Time for New Public Thinking

February 3rd, 20111:58 pm @


Imagine that the BBC announced a project to map the great public thinkers of the 20th century and began by setting criteria which would exclude George Orwell, Gloria Steinem and Antonio Gramsci. The idea is absurd – but no less absurd than Radio 3’s recent search for “the next generation of public intellectuals.”

The New Generation Thinkers scheme was open only to those based within a university department. This would have been a mistake in previous generations, but it seems particularly misguided in a generation whose intellectual life is at once less nourished by and less dependent on formal institutions.

After reading about the scheme, I wrote to Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3, to express my disappointment at a missed opportunity and invite him to redress the balance. As a contribution towards this, I would nominate three emerging public thinkers from beyond the university whose work I valued, and invite the readers of my blog to do the same.

That initial blog post was written in a moment of irritation, but the conversation which it started deepened into something far more interesting. In comments, on Twitter, on other blogs, over email and in person, people told me about the writers, thinkers, artists and activists currently inspiring them. Many of the names were new to me and together they formed the beginnings of a fascinating map. More than this, the strength of people’s response spoke of an appetite for a deeper public conversation, for platforms which could host this conversation, and for an articulation of the value of public thinking from both sides of the campus boundary.

New Public Thinking is a response to that appetite. It is intended as a shared space in which we can think together, with each individual piece understood as a contribution to a conversation, rather than a position to be defended. Its centre of gravity will be loosely that of the British Isles – in other words, those writing for it will generally have at least one foot in these islands – although it will naturally look outwards as well as in.

Given the speed at which history seems to be happening right now, there is an urgent need for a better public conversation. We need critique and analysis of Wikileaks, the Big Society or the student protests from people who have an intuitive understanding of how networks change things, but who are also able to bring longer historical and theoretical perspectives to the conversation. We need thinkers ready to puzzle through the world as we find it, rather than forcing it to fit the shape of familiar arguments.

The hope is to host a growing community of such thinking, a public space whose participants are neither united by a party line nor divided by battle lines, a common ground on which to explore ideas together – and in doing so, to reflect the emerging culture of ideas and conversations, informal spaces of learning and connection, which we see as one of the most exciting things going on in Britain today.

Public Thinking and the University

What made that Radio 3 scheme interesting was the crisp example it provided of a more general confusion. Compare it to an article Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic a few weeks ago about his encounters with the US cable news networks. It is the kind of piece which makes you grateful for the breadth and depth of the BBC’s programming, yet at its heart is the same conflation: the ‘Crisis of the Public Intellectual’ the article announces turns out to be a crisis of academics who appear on TV.

In both cases, this represents a misunderstanding of the role and history of the public intellectual. The breadth of thinking and degree of engagement the term implies have always been the exception rather than the rule in university life. This is not a criticism of academia, but a recognition that there is a difference between the diligence of the scholar and the restlessness of mind and suspicion of disciplinary boundaries which characterise those whose ideas shape the public sphere. (Both of these are also distinct from the skills of the public communicator of a specific academic discipline.)

Of course, it is true that many public thinkers have found a home – more or less comfortably – within the university. Richard Hoggart, Germaine Greer or Richard Sennett come to mind. But there have been just as many beyond the campus: journalists and broadcasters, artists, playwrights, politicians, critics or novelists. I think of musicians like John Cage or Brian Eno, or of John Berger, who never went to university, but is surely among our great living intellectuals.

Perhaps the whole idea of the public intellectual is just not very British. It brings to mind stereotypes of the Left Bank, or Adrian Mole writing to Malcolm Muggeridge, c/o the BBC. In Scotland, as Mike Small points out, there is a distinct tradition of the “democratic intellect”. The English prefer to see themselves as a practical people, less prone to philosophising than the French. Berger himself seems to acknowledge this, explaining his decision to leave England. “I never really felt at home there. I had the feeling that I embarrassed people. I think because they considered that I was indecently intense.”

Arguably, the marketisation of society has left fewer corners for the intellectual to hide. Newspapers, broadcasters or barristers’ chambers may once have offered a certain leeway for the life of the mind, but that was before the expectations of productivity imposed by modern management. In such inhospitable conditions, perhaps the university has become the last refuge of the public thinker?

Except that the same managerialism and cult of productivity has been at work in higher education for a quarter of a century. The academics I meet when I am invited to give guest lectures are too often harassed and exhausted. Even if they have time to host the kinds of informal, extra-curricular conversations which might spark real thinking and refresh their own passion for their subject, they may find themselves forbidden to spend more than the prescribed number of teaching hours with their students.

Intellectual life is not dead within the university, but nor is it safe there. In our final year as undergraduates, a friend’s tutor told her, “Once, I would have insisted you stay on to do a doctorate. The way things are today, just get your First and get out of here.” That was a decade ago, when the wholesale withdrawal of funding for teaching in the arts and humanities would still have seemed unimaginable.

All of this sounds bleak indeed, and yet it is far from the whole picture. My own experience is of finding myself part of a network of ideas and conversations with a remarkable range of thinkers, some of whom operate from inside the university while reaching outwards, others living by our wits in the outside world. The internet has amplified this activity, enabling us to discover each other without relying on institutional structures, but the culture we are creating thrives through the face-to-face events which networked technologies make it easy and cheap to organise.

There is an exciting current of ideas flowing through these informal spaces in Britain today – a kind of intellectual equivalent to the “maker” culture which sprung up over the past decade. Something is happening here, but to understand what it is you must let go of the idea that public thinking is the preserve of academics.

The Culture of New Public Thinking

In his book on Englishness, ‘The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging’, Billy Bragg describes the moment in the early 1960s when a young Bob Dylan, still relatively unknown and struggling with his second album, made his first visit to England:

On arriving in London, he spent every evening in one or other of the many folk clubs that had sprung up in the aftermath of the skiffle boom. All those kids who had learned to play acoustic guitar from Lonnie Donegan needed somewhere to perform and the Troubadour, Bunjies Coffee House and Les Cousins all specialised in the traditional folk music of the British Isles. A great revival was under way.

Fifty years later, a young person arriving in London in 2011 from anywhere in the world could spend every night of the week in a different free event, meetup, geek-up, hacklab or free school. She could find herself deep in conversations about educational theory, urban design, intellectual property or synthetic biology, or drawn into collaborations to create web tools for community organisers or design disaster relief shelters. I know because I have been in all these conversations and many like them, and more often than not I will find myself talking to someone who is there for the first time, not knowing any of the other participants, having stumbled across the event through Twitter or Meetup.com or by word of mouth.

There is a public thinking “scene” in Britain today, in which ideas are shared with all the energy and excitement which must have been there when Dylan and Martin Carthy were sharing songs in the cellar of The Troubadour. You see it in the Bar Camps and unconferences happening up and down the country, in improvised spaces like the Temporary School of Thought, the Dalston Barn or the Treehouse Gallery, in Social Innovation Camp and Tuttle Club, AlterFutures, the Long Now meetup or School of Everything: Unplugged. You see it when the popularity of TED videos spills out into TEDx events all over the country, in Russell Davies’s Interesting, the School of Life, the Idler’s Academy, Café Scientifique, the Long Player conversations, the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, Access Space in Sheffield or the Star and Shadow cinema in Newcastle.

And these are just the projects and spaces which I happen to have come across or been involved with. To gather them in this way is not to claim that they represent a common agenda or shared identity, but to recognise a spirit of learning and sharing which connects them. This spirit is the cultural foundation from which is growing – among other things – the kind of new public thinking which inspires this site.

If you want to see what I mean first hand – and you’re anywhere near London – then come down to the Really Free School over the next ten days, where you’ll meet NPT contributors like Pat Kane, Bridget McKenzie and myself, along with broadcasters like Paul Mason and Bill Thompson, architects, technologists and academics liberated from their institutions, deep in conversation with artists, activists and student protestors – and anyone else who happens to wander in off the street.

What’s New?

If these spaces and networks, these events and projects are the culture out of which new public thinking is growing, are there recognisable characteristics of the thinking which results?

In the conversations which led to the creation of this site, certain characteristics began to emerge. These are a starting point, a reflection of what we recognise in the context out of which it comes, but also of our desires for how it may evolve.

1. Thinking as a process

Not all of us would choose to identify as a “public thinker”, let alone a “public intellectual”. Instead, our focus shifts from the role of thinker to the process of thinking. We have found ourselves talking about “public thinking” as a collaborative activity, rooted in conversation and relationship, out of which our individual (or collective) work emerges, and into which it returns.

This shift also reflects our experience of something which Brian Eno identifies as “scenius”: the extreme creativity of groups when they are characterised by “mutual appreciation”, the “rapid exchange of tools and techniques” and a culture in which the success of individuals is collectively empowering.

2. Thinking and doing

Writing about his nominations, Andy Gibson pointed out that they are “all people who do things rather than write or talk about them, which perhaps reflects my growing belief that ideas are worth far more if they’ve been tried out in practice.” The intellectual culture we see around us is characterised by close connections between thinking and doing, ideas translate into action, action sparks ideas.

Paul Miller and Matt Jones give one reason for this: “the 80s and 90s were the decades of the think tanks because they were the most cost effective ways of experimenting with ideas that could change the world. Now you can build a start-up for the same cost as a Demos project.” So we are as likely to explore our ideas by creating a web service or a social enterprise as we are to write a pamphlet.

On a deeper level, there is also an affinity with craft culture: in our entanglement of thinking and doing, we resonate with Richard Sennett’s assertion that “making is thinking”.

From yet another angle, there is Bruce Sterling’s description of “speculative culture”, from a conversation with the London-based designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. “When I talk to my students, I think these formal distinctions [e.g. between ‘writer’ and ‘designer’] that mean so much to me mean very little to them. It really has to be explained to them that there used to be differences between these lines of work. There really is no word for their kind, there isn’t a 20th-century word for their polymathic approach to disintegrate disciplines and genres.”

3. Thinking as speculation

We experience the process of public thinking as speculative in a range of senses: curious, playful, risk-taking; engaged in envisioning possible futures and exploring “what ifs”. In the spaces where we meet, thinking is never simply a means to an end, or a production line for knowledge. Rather than servicing existing structures, we find ourselves exploring ways of reframing situations, renegotiating the boundaries of what is understood to be possible.

4. New kinds of leadership

“In a networked environment,” writes Vinay Gupta, “the person who knows what to do next is in charge.”

The informal ways of working and playing with which we are at home tend to be flatter, less hierarchical and less wasteful than the institutions in which we might have found ourselves a generation ago. There is still a role for leadership, but it is closer to the form which leadership takes in a jazz ensemble than in a symphony orchestra.

To take the lead in these environments involves bringing something to the conversation, rather than being a good orator.

5. Open networks

In a networked world, who you know matters. It always did – but institutions were better at denying this.

By making our connections more visible, these networked technologies offer the possibility of a more honest reflection on how deeply our lives, our work and our ideas are embedded within the relationships we have with others. With this comes the danger of a tyranny of the hyper-connected – and so to prevent these networked spaces becoming toxic, there is a responsibility to keep the edges of the network open, to always be creating opportunities for newcomers to connect, to become involved, to be included.

If you follow the blog posts with which this project started, in which many of us nominated the emerging thinkers whose work we value, you can trace the social connections overlaid on the webs of respect: friends and collaborators nominating each other, one writer nominating his partner, one of my nominees nominating me back. It could look incestuous – and the list which emerged does not pretend to be an objective map of who is doing the most “important” thinking in Britain right now, or anything of the sort.

For all that, what excited me as I read other people’s nominations were the discoveries, the unfamiliar names, the sense of a network whose edges are open and growing. That list is the beginning of a map – and, at Nick Stewart’s suggestion, one of the next steps will be to create a wiki on which anyone can add recommendations of individuals or groups whose contribution to the process of public thinking they value, so the map should continue to grow.

What next?

This site is now open – and over the next few weeks, our first ten contributors will be bringing you perspectives on Egypt, Wikileaks, energy scarcity, the future of education and many other subjects. Follow us on Twitter – @NewPubThink – for updates when there’s something new on the site, or subscribe to our feed.

If you are interested in writing for us or becoming involved in some other way, send us an email:


We have all kinds of ideas for how New Public Thinking could develop. Maybe we will organise our own unconference, or use Newspaper Club to print a selection of the best articles every couple of months. Whatever else, we’ll undoubtedly be inviting you to a New Public Thinkers pub meetup before long.

For now, I hope we will succeed in making you think – and vice versa.