People are growing in confidence that they have the ability to change society - Sir John Elvidge

A lot has changed since I became Chair of the David Hume Institute in September 2015. When I took up the role, the constitutional referendum was behind us, in time if not in terms of the lingering disunity through the heart of our society, the Brexit referendum was not in sight and Barack Obama was in his second term in the White House. The gradual global economic recovery from the banking crisis of the previous decade was proceeding steadily and, in Scotland, labour supply that could keep pace with rising employment was a more pressing challenge than unemployment.

Are we at the dawn of a new era for Scotland where we rely as much on our communities as our government?
Are we at the dawn of a new era for Scotland where we rely as much on our communities as our government?

Climate change was a well established focus of international high-level policy discussion but not, for most people, an issue which engaged people's everyday lives. Inequalities which we have failed for decades to resolve, notably in health and in educational attainment, persisted and, in some cases, were widening. Racial discrimination was an everyday reality for many of those living in Scotland who are not white or Scottish-born but we were reluctant to acknowledge something which challenged our image of ourselves.

Today the prevalent discourse proceeds from the belief that the reality we occupied in 2015 was the product of a “broken system”. There is a widespread desire to embrace a redefined statement of the future society and economy to which we aspire. This is engaging people in a way which it seemed difficult to do before the crisis, despite the fact that Scotland has been among world leading countries since 2007 in trying to articulate our shared aspirations through our National Performance Framework.

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The David Hume Institute's recent work to listen to the views of a large number of people about their future aspiration and, crucially, their thoughts about the action we might take to get there provides strong evidence that this shared desire is an important part of the reality of 2021.

Finding the paths to fulfilling that shared desire is less straightforward. The Institute’s approach is to stimulate people to discuss and work together to answer those questions, rather than to start with a set of pronouncements. That isn't as easy as it might seem, particularly when the absence of ready answers to the questions can make some people uncomfortable and defensive.

The Institute has experience of the way in which a substantial evidence-based report seeking to inform discussion about tackling a long-term challenge with our economic performance, in the form of low productivity, can fail to bring change, despite the strength of the evidence. Although that report stressed that the challenge was by no means confined to Scotland, within the United Kingdom, and that the real worry is our poor comparison with other countries, we found that complacent comparison with the English regions was often used as a reason not to engage.

We have turned in recent months to a fresh approach, which starts from the questions with which people feel the strongest desire to engage. With the support of several committed partners and the willing engagement of over 4,000 participants, we have spent the past six months engaged in a process of discussion of what actions offer a pathway to a better future.

We have deliberately started from a focus on what individuals, communities and businesses can do to create change rather than by adding to the usual preoccupation with government policy changes. We have made sure that the discussion reflects the views of different parts of Scotland, recognising that the voices of those communities are often not heard with as much attention as the voices of our cities.

Thanks to our partners, we have been able to draw in the voices of young people, whose reliance on the best decisions about fulfilling aspirations for the future is greater than anyone else's and who bring open minds to the discussion. We have also sought to draw in those who would tend not to engage with traditional ways of exploring policy choices.

This is a discussion which will grow in volume and effectiveness. One reason for that is that we are building forward by highlighting what people are already taking the initiative to do, whether it’s businesses adapting to the dramatic changes or communities working together in new ways. People are growing in confidence that they have the ability to change society, including the economy. Bringing people together with different backgrounds and experience in conversation has been powerful. We hope that will lead to continued engagement to allow positive change to gain momentum.

One of the distinctive features of this approach has been to treat the conventional focus on what governments should do as the final question in the chain, not the first question. One of the clearest lessons from the pandemic has been our reliance on the actions of the people who make up the fabric of our community at least as much as on the actions of governments.

I am pleased that the end of my period as Chair of the David Hume Institute coincides with the Institute placing itself at the heart of that opportunity to give voice to the practical wisdom of all parts of our society. I am grateful to the supporters whose funding has made this possible. I hope that others will add their support, in various ways, to enable the Institute to make the most of the opportunity.

Above all, I hope that people will join the thousands of our fellow citizens who have brought their voices and their actions to the vital process of working together to make Scotland a more prosperous, sustainable, inclusive and fair country. Every day, further practical actions by individuals can help achieve the shared aspirations for our future. The Institute's website offers an easy gateway to doing that.

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