Cities and gentrification

There is nothing new about cities being centres of money, power and activism – places where heritage and change exist side by side. Over the last 50 years gentrification has gained notoriety as a modern, global force for change at the cutting edge of urban policy. It’s a phenomenon that is having a huge impact on cities.

Simply put, gentrification is the change that happens to an area when it becomes a property hot spot. The influx of wealthier residents displaces older generations, attracts ‘yuppie’ businesses, pushes up rents and causes segregation.

There are many voices to be heard on this subject – from protesters to property developers – but many settle for the grey area between the sharply defined political colours. So what, if born-and-bred locals walk to the shops in disbelief beneath advertising hoardings that shout about the new desirability of their community … aren’t there some good things about ‘going upmarket’? The vintage shops, ale bars and cafes create tax and wealth for local councils to spend in the local area. The crime rate drops. Green spaces are regenerated. Who wants to live in a tower block that’s been earmarked for demolition, anyway?

Gentrification is a provocative subject

Here are some of the sentiments you’ll hear expressed about suburbs that are undergoing gentrification:

This place is a victim of its own success

What’s happening here is social cleansing

Blended communities are what you get from gentrification

A city is a force of nature, it will change whether we like it or not

Gentrification is a boost for everyone

Quirkiness, individuality and working-class prices will be lost

People around here have been priced out of their own home

This area is safer now.

Every sphere of life is affected by gentrification. However, those of us who are passionate about transforming and re-imagining cities don’t want to be negative or nostalgic about processes of change – but we do want to be realistic. We’re asking, what is driving these changes? We want to challenge the enterprise argument that says that money makes things grow, that growth is good and that more growth means more money.

If you think that money is the key, you are opening the wrong door

The economic argument says that everything has to grow and that it’s only money that pushes creativity further. But, using a Christian value ethic, we believe that money exists as a means to serve the planet, not run it. When money is used ‘fruitfully’ for the common good, people and places are replenished. So there’s an eco argument for genuine, shared transformation in cities that we would like to make heard. The planet will give more if we interact with it in responsible, creative and caring ways.

In this ethic for the world, money is not the evil, although the way that we spend it can be. We want investors who invest with good economic sense but also with long-term community sustainability in mind. City to City is looking to sow the seeds of an economy that is not focused on money but on growing diverse communities sustainably. We don’t want to see money ‘grown’ but money ‘spread’. Money that is spread will see everyone benefit.

Seeking the common good

Who cares for the common good? We believe that there are people who seek the good of everyone. Every place, organisation or community group needs a few people like this who will be advocates for integration. That’s where we see City to City working best – we put the ideas out and ask, who’s up for this?

When we seek the common good we start to find something that is not attached to our own material conditions. 

For City to City, intervention in the processes of gentrification starts in the micro context, in small localities where communities are under pressure. We want to hold on to a city’s multicultural, multigenerational identity – and we believe that we have to fight for it. Now is the time to act, to make some inroads, before genuine communities – artistic communities, lower-income communities, intergenerational communities – disappear. We want to resist gentrification as the norm in our cities.

Protecting creativity

Every sphere of life is influenced by gentrification. The artistic and creative industries in our cities, places where edginess, prophecy and politics thrive, will be knocked back, if not knocked out by gentrification because our society puts a higher value on money than it does on creative energy.

Our hope is that creativity will be nurtured and empowered as alternative ways to live together are explored. Creative people are those who say that without much money they will throw open the window of new possibilities – workshops, small operations for community activism, affordable retail units and food outlets. When these enterprises are run by local people, prices are lower because the people running them know what is affordable to other locals.

What does creative energy need to thrive? It needs a realistic business base with a realistic price freeze. It also needs space – physical, communal spaces for hire. We can all picture the shabby community venue, the prefab Scout Hut or the converted manufacturing unit. They’re not necessarily places of beauty but their available communal space is where creativity and relationships can thrive.

Protecting the power of relationships

Gentrification exposes fundamental questions of home, identity and community. City to City believes that there is a tangible quality to relationships in longstanding communities that is damaged by the influence of economic forces and individualism. What is important about community life is relationships, and what is important about relationships is the presence of possibility.

What we love about cities is the way that they define us, and we define them. City to City aims to encourage all of us to be intentional about our actions to support communities in the face of gentrification. Whether we pray, gather together in a City to City conversation, form a cooperative or campaign for amendments to the Housing Bill, we need to be intentional – otherwise nothing will happen.

A man living in Newcastle in the UK was recently interviewed about the massive changes he had witnessed over the last 10 years in the Byker Bridge area of the city. Protesting against the huge investment in this part of Tyneside, he said that the community had ‘organic potential’ of its own, for its own development and progression. To him, gentrification resembled a bad sci-fi movie: … ‘local people invaded by aliens’. There’s cynicism here but we also hear in his words a powerful call for humanity to prevail. Let’s work for the re-making of cities around principles of justice, integration and relationship.

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49 housing, a registered social housing provider in London,UK.

Posted on Categories Housing & community, Re-imaginings

Challenging the culture of home ownership

On the edge of mainstream thinking, some amazing innovations are quietly taking place – challenging the culture of low affordability, price inflation and market-led housing.

The housing market is a friend to investment but a threat to relational-living. The collective direction of housing policy over the past 100 years has meant that a house has become an investment that you can live in rather than a home that could provide generational stability for the future of families.

Past, present and future

In the UK of the 1920s the picture was quite different. A significant majority of housing – 80% – was rented. In the years that followed there were periods of council home construction, a growing ownership market and, in the Thatcher era, the sale of council properties.

In 2016, 64% of housing is privately owned and 32% is rented either privately or through housing association/council provision.

The housing market has created highly inflated prices in cities that few can afford. In rural areas the affordability of houses is jeopardised by fewer jobs and lower wages and this brings a complex mixture of pressures for individuals and family groups. The average multiplier for affordability in England and Wales is 5 x a person’s wage and that rises to 10 x in urban centres such as London.

It is projected that an extra 250,000 households are required per year until 2033 in the UK. Yet the country is only building 100,000 to 150,000 houses each year.

So what could change this? A political u-turn? We might be waiting a long time. Another economic crash? This would quieten the current market but may only provide opportunities for vulture capitalists ready to exploit the down turn.

Yet despite these negative indications, some amazing innovations are taking place quietly on the edges of mainstream thinking, building upon a legacy of creative philanthropy and cementing stable, multi-generational communities.

Living on the water

Although living on the water paints a nomadic picture of existence that few can contemplate, we have an unbelievable supply of rivers, lakes and sea moorings. We don’t advocate spoiling beautiful vistas and environmental eco systems, but residential accommodation on waterways is a chance to turn a static leisure industry into a living community. Boats, barges and other vessels are relatively cheap and have provided an incredibly eco-friendly lifestyle and strong communities in places like The Netherlands and parts of Scandinavia.

Given the environmental shifts that are happening and increased weather instability (i.e. higher rainfall), living on water is both sustainable and basic common sense in the light of the increasing climatic shifts we are experiencing. Waterways have the potential to be living communities in urban and rural settings, and in some places they are revitalising parts of the country and the countryside that struggle to survive economical and socially.

In one example of water-based living in south-east London, 175 people live alongside each other, sharing a system of walkways between boats, joint laundries and showers. The importance of these communal spaces provides strong motivation to manage the environment well, grow small business infrastructures, small eco-communities and mini economic hubs.

Community building

We tend to think of self-builders either as ‘eco warriors’ or ‘grand designers’, but beyond these stereotypes ‘community build’ provides an altogether different set of possibilities.

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are local organisations that are set up and run by ordinary people to combine their finances and skills and develop homes as well as other assets important to that community, for example, community enterprises, food growing or workspaces. They build on land that might be council or brown-site designated, given as a gift or bought by a community group.

This is a sustainable alternative to private rental or private ownership. You can get a flavour of a CLT in action in a feature in the Guardian newspaper and a TV interview for London Live:

CLTs make homes affordable by removing the cost of land from the cost of a new home. This materials-only model could empower many more community builds. “We aim to establish a new precedent, a replicable model in community-led housing that will benefit people currently unable to access housing on the open market”, says Kareem Dayes.

There are multiple advantages to a CLT. Those who build together usually stay together over longer periods – this has been statistically proved through early and more recent ‘Walter Segal‘ builds. These communities are more socially diverse, multi-generational, stable and safe. They are literally built on interaction and community cohesion and they have proved to be great places for more holistic community care.

Sustainable low-income housing

Another example is Habitat for Humanity who build sustainable low-income housing globally and are also active in the UK. The organisation has successfully transformed the housing conditions for individuals and families from sub-standard housing conditions into sustainable housing solutions through ‘community builds’. This has provided long-term community stability and empowered individuals within those communities to reach for their life goals and aspirations.

One single mother in a re-built community housing scheme said “My daughter barely went to school when we were housed in a tower block in SE London … but she has now qualified to go to university to train as an architect’. Community housing is more than the fabric of the building but the essence of a more cohesive, safe and creative community.

Long-term vision rather than short-term solutions

The pressure is on for more housing at affordable pricing. However, the kind of quick, easy-build, non-eco housing that is being rushed into construction is only a short-term illusion. It gives no thought to the future community and long-term sustainability in terms of materials and environmental credentials.

We could be repeating the housing nightmare of the 1970s. It is important for architects, planners, environmentalists, housing experts and potential residents to sit down together to plan and dream the communities of the future. These are not pie-in-the-sky ideals but innovations that harness the creative skills of individuals and multiply them through collaboration.

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49 housing, a registered social housing provider in London, UK.

Posted on Categories Housing & community, Re-imaginings


The ‘liquid gift’ illustrates creativity, change and connection.

I have had the opportunity to travel to many countries on this planet earth over the past 30 years. I have never really liked the idea of being a tourist, and whenever I have accidentally found myself in such a guise, I rush to hide it in some obscure and often hilarious (to my travelling companions, at least) way. What I really want is for any journey to give me opportunities to literally experience life and death, suffering and grief, poverty and prosperity, fear and violence, laughter and beauty, order and chaos in all their extreme forms. What a remarkable place we inhabit that carries such contrasts and yet delivers such extremes in every human emotion.

I have thought on so many occasions what it would be like to be born in a different culture, time, background, gender, economic demographic, and this childish thought alone has shaped my passion and unrelenting desire to learn more and be challenged – changed by the encounters, each day, year, month (yes, time is an area of exploration in this project) brings.

One of the almost obsessive desires I have everywhere I go, is to find water, and the question I ask first is – where is the nearest river? Specifically, I search for rivers because rivers shape lives. A river never stays the same. A body of water that stays the same is nothing – at best it is a nice pond; at worst it is a stagnant puddle.

Most of the world’s major cities were built on or around areas of fresh water. Our ancestors chose to settle near these areas as rivers were a means of supplying drinking water for their families and livestock, as a food supply, used for irrigating crops, and as a means of transport in order to aid commerce. Most of the world’s capital cities, have their respective main areas of fresh water, be it either a river, a lake, a canal or an oasis.

As transport has moved from boats to planes, trains and multiple vehicles, the geographic norm of fresh water at the heart of communities has changed, but the climate emergency is sending everyone back to simplicity, locality, sustainability and reality. Water will become the new oil and gas and its scarcity or abundance the new contention and bargaining tool of nations and cultures of the world.

Thinking across boundaries

The world’s longest river flows through Egypt’s capital city Cairo, but the river which flows through the most capital cities is Europe’s River Danube, which runs through the four cities of Belgrade, which is the capital of Serbia, Bratislava the capital of Slovakia, Budapest which is the capital of Hungary and Vienna the capital of Austria.

Rivers are remarkable illustrations of so many things. Time, rhythm, direction, strength, tranquility, rage, and so much more. They seemingly start from nothing and yet, during the course of their journey, can create whole new places, locations and landscapes. Their ability to endlessly capture our attention and to still pulsating thoughts is a remarkable phenomenon. When we are actively engaging in timeless moments in life, we are following nature’s design for rivers. Rivers seem neither rushed or bothered by holding to set patterns but can ebb and flow as they please to their own existential paradigm. They can flow gently or cut new paths and forge new places, locations and even habitats. Their unrestrained nature speaks of freedom and release, beauty and devastation, new worlds and ancient paths. Some rivers are shifted by tides in certain patterns but that is a small restraint to a larger and more profound existence. 

A river is a clear way to illustrate change

Rivers exist to change everything and to sustain everything. They turn nothing to everything. They start with rain, ice and melting snow, a trickle that can’t be called a river. Led by gravity, the trickle follows cracks and folds in the land as it descends. A river sustains and erodes. It carries sediment, soil and rocks; it deposits sediment, soil and rocks. It reshapes the land and cuts into the soil to form channels. Rivers merge and diversify, creating wider stretches of water, streams and islands. They are fast-moving and slow-moving, young and old.

The river bed, the river and the river bank are important breeding sites for many creatures. Human life, too, has gathered around rivers. Clearly, humans needed access to water for drinking and growing crops. A location near to a large body of water is also useful for transportation, communication and trade. Local access to a plethora of natural resources is obviously highly beneficial, because we need this stuff to build cities. Rivers bring life; they are designed to move and create.

Egypt’s first known settlements occurred mostly around the Nile River at around 5000 BC. Egypt’s naturally hot and arid climate drew people towards the Nile’s lush flood plains to begin farming and building a community. Its 6693 kilometres are a resource shared by 11 African countries.

Hidden rivers

Although it is often rivers that attract people, the development of that population can also make rivers a victim of the successful conurbation. Rapid industrialisation in Yonkers, New York, meant that a succession of bigger and bigger bridges were built, eventually covering the river completely. In some cities, Moscow, for example, the river has posed a threat to the city and attempts to tame it have led to intervention to divert it to a new course or force the river into tunnels. ‘Lost’ rivers like these show us how the power of a river to change the landscape has been matched by the power of humans to change the river.

In these hidden rivers we encounter paths and histories that occasionally emerge for a brief moment then hide again to take their path and their destiny in new directions. Have we lost something fundamental when a river is lost like this?

Okavango Delta

The National Geographic film ‘The Mission to Save Africa’s Okavango Delta’ charts the incredible journey of one of the world’s greatest delta regions. The filmmakers say,

The water comes almost entirely from Angola, Botswana’s complicated neighbor, two countries away. It begins in the moist highlands of Angola’s rainy center and flows toward the country’s southeast, quickly in one major drainage, the Cubango, and more slowly in another, the Cuito, where it pools into source lakes; percolates slowly through grassy floodplains, peat deposits, and underlying sand; and seeps into tributaries.

It continues:

Take away that liquid gift, rendered by Angola to Botswana each year, and the Okavango Delta would cease to exist. It would become something else, and that something would not include hippos, sitatungas, or African fish eagles. If southern Africa were a vast golf course, Okavango with the faucets closed would be one of its sand traps.

These kind of vast changes on landscapes, river systems and delta regions, change life forever. Large sections of human, ecological and living species either cease to exist or adapt to new possibilities somewhere else.

  • About 70% of the earth’s surface is made up of water
  • At least 40 major cities around the world have rivers that run through them
  • Rivers pass through not only the geographic boundaries of the related country, but often move on to cross multiple city and country borders
  • Rivers are the cross-fertilisers and boundary-crossing phenomena of the natural world.

Rivers capture a way of thinking across boundaries

At the start of this project, let’s exemplify this picture of a river as a creative channel and force. A river enables us to make connections between past and present, nature and need, gravity and generosity, artifice and repetition, wilderness and domesticity. By studying rivers we are not applauding a simpler past but celebrating how the river captures a way of thinking and acting across boundaries.

Water is an elemental root of the universe, along with fire, earth, and air, nature, ice, light and darkness. These elements are strong illustrations of very deep-rooted things in our psyche.

  • The wind is always moving, going where it likes, complex, invisible and unpredictable;
  • fire’s inability to be restrained has led to a human fascination with heat that combines its devastating power and its domestic comfort;
  • earth is the essence of who we are – 90% carbon;
  • water represents an ‘in between’ (transitional) state between ice and steam/air.

It’s not surprising that those elements fascinated early Zorastrian understanding of the planet.

Each element has incredible capacity for unleashing the power of nature. They illustrate life and the earth’s power. They all exist and co-exist as elemental parts of our planet.

Living more wild-ly

In the UK and many parts of the world, there is a move towards re-wilding. Isabella Tree in her excellent book Wilding, talks of saving her farm by a process of ecology, conservation and the reintroduction of wildlife and livestock. The Knepp estate in Sussex has turned from a semi-barren piece of farmland into 2000 acres of wild trees, plants, streams, ponds, rivers – all wonderfully connecting wildlife and multitudes of inquisitive tourists. Again, this is a metaphor of boundary-crossing; multiple and complex layers all interacting, seemingly serving one another with complimentary planting – all gifting each other to live more wild-ly and live more adventurously, to thrive and co-exist for the benefit of each other.

This might seem a rather romantic notion of how things can work but maybe it also unravels the possibility of boundary-crossing as we begin to unlock this further in this series of thoughts and observations, as we call out ‘nothing is everything’. Perhaps when we get to ‘nothing’ anything else seems a long way away out of reach, an impossibility, a dream of another world. Yet in Isabella’s case, the appearance of untamed, unfarmed ‘nothing’ – wilderness – shows us the possibility of ‘everything’.

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49 housing, a registered social housing provider in London, UK.

Posted on Categories Creativity, Re-imaginings

Nothing is everything

This series of re-imaginings is linked by the hope that we can unravel assumptions about completeness, satisfaction and achievement in search of paths towards a relational existence

Nothing is everything – what do we mean?

The idea of the explorations in this project is to unravel, unwrap and even, using a current phrase in our COVID-19 world, unlock the lockdown. Perhaps, just as in our worst moments of lockdown in 2020, these explorations play with the idea of freedom and what we have assumed it to be. Do we need physical freedom to be convinced of the reality and purpose of our lives? Do we need friendships, touch, space, colleagues, routines and a social life to define us? Have we been forced to face something much deeper inside our minds or thoughts or souls as we grapple with the issues that bubble up as we stare into the screen of another virtual meeting?

The explorations in this project use many synonyms for ‘nothing’ but the events of 2020 offer us ‘isolation’ as another way of thinking about nothing. The word speaks of something we used to have which we are now separated from. The ideas for this project were shaped and written in a pre-Covid world but it is interesting to reflect that the paradoxical realities of the title make more sense now that we have been through (or are still in) a global pandemic. There will be time in this project to reflect on a pre- and post-Covid world, but we will stick to many of the ideas conceived and suggested before 2019, with reflections that capture the very essence of this world – and they will no doubt emerge with more challenges and possibilities.

‘Nothing is everything’ presents two extremes. Extremes are usually illustrations of a more ‘normal’ reality. They show us that those extremes can’t possibly be true (for most of us), and are even over inflated extensions of reality, but they may help us to find what really is true. We may ask the question, ‘If I could have everything, what would that look like?’ We could also ask the question the other way and say, ‘If I had nothing, how would that make me feel?’ Both are probably not where any of us would choose to be but thinking about those extremes drives us towards the acknowledgement of what is meaningful or real or even what is a mentally stable and sustainable place to live. ‘Nothing’ may well be the starting point because it presents us with an open canvas, open possibilities, ‘blue sky thinking’ or whatever your way is to describe it. Having ‘everything’ leaves us in the end with nowhere else to go, nothing more to explore; it leaves us with too much choice, too many possibilities and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. We can’t, to use the well-known phrase, see the wood for the trees.

What makes you tick?

Until we have understood the extremes it is hard to find the true ground on which we are really standing and what the ground should really be. Now that we have lived (or are living) through the Covid crisis. it’s probably good to try and think back to what you originally thought about yourself before time stopped and everything changed. In doing so it might bring to light some of the meanings in the phrase that we are exploiting – if you have more affinity with the idea that ‘nothing is everything’ now than you had six months ago, then you may well have faced, wrestled with or dismissed the idea that it is not materials and ownership that validates your existence, but that it is the abstracts of touch, relationship and belonging that makes you tick. This is a poignant and not unfamiliar set of circumstances that we have all been through at various places in various points on planet Earth.

Safety in science

Mathematical modelling has been one of the new phrases fresh on everybody’s lips during this current season of life. It seems a very safe and possible place: we can work out the science and then bring a finish to all this. However, deep inside we probably feel very unsafe, very unfinished, very like the possibilities could go anywhere. It’s not that science has no relevance and no help to give during this time – in fact quite the opposite. However, again we seem to move from one extreme to another: from extremes of fear to extremes of hope as we scientificate all possible outcomes and irrational thoughts – that this pandemic might never end and COVID 19 will be the new ruling force of planet earth. How strange and unusual that a virus or even a protein would seem to have such power to change the thinking, views and possibly even economic forces of the whole planet in the space of a few months. It would seem like everything has suddenly become nothing and that, in fact, we might have to start the whole thing again with some new ideas and paradigms.

Provoking conversations

So despite the birth of the many strands of this project before Covid-19, we now see a fresh and urgent context for our search for paths towards a relational existence. As has already been said, this project will contain synonyms for different kinds of ‘nothing’, like ‘stripping away’ and ‘peeling back’. At its core is a deliberate movement away from the bastions of certainty and status quo. It suggests that we have to lay everything bare, embrace the unknown and rediscover the potential and creativity in nothingness. We have to go back in order to make room to go forward in a new way. Only when we are in this vulnerable position – leaving behind certainties and labels and hierarchies – can we have room for other possibilities. If we don’t do this, we will forever be full of and preoccupied with and committed to everything that we already know. This project aims to challenge the idea that stasis is acceptable or ideal. It questions the complacent attitude that says we don’t have to change.

Of course people will look at this and say it is idealistic. But idealism always starts somewhere. We are hoping to provoke conversations, discussions that will be catalysts for new thinking. It doesn’t so much matter which conversation we are part of but which one really changes us and our locality.

The idea of this series of thoughts in this project is to get us to think more deeply about what really matters, what drives us, and to ask what can we let go of in order to re-define another way of living, building community and existing on our planet? The observations that formed to bring this material together look at different aspects of poetry, art, housing, community, business, science and education in the context of twenty-first century life and cities (my own perspective), but with a close eye on the planet and its future challenges and stunning resources.

We have ask ourselves, can we redefine in small and varied ways space, place, people and purpose? Can we grapple with the questions that could be posed and the possibilities that exist for future generations? We hope this book will stimulate, challenge and re-define, but most of all help us to live better and fuller lives on this amazing planet. Like Francis of Assisi’s paradox, our aim has been to illustrate ideas that are contrary to the accepted ways of doing things. Paradoxes are, after all, the product of innovative thinking; thinking in which the obvious is juxtaposed with the surprising.

About the Authors

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49, a social housing provider. Over the years, Simon has been involved in a multitude of eclectic roles, ranging from charity founder, international speaker, education consultant and Citytocity founder. 

 After experiencing a completely life-changing season of physical breakdown, Simon tells how his body and mind temporarily separated and he was left in a “chasm of black”. 

“In finding my way back, from this nearly 20 years ago, I discovered a new freshness and way of viewing so many things. At first it was odd to be travelling in unfamiliar territory, but as time went on, new ideas and new thinking emerged.” 

Simon first connected with Ros at a conference which she was hosting and where he was speaking. “She was quiet, chose her words carefully but was a mindfield of explosive thinking, and when we started writing together, she wrote with a willingness to metaphorically ‘walk off a cliff’ in terms of new ideas. I’m passionate about change and how it happens; not in a conventional or perhaps strategic way but in a more organic and creational way. Creation, and I include my faith in that engagement, has embedded in it so much about life’s rhythms and patterns so that as we strain and yearn to make sense of life, it provides us with some beautiful and deep insights that are mind blowing and contrary to many recognised ways of doing things. 

“Ros and I humbly invite you to journey with some of the ideas in Nothing is Everything in the hope that we will all find much more beauty, depth, understanding and compassion in this complex and yet glorious universe we find ourselves walking in.”  

Posted on Categories Nothing is everything

God in the lab: Science and Christianity

With thanks to Andy Bowie, who contributed this blog.

I love Tom Wright’s motif of heaven and earth being two spheres of God’s reality that overlap in different ways at different times.

At the 2015 City2City conference in Copenhagen, participants in the science/academic track challenged each other to think and operate in the true reality of the overlap of heaven and earth, and inspired one another with stories of how we had seen the activity of God’s kingdom in our scientific conversations and workplaces.

Those ‘thin places’ where we step into the moment where heaven and earth touch are exciting places to be, but it can be challenging for rational scientists to live in that reality! It requires intentionality of faith and belief to stand in that place and see spiritual innovation occur.

Christian faith can actually enhance science

Science and ChristianityThere are lots of good books out there that deal with intellectual issues of science and faith. These are great, and useful and important resources for releasing scientists of faith from false notions that science and religion are somehow in conflict. And they equip us to carry on that conversation with those around us in the science world.

But there are fewer books that celebrate how Christian faith can actually enhance science, and how science can enhance our faith: in other words how the pursuit of science and of God can go hand in hand as we seek to live in the reality of the overlap of heaven and earth.

That is why I love God in the Lab, a book written by Ruth Bancewicz that came out of wanting to move the conversation beyond the question ‘Is science consistent with faith?’ to the investigation ‘How science can enhance my faith’, and vice versa.

When I read a book like this, questions buzz around my mind. Many of these questions  have been discussed at City2City events in the past:

How much do I have a sense that I am in my academic position/discipline ‘for such a time as this’?

What are the next steps that will bring more of the ethos of the Christian faith into my sphere of influence?

What part am I going to play to make this happen?

What follows in this blog is my review of Bancewicz’s book. I hope that some of you will be inspired to pick it up and take a good look. It’s fascinating reading whether you are a scientist or not.

Conversations about Christianity and science

Ruth Bancewicz is a former research biologist, now a senior research associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She has contributed significantly to the conversation between Christianity and Science over the past decade, especially with the production of the excellent ‘Test of Faith’ website and resource materials. As she explains in the first chapter of God in the Lab, this current book represents an attempt to start new conversations about the interface between science and faith, rather than simply responding to common issues raised. The book is the final output of a Templeton Foundation-funded project, which also included her blog

The provocative subtitle of the book, How Science Enhances Faith, sums up the author’s goal in writing. Here we go beyond a discussion about how science is consistent with faith, and how it is possible to be a scientist and a Christian (still a radical idea for many), to how science and faith can actually mutually benefit one another. In that regard, the subtitle could equally be ‘How Faith Enhances Science’.

The journey for readers

The journey that the author brings us on, which she clearly is very passionate about, is three-fold:

  • to understand how scientific research works at the coal face;
  • to succinctly explain how science and Christianity fit together;
  • to innovate in areas of thought around how imagination, creativity, beauty, wonder and awe typify both science and Christianity.

The style of the book is similar to some of Bancewicz’s blog posts, being personal and conversational. Much of the content is drawn from interactions and conversations with research scientists who are Christians.

Chapter 2, ‘Life in the Lab’ is fascinating. The author suggests that ‘practising scientists may wish to skip this chapter’ (p. 13), yet as a practising scientist this was one of the most interesting parts of the book to me, as it describes very accurately how day-to-day research works in a modern science lab. In addition, this chapter contains lots of interesting insights from Dr Harvey McMahon about ideas and thought processes that underpin his approach to research as a Christian.

I think other research scientists will also find this chapter highly interesting, as much as a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise with one’s own approaches as a very successful exercise in explaining how a research lab functions. For anyone from a non-science background wanting an insight into how research actually works, this is excellent material.

Main themes

The main themes of the book are covered in Chapters 4 to 8:

  • creativity
  • imagination
  • beauty
  • wonder
  • awe.

In each of these chapters, Bancewicz carefully weaves together her own personal insights, historical perspectives, biblical content and quotations and thoughts from named scientists gathered from interviews, which gives a well rounded picture of how these topics are critical to both good science and good theology. There is a logical flow to the order that they are dealt with too, and each chapter builds on insights from the previous one, which does lead to a sense of arriving at the heart of the authors thesis once one gets to ‘awe’.

As might be expected, the attempt to cover such vast topics in such a short book does make some of the sections feel incomplete, or as if they are only scratching the surface. For me, an example of this was the section on ‘God and Imagination’ (p. 105), which very briefly began to address the idea of how using our imagination is a reflection of being made in the image of God, but then wound up far too soon. However, the goal of the book is not to be comprehensive, but to be provocative and to initiate new conversations about science and faith, a goal that the book definitely does achieve. For those wanting more, there is a good bibliography included, too.

I found the final chapter an excellent and succinct synthesis of the ideas discussed in the book, and a helpful summary of the journey that the author has brought the reader though. In fact, I would recommend that this chapter be read first prior to launching into the book, as a compass for the journey ahead.

Overall I found the book highly readable, although at times it took me a while to ‘catch up’ with the author’s thinking or thought structure on the more abstract topics such as imagination and wonder, probably due to the fact that although we all think about such topics, its still quite rare to read about them in the context of science and faith intersecting.

Audience appeal

This book will appeal to a number of audiences, both young and old, academic and non-academic, and this is one of its great strengths. I think it will appeal to:

  • practising Christian research scientists, who will draw encouragement and inspiration from the personal insights of fellow Christians working in the sciences;
  • those outside the sciences who desire to understand the motivations of Christians involved in research;
  • scientists and non-scientists who believe that there is a conflict between Christianity and science.

I hope all readers will be challenged by how comfortable Christian scientists are with expressing their faith through their scientific research – a faith that enhances science rather than co-existing uncomfortably with it.

Andy Bowie is a professor in Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, where he leads a research group devoted to understanding how our cells detect viruses during an immune response. He is also a leader in Trinity Church and has been involved in leading the Science and Academic spheres at City to City conferences since 2010.


Posted on Categories Re-imaginings, Science & ideas

Simplicity in the workplace

A diverse, organic, perhaps even messy organisation is a complex structure. How can it also be a place of simplicity, creativity and emotional release?


Complexity in business has become the norm: complex terms, complex phrases, complex systems, complex change programmes, complex everything.

Complexity isn’t inherently bad, nor is it always avoidable: think of the global economy and the network that gives it life, for example. The problem is when we add to that complexity unnecessarily, believing that a complex system requires a complex approach to sustain or improve it, or assume that complexity is a higher intellectual standard than simplicity. Because we shouldn’t, it doesn’t and it isn’t.

Most of us will recognise this type of complexity – it is negative and mechanistic. To reach the simplicity of a different system where humanity can flourish, organisations must first identify and address this problematic type of complexity.

You might recognise some of these characteristics of complexity in a business context:

  • the fear of thinking and reflection (we think this is a sub-intellectual, passive activity)
  • the promotion of a pyramid structure (we’re addicted to this way of organising people)
  • the endorsement of individualism and competitivity (we expect this to be the norm)
  • the pursuit of control (we will fragment our organisation so we can monitor and measure it).

Complexity in the form of process – the fragmentation of an organisation into a hundred thousand parts for the purpose of manipulation, measurement and monitoring – is creativity’s worst nightmare. It is a significant contributor to the widely reported anxiety epidemic sweeping our workplaces. At its root is the illusory pursuit of control and the widespread adoption of an underlying assumption that is, fundamentally, a negative view of humanity.

This type of complexity is most definitely not your friend. A well-known example of a badly executed process of complexity is the multi-purpose performance review, which lumps together rating, reviewing and analysing – originally a well- intentioned idea but, often, a seriously flawed one. But this is not the whole story.

Simple complexity

Complexity can produce another narrative – a story of complexity that has the potential to be your friend. At its root is humanity’s innate ability to self-organise and innovate. A good example of this type of complexity is the urban settlement. Cities are heaving masses of inter-dependent, inter-relational networks. They are highly complex, living systems. But not only do they work, they thrive. The beauty of this type of complexity is that it’s also remarkably simple; just a collection of people being encouraged to be themselves.

The kind of creativity that is not allowed in the workplace is going on all around us outside the office. The same people are creatively negotiating relationships and belonging. A more simplistic culture in business can make a way for innovation and creativity to be part of the workplace. The transition from a process-driven focus to a people focus helps to build an environment where individuals are nurtured, where it is the norm to trust people, to believe that they want to do their best and that they have the capacity to innovate.

A simplistic, more generous, relationship-oriented organisation is one that recognises that people want their life to matter – in personal and professional contexts.

SimplicityHow do we unravel the complexity that has been so deeply ingrained into our organisations?

We can start by asking a few questions of our existing or proposed process.

Is it relational?

Sitting down with your manager a couple of times a year to run through a pre-determined appraisal form for formal signature and approval is not nearly as relational as regular two-way dialogue. The benchmark comparison for this question is naturally ‘Would I do this if it the person across the desk was a family member?’. Would you run your spouse through a twice-yearly review? Hopefully not. Would you have regular two-way dialogue with a mutual interest to grow and learn? Hopefully so.

Is it personal?

Organisations are in love with standardisation, primarily because they believe standardised processes are more efficiently delivered at scale. But this pursuit of standardisation comes at the considerable cost of individualism. And for creative, healthy cultures to flourish people need to be able to contribute and develop their individual talents in their own way. For example, although some skills are worth teaching en masse (like how to have difficult conversations), a world of difference can be achieved by allowing people some flexibility to choose how they will grow, instead of telling them what they’ll be trained in and how.

Is the underlying assumption a positive one?

Try this exercise. Trawl through an employee handbook and highlight everything that makes a negative underlying assumption; the average handbook is an opus that screams ‘We need to cover ourselves because our people can’t be trusted or relied upon.’ While unintentional, this embedded negative message provides a negative undercurrent throughout contemporary organisations – one that affects pretty much every area of organisational life. Overturning it reduces the leadership and process burden, making working life simpler and more enjoyable.

Slowing down

The application of these three questions to any situation or process will create more space for employees, teams and organisational systems to work in harmony. Even if they do not result in changes, they do an important job of making people stop and think – something that many of us find difficult. Slowing down to think or talk meaningfully is a counter-cultural activity. We are reluctant to do it, because of its simplicity. By contrast, living life at 100 miles per hour and juggling professional and personal diaries is self-created complexity.

Although we all have a human need to be listened to, we are fearful of doing something that seems so sub-intellectual and passive. This preference has carried over into the workplace.

Purpose-driven business

SimplicityThe Blueprint Movement exists to help businesses discover new ways of behaving as a corporate body. In essence this means ‘a commitment to deliver value through explicit purpose and the quality of the human relationships nurtured internally and externally’. The Blueprint framework summarises the behaviours and actions of a business that is working towards operating according to the five Blueprint principles.

When a business, organisation or social enterprise aligns itself with a purpose that serves society and respects people, it is simply responding to the fact that it is, after all, just a collection of people. And people long for relationship, personal relevance, and to be given the trust and space provided by positive assumptions.

This blog is contributed by John Featherby, the founder of Shoremount, a founding UK B Corp and consultancy firm repositioning corporates for the new economic era. John is a senior adviser to the CEO of Blueprint for Better Business and sits on the Investment Committee of the UK’s largest ever real estate social enterprise, the multi-award winning Real Lettings Property Fund.

Posted on Categories Business & finance

Change, challenge and creativity

Art can often be seen as society’s essential irritant. It can challenge our ingrained perceptions, create emotional responses or stimulate different senses and initiate debate that often transcends our rational understanding.

All of this can be really good for us, if we embrace the challenges it can present.

One of the greatest attributes of the human mind, is being able to connect invisible dots, or to take creative leaps in the dark to explore or even create new ground. As Henry Ford famously once said ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ To me this is a great definition of binary thinking, humans acting like computers. Computers are tools, humans are individuals. The human thought process needs to be unshackled from a status of ‘what is’ to one of ‘what could be’.

New possibilities

I remember seeing and experiencing for the first time the ground-breaking conceptual sculpture ‘An Oak Tree’, by  Michael Craig-Martin, in London’s Tate Modern gallery. It was unlike anything I had come across before and I was transfixed. It was a pivotal moment for me in trying to develop my creative thinking.

For those that may have not seen the work, it’s a plain glass of water sitting on a glass shelf 253cm above the ground, with some supporting text mounted on the wall below it. The question and answer format of the text describes changing ‘a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water’, and explains that ‘the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water’.

At first sight you might feel conned! It really is a glass of water on a shelf – it is most definitely not an oak tree! This is the mind in ‘comfort thinking’ mode. However, push past first impressions and read the accompanying text and see if your perception changes. Craig-Martin considered ‘the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say’ – so if you have faith or belief, anything can be possible. A glass of water can be an oak tree!

You may agree or disagree with the artist, but it has opened a new dialogue in your mind to think about new possibilities, and that is something which is both vital and profound.


Seek out the alternatives

My professional creative work is all about generating new ideas, exploring new ways of thinking or approaching an existing problem. For any creative currency to be valid, it has to be challenged. For me it is vital to approach problem-solving from multiple, sometimes contrary, directions, if I am to produce solutions that attempt to rise above stock responses. However, relying solely on an existing reservoir of accumulated ‘comfort zone thinking’ knowledge, the pool of resources I can draw on is fairly shallow and prone to quickly drying up! To avoid this, new experiences, challenges and knowledge need to be embraced on a daily basis.

It is hard to be creatively inspired in isolation. Hence why I love working collaboratively with different people; clients, coders, printers, team members, etc. Generating an initial concept is comparatively easy, but sometimes it is all too easy to get seduced by your own ideas. Having alternative input and critique is really important to help shape and bring about a more focused solution.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded people with common interests does not challenge ‘comfort zone thinking’ or free the mind from a state of creative inertia. So instead of surrounding myself with the familiar and comforting, I try to embrace change or challenge as part of daily routines. This can be as simple as just choosing or taking different routes instead of familiar journeys. Limitation can also be a great way of providing self-initiated challenges. For example, I recently purchased a new Nikon DSLR camera, and deliberately opted for a 50mm fixed prime lens rather than the general-purpose zoom lens I have always previously used. Quite literally, I will have to change my perspective when taking pictures now! The ‘limitations’ help to push me to think more creatively about the type of shots I can and cannot take.

I also try to allow my passionate curiosity to get the better of me as it often opens the mind to different perspectives or viewpoints. Spending time with those involved in activities outside of my particular sphere of operation, or from different cultures or backgrounds, can bring huge insights and act as a real breath of creative fresh air. I recently attended a PechaKucha night at the De La War Pavillion, where speakers’ topics ranged from The Art and Neuroscience of Lucid Dreaming to Cool Knots, with lots of variety in between! These topics, although random to me, really inspired my thinking on my own current work projects.

Ask ‘Why not?’

Imagine the possibilities if painters mixed with scientists, photographers with mathematicians, linguists with engineers, musicians with sociologists, etc., or better still, they all mix together  to work collaboratively on a project! The outcome might initially be some kind of chaotic, creative cacophony! It would be very challenging to manage, but points of difference and commonality would soon be discovered and explored. Creative ideas would soon come to the surface as new thoughts or ideas were considered. Each discipline would be able to offer a unique, external objective perspective by simply asking ‘Why not?’. This in itself can bring a huge release, as accepted traditional ways of thinking within a field are challenged and developed further.

I believe this would resonate with some of the principles of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus School of Art in Germany (1919–1933), a form of education that that has proved to be hugely influential ever since.

Often comfort zone thinking is a self-imposed type of mental restriction that we create within our mind. It gives us safe boundaries, a sense of comfort, but beware, these boundaries eventually become a creative prison and ultimately, the death of an inspired mind!

In the words of writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer,

adventure_is_good crop

CreativityThis blog is contributed by Chris Hamilton Brown, an independent designer and founder of, producing integrated solutions for print, online, social, photographic and furniture with passion, eclecticism and vision.  


Posted on Categories Arts & media, Creativity

Ownership: Stirring up new thinking

Ownership is a fundamental assumption of our twenty-first century life.

Ownership is a mainstream part of our culture. The argument for home ownership is strong – think of the importance we place on security, family history and feelings of peace.

Ownership has been sold to us by successive governments and policies as the best way forward for individuals, a basic ingredient of family life, a yardstick for the health of the economy, the herald of flourishing cities, a solution for poverty and a key aspirational force. Ownership is celebrated for the control it gives people over their lives.

This blog aims to throw out questions about the value of ownership and ask, what are the alternative economic and social models? We’re not saying that it can be thoroughly discussed in a few sentences, nevertheless, C2C is compelled to ask the questions! Our aim is always to generate thinking and let others muse upon and discuss the issues, with the aim of stirring new thinking and perhaps more radical responses.

Why is ownership so persuasive and pervasive?

The argument for home ownership is strong because we have made it into a set of equations that say:

Home = peace
Home = status
Home = community

Even where there is a laissez faire attitude to the economics and status of ownership, there may still be the aspiration towards it.

What is bad about ownership?

Ownership represents a completely unbalanced and unfair economic world. Ownership is not sensible economics.

Ownership is a false dream. It says ‘If you achieve this, you will be able to do, be and have all these other things, too.’ It is a prosperity mantra that teaches us to aspire to be the ‘greater’ person rather than the ‘smaller’ one. Ownership is a false goal that exacerbates our disenfranchisement and perpetuates power structures.

Are there any alternative models?

If we question the process of getting more or getting sufficient as essential to living a full and fulfilled life, we are asking, what are the alternatives to relationships and societies based on economics and ownership?

We want people to feel hopeful about an alternative to the ownership principle. We believe that people want a vision of community – not with a massive theology in tow – but a vision of community that represents a form of security. What creates community is longevity of relationships, sustainability and the sharing of resources, as well as lots of laughter and happiness.

So one proposition that we would like to throw out is that community, not property, is key to peace and security. The community element is found not in the fact that a home is owned but that there is security, sustainability, longevity of relationships and shared resources in the home environment. This is a system that takes away economic pressures.

Once we get rid of ownership’s contingent problems of storing, grabbing and inequality we enter a different relational and communal space. Indicators of happiness are higher in simple communities than they are in societies where people have a high economic stake.

The Christian ethic of love: Self-sacrificing ‘giving living’ 

The Christian ethic is based on a God who created everything but who, in desire as well as reality, owns nothing. Is the pattern of creating and living that Christians accept a way of simply saying that ownership is overrated? Or does it say that ownership is wrong?

God is love and the nature of love is that you give it away. God has given the universe to mankind and He frees up the space without claim on it. In contrast, ownership stores, holds, accumulates and divides.

Bold corporate and civic decisions

The city of Berlin is a good example of the way in which different cultural forms co-exist – the city’s vibrant art scene works alongside more economically rooted forces and the former has not been squeezed out. Galleries, rental accommodation for visiting students, non-profit studios and self-funded spaces have been nurtured, meaning that the artistic community can afford to stay and grow there. In other cities, such as London, similar grass-roots communities have been overtaken by economics and gentrification.

In London, Southwark Council spent £6m on creating a park in middle of a gang-troubled area. That is a positive example of ownership by a civic group – ownership for the benefit of community.

‘Non-ownership thinking’ is often local thinking

Strong communities are always based on a shift in the balance of power from global to local. C2C believes that local conversations and solutions will transform lives. The local is a site for ‘non-ownership thinking’, but the more that globals and corporates take over small initiatives, the more we lose this ‘non-ownership thinking’ in local spaces.

We need to challenge the idea that the ownership of land exists for political or economic advantage, rather than for the long-term benefit of residents. Where we see shared partnerships that are creating places of civic connection – allotments and parks, for example – we see that communities are truly brought together. Council-owned land has a social heritage that in many cities is being lost so that capital gains can be made from the land.

Filling the ‘space’ taken by ownership

Without the structures of ownership we are freer to build other things. When power and dominion are taken away we start to see that everything else can be put into a different perspective. People can connect to a system in which money is not central and there is no status involved. Other things may be exchanged and other currencies used – for example, art and creativity or volunteer time – both of which build long-term sustainable communities.

Look out for more on this, and the example of Timebanks, in another blog.

Posted on Categories Arts & media

Approaching the referendum decision: How do we relate to our neighbours?

This blog is contributed by Peter Hall, a self-employed teacher of English as a foreign language, who believes in looking for creative ways to make things better and better ways of being creative.

Arguments for justice, respect and diversity have prevailed at key moments of world history, through courageous leadership, sustained campaigning, the imagining of a better world and the resolve to act.

These arguments prevailed in the repeal of the slave trade, in the civil war in the United States, in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa and in the successful campaign for a peaceful political settlement in Northern Ireland.

The fear, hostility and segregation that was eventually resisted can be traced back to popular and political representations of racial differences. From a Christian point of view, and a humanitarian one, all arguments which are based on the belief that one race or ethnic group is superior to another are plainly wrong.

The European Union was founded specifically to make sure that nationalism could no longer tear Europe apart as it had in two disastrous wars, with the loss of 50 million European lives. Besides the union of currencies and markets, as Sir Fred Catherwood puts it, this internationalism speaks of protection, freedom and inter-racialism.

I’m writing as someone who has travelled a reasonable amount around Eastern Europe, taught English as a foreign language to various EU nationals and co-habited (as a host and as a guest) with various EU nationals. I’ve spent 13 years working in taxation and 15 years in the health sector, working with and for EU nationals.

I confess I am a fairly convinced Remain supporter. I like Europeans. Some of my best friends are Europeans. In fact I am a European. I’m even married to one. However, having said this, I want to look again at the principles that shape this opinion.


I believe that the concept of ‘Britishness’ is something that I should hold lightly. My Christian world view is that unity is more important that geography or culture, and that my spiritual allegiance to Jesus Christ weakens my sense of nationalism and increases my desire to live at peace with everyone – not retreat behind a wall for safety.

Responding to the public debate

Resist the negative climate

However strongly we feel about staying in or voting out, there’s a case to be made for actively resisting the negative climate that is part of the referendum debate. There is a bigger picture of working for positive discussion and resolution during and after the vote.

The negativity of the Out campaign, often even that spoken with a Christian voice, has sometimes been distressing. I do not hear the voice of sympathy for the EU citizen. The message is that you are not ‘one of us’. The Christian precept ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ stands in contrast to this message.

See the bigger picture

The majority of the UK and EU population will not wake up hungry and sick. We all may be under economic pressures of varying severity but in the EU this is less likely to be a matter of life and death than in other parts of the world. For me the bigger issue is that this voice on behalf of the hungry seems muted at the moment as we focus on our narrow problems.

How is this voice that defends the poor and marginalised best heard? I believe it is within the EU – through the creation of movements across Europe that will exert pressure on governments and EU policy-makers. Others may say that we can be more effective as a separate voice of conscience outside the EU that speaks to those within.

Scrutinise media coverage

The immigration issue is starting to dominate public debate and colour representation about the UK’s relationship with the EU. Sue Bird, a policy coordinator at the European Commission, has encouraged us to remember what the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said on this subject: ‘All human beings are of absolutely equal and infinite value and the language we use must reflect the value of the human being and not treat immigration as a deep menace.’ The archbishop’s concern was about the potential in underlying racial overtones to spark a heated debate that risked getting out of hand.

There is fear about the impetus towards a European super state, but do we believe that a ‘super state’ is more acceptable to the French or the Dutch than it is to us? Bulgaria is not Germany. Italy is not Spain. England is not Scotland. The EU (or the UK for that matter), based on what I have seen in my travels, does not destroy diversity. It allows a space where that diversity is protected and preserved in ways that countries couldn’t afford to do on their own. The European City of Culture initiative is one example (which Glasgow and Liverpool have benefited greatly from). Even the Cornish pasty has its status protected by the European Commission.

An uncertain future

The feelings of despair and powerlessness, and real economic pain, expressed by many supporting the Out campaign are real. How are we to address the needs of the oppressed within this country? When people at the poorer end of the economic scale are competing for the same limited territory, problems are easily expressed in ethnic terms and by a rejection of all authority figures. We should feel the pain behind the expression before we judge it, or perhaps not judge at all. The question is, what we are going to do about it? It also doesn’t mean we have to accept the analysis.

Where the EU has mismanaged, it is horrendously painful. Surely part of the shared pain appropriate to the EU is debt relief by Germany for Greece. Whether In or Out, the economic future is uncertain. While I believe economic security is managed better together, there are no guarantees. But I don’t want to be the one who, as the party comes towards an end, sees the mess, makes polite excuses and leaves early so I’m not there at the end to help clear up.

Democracy is not a holy institution. It’s pretty bad in many ways, but it’s currently the best option we have. Ironically it’s very much like the EU. Like democracy, the EU sometimes stops people from doing what is right. But it also usually stops some very bad people from doing some very bad things, and I’d like it to remain so.

Posted on Categories Government & politics

Complexity in organisations: Knowing the difference between the good, the bad and the ugly

Complexity in organisations can be both a curse and a blessing. Yet the traditional corporate has developed an extraordinary talent for encouraging complexity’s unhelpful side while discouraging the other. How do we differentiate between them in order to better position our organisations and their people?

This blog is contributed by John Featherby, the founder of Shoremount, a founding UK B Corp and consultancy firm repositioning corporates for the new economic era. John is a senior adviser to the CEO of Blueprint for Better Business and sits on the Investment Committee of the UK’s largest ever real estate social enterprise, the multi-award winning Real Lettings Property Fund.


Complexity: The good

Whether we’re a child learning about the human body, a young adult in front of a nature documentary or an adult experiencing the variety that international cultures have to offer, our life experience is awash with the learning that complexity is intrinsic to our existence, growth, creativity and flourishing. Even from a purely scientific perspective, within the disciplines of biology and chemistry, complexity can be shown to be a source of progress and stability.

If we accept that organic complexity can provide a positive characteristic for change, how does that compare to our experience of modern organisations? The traditional organisation is not structured, led or resourced in an organic fashion. The traditional organisation is structured, led and resourced like a machine – the antithesis of an organism.

This complexity is most easily implemented in organisations through the pursuit of diversity. But, while important, this is not diversity for the sake of equality. This is diversity for the sake of survival. And neither is it about race or gender, but about thought, experience and worldview. Organisations, particularly large ones, will simply not last if they do not make this transition.

At the root of this organic, complexity-through-diversity thought is the assumption that humanity has an innate ability to self-organise and innovate. Thousands of years of history are on side here. Organisations that encourage this kind of relationship-driven, intrinsically motivated complexity are the future.

Complexity: The bad

We can also understand complexity as the unnecessary accumulation of processes and systems, a complexity that clogs up the stream of thought and productivity that people would otherwise freely engage with.

Most of us will recognise this type of complexity in the processes and systems of the workplace. Or, to put that in reverse, how many solution-finding processes can we think of that are anything but? Equally, it could be argued that in the context of problem-solving, any given process must be able to justify its existence. Is it biased? Is it morale-sapping? Is it productive? But these standards are not as easy to achieve as you might expect. To reach the simplicity of a different system in which humanity can flourish, organisations must identify and address the bad and the ugly types of complexity, which inadvertently squeeze out relationship in the service of process.

The squeeze

Complex processes are worsened by the habit of drifting towards one-size fits all. As with many problems they start with good intentions. Then, as they develop (i.e. grow more complex) in an attempt to capture all potential risks and inputs, they increasingly squeeze out not only relationship, but thinking. Take the traditional consultancy model as an example. It is the norm for consultants – to their clients’ detriment – to sell the idea that they can walk in with a well-engineered, tightly manufactured process on Day 1 and start pumping people and information through it at speed like a well-oiled, solution-finding sausage machine. This is a dangerous illusion; one that stands in the way of long-term value creation.

The educated ego

Another driver of negative complexity is ego. The corporate system is full of highly educated, intelligent, gifted individuals; some of the most educated people that have ever existed. We in the corporate system have developed an unhelpful habit of using complex language and complex terminology.

Executive ego affects how people approach problem-solving. Who wants to be told, when they have invested years and (potentially) hundreds of thousands of dollars in growth and education that talking something through over lunch may be a better way forward than implementing complex models and analytics? Big money problems are more complex than small money ones, right? And more complex problems are in need of more complex solutions, right? Well, no. Or, at the very least, not necessarily. And don’t mistake me here, I’m grateful to be a product of some of the best education going, it has helped me immensely. But I have had to learn to keep it in proper perspective in the context of all the other ways life teaches us. I try to make sure that it does not own me. It is not my sole source of identity or differentiation.

The last complexity-related challenge I’m going to mention is the issue of measurement. While measurement is a useful tool that delivers very sensible, worthwhile and logical benefits if practised appropriately, measurement, as we know it, has spun out of control. Not only is it everywhere, it has reached an almost sacred status in organisations. The maxim ‘What gets measured gets done’ is frequently accepted with unquestioned loyalty. The consequence of this is that layer upon layer of complexity is added to systems in order to create something that can have measurable data attached to it. But what if the underlying assumption is flawed? Like a siren luring sailors to the rocks, what if measurement is not what it promises to be?

Measurement’s broken promises

  • Numbers can lie, be manipulated and trick us to absolving responsibility.
  • Numbers can hide troubling underlying issues.
  • Numbers can lag reality or be misinterpreted.
  • Numbers can evaluate the wrong things or encourage wrong behaviours.
  • Numbers can feed the illusion of control and encourage short termism.

The biggest irony here is that everyone knows that the overwhelming proportion of corporate value actually lies in intangibles like ‘brand value’ – and intangibles are qualitative by their very nature! Not to mention that we get along just fine in life outside of work without a KPI round every corner.

Complexity: The ugly

All this negative complexity is not only creativity’s worst nightmare. It is a significant contributor to the widely reported anxiety epidemic sweeping our workplaces. Because, at its root is the illusory pursuit of control and an underlying assumption that is, fundamentally, a negative view of humanity.

Annual performance appraisal

This is best personified in the annual performance appraisal. Almost nothing in the working world sums up everything that is wrong with organisations like this ritual, a process that manages to encapsulate all of the above issues surrounding complexity. The worst of them are once a year, standardised, measurable, multi-purpose and mandatory. And, while all appraisals are not created equal, this still encompasses vast swathes of the appraisal landscape.

Let me provide just a few examples of why so many of the assumptions that underpin this process are not as straightforward as they may seem.

Assumption: One appraisal can do multiple tasks (complexity in action)
Problem: The tasks are counterproductive … pay vs feedback

Assumption: Ratings provide motivation and worthwhile data
Problem: Ratings are inaccurate, biased and proven to demotivate

Assumption: Feedback should be linked to the calendar
Problem: Feedback is needed when it’s needed

Assumption: They’re required by law
Problem: This is the exception, not the rule

Assumption: They’re needed to protect companies from employee legal action
Problem: They help employees in legal cases at least as much as they help employers

Assumption: The organisation and its management are responsible for employee feedback
Problem: This demonstrates disempowerment of the employee

Assumption: Forensic evaluation of individuals improves performance
Problem:  This is low yield compared to addressing system-based change

Assumption: Appraisals are objective
Problem: Appraisals are as prone to subjectivity and bias as anything else

Assumption: Linking pay to an appraisal process incentivises performance
Problem: Social science tells us the opposite unless it’s a menial task

As we can see, the annual performance appraisal is built upon a number of assumptions that, at their root, say an employee needs to be motivated, monitored and measured if they are to perform. But not only is that a flawed theory, it also adds a significant layer of complexity to the role of leadership in organisations, the human resource professionals who are responsible for ensuring the delivery of performance appraisals and the remuneration committees who link them to pay.

Keeping it simple

Organisations need to be more like an organism than a machine to stay innovative and agile, and that means that diversity rather than bureaucracy must shape their natural complexity. The good news is that there are ever proliferating ways to discover new ways of behaving as a corporate body.

ComplexityFor example, the US originated B Corp movement, which launched in the UK only last autumn to great success, continues to thrive, now with over 1,600 members globally. And in March of this year the Blueprint for Better Business movement attracted a host of large corporates to a sell out conference.  As a case in point, Blueprint exists to stimulate and energise positive behavioural change in business through the pursuit of purpose driven enterprise. This means ‘a commitment to deliver value through explicit purpose and the quality of the human relationships nurtured internally and externally’.

This cannot be achieved by behaving like a machine; after all, when an organisation aligns itself with a purpose that serves society and respects people, it is simply responding to the fact that it is, after all, just a collection of people. And people don’t long for one-size-fits-all complex routines, they long for relationship, personal relevance and to be given the trust and space provided by positive assumptions.




Posted on Categories Business & finance