New challenges need new approaches

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Victoria is in the grip of fundamental shifts and changes that challenge the fabric of our society. To emerge with strong solutions, we need to reshape our approach to complex social issues, TOM BENTLEY says.

The people of greater Melbourne and Victoria make up one of the most culturally diverse populations in the world. Over the last generation or two, this diversity has become a source of dynamism and attraction, which itself draws more people to visit and settle in Victoria.

This diversity mingles with other patterns of change – growing information intensity, networked digital technology, new spatial patterns of job creation and housing settlement, and volatile weather and climate patterns, to create increasingly complex forms of social need.

Challenges of affluence and poverty sit uncomfortably together. For example, as competition for elite educational opportunities intensifies, people of all ages are increasingly experiencing mental health and psycho-social pressures associated with anxiety and social isolation.

As youth justice and bail supervision issues dominate tabloid media, the part played by educational disengagement and mental illness in creating Victoria’s prison population demands careful thought.

A more diverse, interconnected society means many familiar approaches to solving problems have become less effective, and demand and appetite for new solutions is on the rise.

Why is this? For the last 30 years Australian society has operated within a powerful consensus, combining disciplines of a liberal market economy with shared benefits arising from a social insurance-based framework that ensures minimum wages, healthcare and superannuation. For some time, this has been a winning combination.

Victorian living standards are among the world’s highest. People around the world view Melbourne as one of the world’s most attractive and vibrant cities precisely because it combines prosperity with freedom, diversity with engagement; an attractive shared environment which offers the space and tolerance to accommodate and welcome newcomers.

Yet past success does not guarantee the future. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, governments everywhere have struggled to adapt to a new set of conditions, in which the familiar scripts do not seem to work as they used to.

Shared needs and challenges range from the longstanding marginalisation experienced by many Aboriginal Victorians, to the changing support and care needs of an ageing population. They include pressures of anxiety and depression arising from a society more connected by communications and technology, but less rooted in relationships and traditions than ever before.

Underpinning all these challenges is the rapid restructuring of the economy, centralising knowledge-based jobs in urban centres, while automation and globalisation strip jobs out of sectors like manufacturing, logistics and office administration.

These problems are worsened by rising economic inequality, for which the 1980s consensus has provided no answer. In particular, Victoria’s dependence on private housing debt, and speculative growth in house prices, is driving inequalities that distort people’s life chances, mis-shape the development of our cities, and undermine our ability to invest in more productive and innovative activities.

Precisely the qualities that are so highly valued in Victoria’s community life are under threat, both from the dilemmas of economic and population growth, and from deep existential conflicts like those we see overtaking American and European politics.

These latter conflicts are between authoritarianism, democracy and the rule of law. Between established elites and migrant newcomers, between dominant vested financial and class-based interests and climate change challenges, global human rights, and the voices of the marginalised and dispossessed.

Without innovative approaches based on a new community consensus, these conflicts will potentially tear apart the fabric of Victoria’s community life.

Well-trodden responses offered by Australia’s 1980s consensus, pioneered in different ways by figures like Bob Hawke, Bill Kelty, John Cain and Jeff Kennett, are no longer working.

Cutting the company tax rate will not create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Extending free trade and economic deregulation does not automatically increase productivity. Following a hundred-year-old model of federalism, Commonwealth-State relations are reproducing stalemate year after year. More social insurance for health, disability and aged care, even when a good idea, is increasingly expensive and stretches the organisational capabilities of the state to provide genuinely personalised and preventive services.

This is one way to view the sense of churn and frustration surrounding today’s politics, as the pressures of 24-hour media, internal party ructions and unpredicted social events destabilise governments of both stripes. These political limitations are not a primary cause of our problems, but actually symptoms of a society and its institutions struggling to adapt.

Flogging the existing institutions and decision-makers harder and expecting familiar answers to generate novel solutions will only lead to exhaustion and disillusionment. Instead, we need a broader and more creative repertoire to help solve challenges which are themselves complex and widely dispersed across our society.

Where can we find this richer, more open, problem-solving repertoire?

Partly the answers come from recognising the heart of problems and challenging ourselves to address them. Victoria’s leadership on family violence is a good example, moving a centuries-old cultural problem into the public realm and demanding a more effective response from the whole community.

This agenda also highlights vital aspects of today’s social problem-solving: it’s about culture and behaviour as much as financial incentives or hard infrastructure. Tackling family violence depends on sharing expert knowledge and evidence across a widespread workforce of police, social service workers, and the wider community. Information and communication technologies will be important in coordinating effective solutions. But privacy, safeguarding personal information and involving each family in creating their own best solution are fundamentally important.

So many of our contemporary social problems share these characteristics – widely distributed across populations, but needing personalised and localised responses where community engagement is vital to the outcome. Information-intensive, using high-tech therapies and analytics, but reliant on highly skilled, intensively engaged workers.

To create those solutions, we need methods that cast a wider net for new ideas, and can be tested and prototyped effectively using the same systems and settings through which they will be implemented.

There are many ways in which citizens and service users can use their voice to help design and improve services, contributing to ‘open’ problem-solving methods that use transparency and collaboration to accelerate the learning process.

Many hands make light work, as the proverb says. But connecting many hands and minds coherently around shared problems, and building results in ways that can have cumulative impact, remains a complex challenge. The answers are unlikely to come from just adopting standard scientific or corporate approaches to innovation.

Methods that allow the visualisation of whole systems and emerging patterns of behaviour, and analysis of large data sets, are increasingly part of the mix. So are those which open up new conversations and deliberation among various communities, for example through citizens’ juries and panels, participatory budgeting, and collaborative networks of agencies and service providers.

Entrepreneurship is also vital, and not just through start-ups and individual entrepreneurs. The role of mediating institutions, long-term investors, and sectoral collaboration to deepen evidence and specialist expertise all play a profound role in influencing our innovation performance.

The next decade could be an incredibly fertile time for thinking through and acting on a new generation of complex social challenges. Making it so depends on how well we pool and share our problem-solving resources, and apply them to designing a new set of shared institutions to underpin our diverse, interconnected society.

Tom Bentley is an internationally renowned policy advisor and writer on learning and innovation. He is based in Melbourne, where he leads RMIT’s Policy and Impact Team and works with institutions around the world.

Photo: Bert Kaufmann/CC

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