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Coffeehouse conversation

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A recent Day of Inspiration at the Royal Albert Hall consisted of 10 per cent perspiration and 90 per cent exasperation

The Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) was founded by William Shipley and 10 others at Rawthmell's coffee house in Covent Garden 250 years ago. It celebrated its anniversary with the Day of Inspiration conference and Coffeehouse Challenge, in which more than 2,000 people took part in discussions about how to address the RSA 'manifesto challenges': encouraging enterprise; moving toward a zero-waste society; fostering resilient communities; developing a capable population; and advancing global citizenship.

The event setting at the Royal Albert Hall was intended to create the feeling of an intimate ancient Greek agora but unfortunately, in such a vast space, the voice of the audience was barely audible. The Greeks, it seems, knew a thing or two about acoustics and projection.

Thus, an event intended to facilitate eminent speakers' contributions to, and reflections on, the manifesto challenges, became somewhat limited. (A theme such as 'Moving toward a zerowaste society', for example, feels just a little prescriptive. ) However, the actual speeches at many sessions - which included presentations by Martin Rees, astronomer royal; professor of fertility studies Lord Winston; and Baroness Warnock - were exemplary. Each presenter has their hobby horse. Rees argued that science is running ahead of human nature's ability to manage it, and that, in the first century in which we can both change ourselves and our planet, we need to focus on the big risks - which may be realised malignly or in error - and rein in science for benign ends.

Winston explored the failure to inform the public effectively about science, create a debate about issues such as nuclear power, and listen to people's concerns. He noted the danger of conf licts of interest with commerce, and argued that science undergraduates should be taught ethics, and the young enthused about science. Warnock concurred and made a case for teaching non-science students about how science works, concluding that teaching morality is just as important as scientific knowledge.

The discussion focused on who should decide how science is used, the difficulty of public decision-making, the lack of balanced discussion of science and the role of the media, and whether we really were wasteful. This question was addressed to Peter Jones, external affairs director of wastemanagement company Biffa, who unsurprisingly failed to rise above his subjective experience.

There was no mention, let alone discussion, of established themes such as risk consciousness or the precautionary principle. And the discussion was almost wholly free of historical context, theory, or quantitative evidence. What forces and dynamics have shaped our current situation and how might it be characterised?

Why are we more apprehensive about the future when humanity appears to be more successful than ever? How did we effectively harness science in the past, when people were just as, if not more, uneducated about science? How can we explain the rise of anti-scientific thinking? Why have discussions on morality and ethics replaced political debates, and what have been the consequences?

The journalists present, Richard Tomkins, formerly of the Financial Times, and Management Today editor Matthew Gwyther, provided some critical commentary but it was characterised by cynicism, or agreement on objectives, such as corporate social responsibility, followed by the observation that the change needed to be more thorough-going. Principled but positive criticism was all but absent.

What discernable audience response there was tended to follow these patterns, though imbued with a little more optimism. Some useful points were made about the conf lict between our audit culture and the need to trust creatives, and the trend towards managerialism in universities.

The Day of Inspiration concluded with the speakers invited to propose one inspiring course of action. Proposals ranged from the grand but uncontroversial (erase poverty, enable world literacy, remove unfair trade barriers, level technological competence); to the educational (value teachers more, put less emphasis on testing, prevent students losing their 'vision', facilitate links to industry); and the downright misanthropic (minimise possible misuse of technology, create 'no more labour-saving devices that use more time').

Some proposals were more uplifting. Eden Project creator Tim Smit wanted people to 'say what a great culture looks like and ask how we get there', and Ian Livingstone, founder of computer games company Eidos, volunteered taking more risk and trusting in youth.

The event literature notes that the day was aimed at 'realising the power of the individual to make a positive difference - and to add dynamism to that power by joining with other individuals committed to the same cause'.

That those taking part shared the same cause is an assumption, and there was little real debate that might win people to a common cause grounded in objective evidence and theoretical understanding.

It would have been useful to contrast the nature of the changes that the RSA initiated successfully in the 18th and early-19th century - a period characterised by large individuals, big ideas, and pre-dating big government and mass society - and consider whether its model of the individual fits our times. My instinct is that is doesn't.

Many attendees, I'm sure, will not have gone away reinvigorated or with a clear plan of action.

The Day of Inspiration was laudably ambitious. It is inevitable that such an event will fall short of expectations.

But the RSA's approach of limiting the landscape for discussion, failure to enable questioning of received wisdom, inability to manage debate strategically, and naivety about models of change meant the opportunities presented by this event were largely lost.

Nico Macdonald is a design and technology consultant. Visit www. spy. co. uk

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