Jon Alexander is the director of the New Citizenship Project, a social innovation lab, using creative strategy to promote the role of the citizen and encourage better participation in society. Jon’s former career was spent in London advertising agencies where he developed brand strategies for major organisations as Orange and Sony. Jon is going to be a speaker at Communicating the Museum in september in Istanbul. He will set out both a challenge and a potential new innovation agenda. He aims to inspire the conference delegates with the desire to develop projects which engage and involve people as Citizen participants rather than broadcasting to them as Consumers.
At CTM15 he will present new research findings, and call on examples both from his own work and beyond, including The National Trust, Baltimore Museum of Art, Rijksmuseum, BBC and the UK Parliament. Attendees will come away inspired with a new way of looking at how the museum sector operates.
To understand better what covers the word Citizen and how arts institutions should be interested in the behavorial shift it implies, we’ve met Jon Alexander.
You have worked in several agencies and in major organisations such as Orange and Sony. How did you come to create the New Citizenship project? (and why “new” by the way?)
My career in advertising was essentially spent asking deeper and deeper questions about the role of that industry in society, initially from an environmental and then from a broader ethical and social perspective. This culminated in 2010 in two key projects: the first was a report on ethics in advertising called “Think of me as evil?”, the second a creative project called MyFarm which I sold into the National Trust from the agency I was then working at, and which would see that organisation attempt to hand over decision making on a real working farm to the public by online debate and vote. These two projects speak to the two questions that are at the heart of my work in the world.
The first is “What are we doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves thousands of times a day (through the medium of advertising, but also of national measures of success like Consumer Confidence) that we are consumers?”; the second “What would it look like to put all the creative energy that goes into that, into inspiring people to participate as Citizens?”
I worked for the National Trust for three years while these questions were forming, and then left to pursue them more directly, initially through further study, and then by founding the New Citizenship Project. I’ve come to see the idea of the Consumer as a dangerous moral idea – the idea that the right thing for the individual to do in society is to get the best deal for himself, on the basis that if everyone does that, the best overall outcome for society will occur. It’s dangerous because it’s been proven to be wrong; but the structures of our society are built around it.
As to the word “new”, I use this because the concept of the citizen has been around for a very long time – my first degree was in Classics, so I have a pretty good grounding in the workings of Ancient Greek democracy! But what we are talking about is a far broader enfranchisement than has ever previously been possible, and one that is fundamentally rooted in contemporary means of action and participation. So it is citizenship – but it is a new form of citizenship.
Today, the words ”consumer” or “client” become more and more part of the public and institutional world. It is now quite common to see Museums or operas in North America calling their visitors clients and I’m quite wondering if this change of word implies also a shift in the way institutions perceive their public.
Is that something you have noticed? If so, how/what could explain that?
In slightly over-simplified terms, I believe what we saw over the course of the 20th century was an evolution in the dominant idea of the individual in society from Subject to Consumer. At the beginning of the century, we the people essentially got what we were given by the insitutions in our lives – whether business, government, or indeed museum or opera. The experts knew best, and were entitled to give us what they thought we needed.
Beginning in the 1950s and reaching a zenith in the 1980s, the idea of the Consumer arrived. When it first appeared, it was a hugely liberating shift for many. It put us in charge, giving us the right to demand what we wanted, and reject those institutions or organisations that refused to respect us. While many aspects of society have moved on and are now looking at the next transition, museums and similar organisations are broadly still stuck in the Subject era, arrogantly assuming that they know best. Only now are they being forced to let go of that, which is why we see the language of the Consumer entering this world.
But while the move from Subject to Consumer was and is positive in relative terms, we now know that the Consumer brings deep dangers. The Consumer’s inherent lack of respect for anything but narrowly defined, short-term, material self-interest is eroding the deeper foundations of our society (which is why we now see the New Citizen emerging to contest the space). To my mind, the cultural sector can therefore be seen as trying to catch up and get into an era whose logic will inevitably destroy its true value. Going back is not an option either though – and nor should we want it to be, though I think many in the sector do.
Going further, what behavioral difference could result from arts organizations calling their public “citizens” instead of “visitors” or even, in North America instead of “clients”?
The opportunity is to skip the Consumer era completely, and think of people as New Citizens. This would see arts organisations claiming the role that duty requires, which is to step up and play a major part in helping all of us create and curate our identities in an era when we no longer do that primarily through the brands we buy.
Seizing this duty (and opportunity) goes deeper than the language used – although I would say we MUST avoid the word Consumer. The problem is that when you think of people as Consumers, it is cognitively impossible to come up with any ideas other than stuff they can buy from you, whether that’s a visit or membership as a product or gifts in the shop. It also inevitably drives how you measure your impact. You will only be able to think of how much they spend on you, how often they transact with you, and so on.
When you think of people as Citizens (or participants, museum goers, or even just “people”!), you open up all sorts of possibilities. While Consumers can only buy from you, Citizens can participate in your cause and purpose in all number of different ways – they can buy into you.
All number of shifts in museum behaviour flow from this. If people are Consumers, you have to provide them a slick service, never showing your working, and try to sell them as individuals as much stuff as possible. If people are Citizens, potential participants, showing your working is good, letting them see and understand your motivation is great, offering them the opportunity to play an active role in helping you in some way – whether that’s helping you choose what to acquire, or working with you on outreach projects, or whatever – is the ultimate.
The work of the New Citizenship Project is to catalyse this shift in the dominant idea of the individual in society. At nuts and bolts, we are an innovation company that comes up with different ideas precisely we are seeking to help organisations step up to the role demanded of them, not just to help them sell more stuff. But I don’t care if we help or someone else does, the vital thing is that the shift happens.