics particularly - that decades go by in mutual incomprehension before new ideas can be dragged kicking and screaming into mainstream policy.  I am tempted to say, only when they are worn out.

So the seminar I organised at the Treasury yesterday, to discuss the findings of my book People Powered Prosperity, was a step along that long and rather frustrating road.  It was chaired by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury - and Danny Alexander has a creative and heroic ability to ask the mainstream difficult questions and to keep on asking them.

It also managed to get in the room, not just the civil servants running the cities and local growths team, but a representative bunch of the local bankers, local energy pioneers, local procurement advocates, local currency thinkers who are pushing forward the boundaries of what might be possible.

So far so good, but I realised by the end that the task has only just begun.  It was inspiring to hear people like Ben Lucas of the Cities Growth Commission and Edward Twiddy of the new Atombank - and former Newcastle leader John Shipley - using language which straddled the two worlds.

There is a new understanding emerging, it seems to me, that the levers for revitalising local economies will be local - and that we have suffered from the illusion that national institutions can ever be effective at a job that requires specialist local knowledge.

The next stage is, I think, to form some kind of semi-official local economics sounding board inside the Treasury and Cabinet Office so that the new ideas and techniques can permeate quickly.

That's what I want to do next.

But I was reminded of the huge gap that still remains.  At the end of the seminar, I talked to one of the most effective of the radicals, from the Transition Towns movement, and asked her why she had been so quiet.

"Because I was so horrified," she said.

I could see immediately what she meant.  One of the problems about getting economic policy-makers in a room together is that you sink immediately into acronym hell.

And the acronyms do tend to get in the way of the core reality - which, as she reminded me, is this.

There is a huge energy in the poorest places which remains untapped, untouched by financial or business institutions.  It is an entrepreneurial energy which is the future driver of change and innovation - if we can find institutions of the right shape and responsiveness to shape it into real wealth.

That is the extent of the failure in the past and the extent of the hope.  If we can do it.  But we tend to sink back into acronym hell all too easily and forget it.

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Iain King said...

Well-observed - acronyms are a very exclusive form of language.

Just as Latin phrases make people who were never taught the language feel blocked out, so do acronyms close off communication to outsiders.

The best solution is to ban all acronyms - and make people say each word - whenever there is anyone in the room who could be unfamiliar with a term. I've seen it used in practice, and the deliberate inclusiveness more than makes up for the clumsiness of language.

Anonymous said...

I suspect they were mostly abbreviations, not acronyms. The latter are less common