The Royal Society of Arts will celebrate 250 years of existence in 2004. For a quarter of a Millennium it has promoted a search for answers to questions related to the furtherance of arts, commerce and manufacturing.
Within that time, it has spawned the Royal Society and the Royal College of Art. It gave a prize for drawing by under 15 year olds, as well as awards for the discovery of locally produced supplies of cobalt for the textile dying industry. Over this period, a plethora of cash incentives have been offered in order to promote new understandings, inventions and processes - many remain unclaimed.
In other words, the RSA has been at the centre of some important activities for a long time. This work has often been done on themes that would now be unacceptable; for example, I doubt today whether the promotion of a new design for harpoons would be greeted with such applause. But, at the time, blubber was central to many activities and whale conservation was not in the public perception.
In reality, it is difficult for such a large institution with such longevity to always remain relevant as the world changes around it. It is right that it might start to ask questions of itself and its relevance as it runs up to its celebration. Institutions have no right to exist and many should either amalgamate or die. Not many have lasted as long as the RSA, which in itself is a great accolade. Length of time is not itself the justification. For example, the Architecture Foundation is going through a similar debate, and if we do not see a useful job to do, we will stop. It is true that even within my relatively short working life, more and more institutions and bodies have sprung up, which act, because of their vast numbers, in slowing down change and progress. We have elected bodies, advisory groups, heritage groups, research institutions etc, whose work usually ends up as yet another delaying tactic, and yet another unread and non-understood report is produced.
So what should, and could, the RSA be? It could move into the difficult area of quality of life. This rebellious and fuzzy term has no single champion. All such bodies claim they promote it, but none of them do.
It is well known that our society suffers from insufficient sleep, and yet modern practice and culture has developed to make people feel inadequate if they feel tired.
Many people fight sleep off while they try and give the illusion of working hard. This is plainly bad for you and contributes to unhappiness, violence, redundancy and crime. The idea of the 'fast' life can be changed to the 'slow' life. If you can change the public view on smoking in 20 years, it must be possible to achieve other goals in similar periods of time.
Productivity would go up if people were awake. A similar shift could take place regarding ugliness. For hundreds of years, society has become impervious to the ugly.
Ugliness causes discontent and unrest. A sense of self respect, calm and benevolence derives from a better quality environment and the cash savings to society would be considerable. No one, with the exception of CABE (terribly underfunded), is worried about these things.
I would equally happily accept an institution which was founded on the mission to abolish the two most evil phrases I know - 'business is business' (ie, operate outside morality) and 'market-led' (a byline for no imagination). We are all individuals.
WA, from the kitchen table