‘Hush little people. Just go shopping. We’ll fix it.’

And why that is definitely not the answer. Book review: 'Citizens' by Jon Alexander with Ariane Conrad

Citizens book review

Hope, about the state of the world in general, is not easy to find at the moment. So, it was inspiring, energising and enlightening to read ‘Citizens’, a book that is full of hope for a future that we can all have a hand in creating.

Turbulent times

The last seven years since the 2016 Brexit vote, have seen me, along with so many others, resort to feelings of what has been dubbed, ‘learned helplessness’: That despite our best efforts, we’re too small and insignificant to make a difference and that any change has to come from ‘the powers that be’.

It’s difficult to see how a single vote once every four or five years can address the myriad of real and pressing concerns that require long-term solutions. It’s also ironic how, despite localism being firmly on the agenda for over a decade, local government now seems less relevant than ever.

And, as a business owner, living in this era of climate emergency and feeling it incumbent on me to make changes and operate as sustainably as possible, I’ve been questioning the very concept of growth for growth’s sake for quite some time.

Time to tell a new story

A sense of disquiet, disenfranchisement and disappointment is growing. We’re realising that taking to the streets to protest doesn’t seem to make much difference and voting with our wallets changes little.

Brexit protest

My daughter and her friend protesting against Brexit ©New York Times

And that is ‘Citizens’’ jumping off point: The source code that our society has been built on for more than one hundred years – the Consumer Story – is broken.

‘Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us’ by Jon Alexander with Ariane Conrad sets out an alternative narrative – the Citizen Story.

It’s also a rallying call urging us not to permit turbulent times and uncertainty to drag us back in time and allow the Subject Story to gain ascendance. (Although it’s also acknowledged that that idea of accepting a “Strong Man” leader has unfortunately seen some resurgence in recent years, eg Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi etc.)

Why the Consumer Story isn’t working

The stories imprinted on the collective consciousness of societies are important because they influence how we understand ourselves on a very fundamental level. They ‘shape our beliefs, our morality, guiding our behaviour and even constraining the possibilities we can imagine’.

In the Consumer Story, those in positions of power, whether they’re corporates or governments, regard individuals purely as passive consumers. They do the important work of sorting challenges for us while we ‘go shopping’. This consumer logic extends into every aspect of society. Self-interested, self-reliant and atomised, we’ve been led to believe that the solution lies with merely choosing the ‘right’ ethical brand:

The story that promised our liberation has become our prison – we are depleted, the world is depleted

That so-called power to choose with our wallets ignores the fact that real power lies in being able to shape the choices on offer.

The Citizen Story is already happening

The book delves deep into a diverse range of Citizen Story-led projects from around the world that are already making a difference. The transformative potential of seeing ourselves, alongside businesses and third sector organisations, as participatory entities is powerful. Whether it’s contributing to product development, or recasting donors or members as active participants in delivering an organisation’s purpose, it forces us away from the passive and towards a can-do, active citizen mindset, with the resulting benefits and shared value accruing across all stakeholder groups.

I’m pretty sure it’ll prompt you to join the dots and get better at recognising not just the Citizen Story examples you come across in your own life but also make you realise you’re doing better than you think. For example, I can now trace how The Co-Foundry’s collaborative ‘brand design strategy developed with you and not done to you’ mission has seen me evolving towards developing ever-more inclusive design practices.

My big takeaway

As a brand design consultant, what struck me most about the Citizen Story was how its adoption demands far more from the sometimes over-used and often wrongly-used word, ‘purpose’.

The world of brand strategy itself throws up many debates around brand purpose – never more so than when for-profit organisations indulge in a spot of purpose-washing. This book calls for purpose to become a true organising principle, embedded in the meaningful context of businesses, organisations and governments building platforms from which to deliver the resulting shared value:

‘…it’s about creating structured opportunities for people not just to buy products and services from the business, but to buy into what the business is trying to do in the world. It’s only when this happens on a widespread basis that the story that businesses are telling will truly change.’

In the Citizen Story, purpose is fuelled by involving audiences who, through their involvement, become participatory stakeholders. This very idea of greater stakeholder involvement is something that I’m keen to keep building into my processes.

How we get there

Big on detail, ‘Citizens’ sets out seven steps that will help in building those effective platforms from which to deliver this new way of doing business. It also expands this idea out of the corporate and organisational sphere to ensure that the Citizen Story changes government itself – where people aren’t just subjects or consumers but capable, resourceful and responsible individuals who organise to come together and have opportunities to shape our communities and how we live.

There are reasons to be hopeful already because so many Citizen projects – across the third sector, business and government – are changing things and proving their worth. The capability is undeniably there but what’s needed now is a push towards creating the conditions and adopting the stories that’ll bring about a more systemic change.

Changing the status quo

‘Citizens’ offers a clear path out of that awful, soul-sapping ‘this is just the way things are’ feeling of impotence. Having read and returned to it more than once, I feel I’m better equipped to underpin my business processes with Citizen Story thinking.

Read it, share it and talk about it! We need to put a stop to reacting to today’s challenges with 20th century, buy–your-way-out-of-trouble Consumer Story answers (eg Eat Out to Help Out) and make the Citizen Story the dominant code of the 21st Century.

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