Spy in the coffee machine

I have been reading the Spy in the Coffee Machine, on privacy. The premise is that computing and connections are pervasive (only 2% of processors now going into traditional ‘computers’), so you never know quite what is left, private to you or not. It’s a recurrent theme in today’s world, but beautifully written and far more a call for intelligent action than a cry of lament.

Bad Lego

You want to love Lego – harmless, constructive fun. But I am sorry to say that Lego as a company really bend over backwards to discourage you.

Lego have done their own survey, suggesting that construction sets appear on 45% of children’s wish lists for Christmas. So what does Lego do? They set up their website for children so they can compile their own wish lists from the Lego store to email to their grandparents, relatives and friends to urge them to get Lego products for them for Christmas.

Encouraging children to incite adults to buy things for them just happens to be one of the things expressly banned by marketing codes in the UK. The CAP Code Section 47.7 c) states that: “marketing communications addressed to children should … neither directly urge children to buy or persuade others to buy … the advertised item,” while the BCAP Code Section 7.3.1 states that: “advertisements must not directly advise or ask children to buy or to ask their parents or others to make enquiries or purchases.”

Lego have in fact done so well this Xmas, that sellers are jacking up prices up to three times the list price – a classic rip off. The Daily Mail, and the Telegraph, quote me on Lego this week. (The Daily Mail dubs Co-operatives UK as the ‘network of ethical businesses’).

You want to love it, but they really make it difficult.

Bad Lego.

New Mike

Best of luck to Mike O’Connor, current head of olympics grants body, who I am told is up for my old job at Consumer Focus. He joins a great team.

A beautiful world

South London born and based, I am enjoying my trains to Manchester with my 3D view of passing landscapes and, this morning, snow lined canal ways and white tipped trees.

Two emails intrude, both on the rising phenomenon of co-operative schools. There is a trip by pupils to Lesotho, in the sun, reporting on their visit and experience with cooperation, South Africa style – http://www.youngco-operatives.coop/News/Young-Co-ops-on-Safari

And an email from the Whitehall brainboxes of the Innovation Unit, suggesting that cooperative schools are the future – http://innovationunit.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/co-operative-schools-the-future-of-schooling/

Mervyn, from the Co-operative College and one of the inspirations for this, tells me we have thirty schools now constituted as co-operatives in England with 100 expected by this time next year.

I can’t help feeling it is a bright and beautiful world.

Too much too young? – guest post by Agnes

This is a guest post by Agnes Nairn, my friend and co-author of Consumer Kids, on the report out this week by an academic panel (including her) looking at the evidence aroundildren growing up in a commercial world.

10 academics from a range of disciplines and viewpoints were assembled in May 2008 to assess “The Impact of the Commercial World on Children’s Wellbeing.”  Quite an ask!  But we worked hard, debated hard and produced a substantial and rigorous report on time in April 2009.  We’re still not sure why it took 9 months to publish…

Its purpose wasn’t to make policy recommendations (maybe it would have been published quicker if we had) but we made some robust statements particularly about new media e.g.

“New media and marketing techniques raise some ethical concerns about potential deception and threats to privacy: the public is currently not well-informed about this area, and existing regulation is insufficient in some respects.”

And we raised issues which need more public debate e.g. commercial influences in schools

“Schools and public places are increasingly being used as marketing venues and being affected by privatisation and commercialisation.  The implications of these developments for children’s wellbeing remain to be identified.”

And areas where there just isn’t enough transparency e.g.

“Information about the children’s market is not easily available in the public domain or for public scrutiny.  It would be in the interests of both public accountability and of the public profile of businesses themselves for such information to be more widely shared.”

Codes for new media need to be tightened – We need a debate on commercial influences in school and play places – We need more public information about how much is spent marketing to children.

The Mutual State

Around ten years ago, I set out to explore the case for converting public services from public ownership to what Henriette Moore and I called a public ‘sense of ownership’ in a pamphlet for the New Economics Foundation, later developed in collaboration with Mutuo.

Since then, we have had some remarkable experimentation. A clutch of participatory models in health, the emergence of cooperative schools and, at community level, around 350 projects underway at present to transfer assets like parks and playing fields to community ownership.

The case for creating an enabling environment for staff and citizens still seems to me to be very strong and it is good to see debate on this taken up by politicians across the parties. Tessa Jowell’s contribution this evening has been excellent – her speech drawing on a report by the Innovation Unit, which I was pleased to help launch today.

There are still challenges. Only ten per cent of those asset transfers appear to be in deprived areas and yet those are the areas that need community action the most. Some state-sponsored social enterprises are genuinely social but not genuinely enterprise, unlike most cooperatives which live or die as businesses. But above all, the challenge is to create meaningful and inclusive communities for membership.

These are the central challenges, though, for all public services not just mutual ones. We have to rebuild the constituency for social justice and welfare. If not more of a mutual state, we may only get the leftovers of market outcomes and residual state action.

Lincoln people

“Lincoln people are a prudent lot” Alan tells me on my visit to the wonderful Lincolnshire Co-operative. It is a prudent coop society, and doing wonderfully well. 175,000 members, investments in community initiatives from the local university and football club to the new Polish restaurant below, an inspiring Chief Executive, Ursula Lidbetter and sister cooperatives locally such as 8,000 pigs in the meat co-operative, stocked locally, reared cooperatively and sold through the local shops.

Prudence with a purpose, the real thing!

One worker, one vote

In terms of innovation, my friend Pat Conaty is usually years ahead, so when he has been talking about something for a while, there is a fair bet, it will soon land somewhere in the UK in practice.

Pat is fascinated by new models of co-operative banking, ranging from loan funds such as the Aston Reinvestment Trust he set up years ago through to Nordic ‘free’ banking – the JAK movement – which has yet to arrive here but ought to be popular. The latest source of inspiration, he tells me, is from Cleveland, USA, where there are some remarkable examples of economic democracy and innovation.  And one of the blueprints for a potential new bank in Cleveland, in turn, is the Mondragon Co-operative.

Started in 1956 with five workers in a small shop in the Basque country making kerosene stoves, Mondragon now has over 100,000 worker-owners in some 260 enterprises across 40 countries. It has annual sales of more than 16 billion Euros with a wide range of products–high tech machine tools, motor buses, household appliances and a chain of supermarkets. Its new model supermarkets, Eroski, are spreading well across France, for example. Mondragon also runs its own banks, health clinics, welfare system, schools and the 4,000 student Mondragon University- all worker-owned coops.

‘This is not heaven and we are not angels’ is a common saying in Mondragon, but it remains nonetheless a source of energy and enduring inspiration.

A recent initiative has been to tie up with the United Steelworkers (USW) union in the USA to turn businesses facing closure in the recession into worker-owned cooperatives.

“We have lots of experience with Employee Share Ownership,” explains the USW International President Leo W. Gerard, “but we have found that it doesn’t take long for the Wall Street types to push workers aside and take back control. We see Mondragon’s cooperative model with ‘one worker, one vote’ ownership as a means to re-empower workers and make business accountable to Main Street instead of Wall Street.”

I sense that we Brits tend to cling on to our hierarchies. Pat is a Californian, so he is different. But a little bit of Basque could do us good.

Find, play, share

Information is fast becoming one of the most powerful tools for social change. A new, draft report from the Australian Taskforce on public sector information (I have been a member of the reference group at distance) scans best practice internationally and makes some great suggestions on how its government can unlock the information that it collects.

The report cites Three Laws of Open Government Data developed by David Eaves, another member of the reference group. This is: if it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist; if it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage; and if a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower. He sums this up as the ability to “find, play, share.”

The report also cites a nice reminder on the wisdom of crowds, that in Who Wants to be a Millionaire, asking the audience gets it right 90% of the time, whereas phoning a friend only gives you a 65% chance of success.

Knowledge, like people, works best in communities.

Needy nation

Sinking and Swimming is a new report by the Young Foundation. It is big, it is complex but it is also a fantastic overview and a wonderfully sophisticated look at Britain.

The team takes a framework of the ‘needs’ that we have as human beings and offers a systematic look at how we are doing as a nation. As I read it, what is visible tends to be addressed. What is invisible – like mental ill-health and night workers – tends to be left neglected. What helps people make it through is when they have the mindset, the skills and above all the supportive relationships to bounce back.

There is a new formula emerging here – for personal action, community co-operation and state policies that promote well-being in a more rounded way.

Sink or Swim is a landmark.