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Basic income: a solution to which challenge?

A growing bandwagon...

A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without a means test or work requirement. It has been proposed at various times over the centuries by thinkers from Thomas More and John Stuart Mill to, more recently, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. Its attraction reaches across the political spectrum, from Martin Luther King to Milton Friedman.

Last December, we predicted that we would be hearing a lot more about basic income in the coming year. However the rising interest in basic income over the last few months has been beyond astonishing.  Experiments and publications have launched by a huge range of people from National States to Activists and even Venture Capitalists, almost weekly. The graph below from Google Trends shows that interest in basic income has gone from being fairly static over the last decade, to increasing 150% in the last four months alone. 

Figure 1: Google Trends: Basic Income

...and a big tent.

Basic income conversation can be viewed as an unlikely alliance. In one corner, there are the venture capitalists  dreaming of a future of mass automation, robotics and algorithms and the inherent massive disruption of existing labour markets this will cause. In another, the radical left advocating a new universal compact  —  addressing the challenges of market driven inequality and rise of the 1%. Finally, there are the imagineering bureaucrats  —  seeking to rationalise the state and the complexity of managing the multiplicity of welfare provision through the provision of the basic income and, in doing so, seeding market based welfare provision as opposed to state driven services and goods.

All of these motivations are valid and should be welcomed with the ideas developed alongside each other instead of against each other. We recognise that basic income has the capacity to address many of these challenges . However, we believe that, if implemented with the right intentionality, basic income has the potential to unlock even more value.

More  than the redistribution of wealth in an increasingly structurally unequal world. More than a mark of solidarity to suggest “we’re all in this together” in an age of austerity. And more than a way to just simplify the welfare state.

It can and it should be more. We just need to dream a bit bigger.

What’s in a name?

So, what if we started by reframing basic income as citizen equity ? A collective investment by all of us, in you and every citizen.

What if we understood it as a new architecture of sovereignty and freedom? Economic sovereignty was a fundamental cornerstone of participation in democracy of the 19th century. We now have an opportunity to reframe this economic sovereignty and with it democratic participation fit for the 21st century. The impact of this sovereignty can significantly empower massive labour market liquidity. An unlocking of latent potential and innovation which is currently locked up by a lack of opportunity. Democratising the purpose-rich economy  where everyone can pursue their vision for a better world,  thereby supporting the economy to better align capability and need with value creation.

What if we understood citizen equity as a massive extension of the Californian start-up economic model ? A new model to unleash innovation capacity and with it  a new typology of innovation. Beyond innovation for basic subsistence and survival (or ostentatious luxury to publicly prove independence from poverty); instead focusing our innovative capacities beyond the bottom half of Maslow’s pyramid toward a fuller sense of self actualisation and all the benefits that come when citizens are achieving as Maslow put it "What a (wo)man can be, (s)he must be."

This is a model in which “money” is removed from the table but shipping real world innovations and change that improve people’s wellbeing are the source of social recognition and reputation. It challenges the notion of capitalist consumption acting as the ultimate legal high and end goal of an economy. It gives us the opportunity towards a market which unlocks the capacity of all citizens to imagine a new class of human “goods” and “services” which seek to fulfill  human needs and desires as yet unproduced . Seeding a new epoch of supply and demand which transcends the dichotomy of essential and luxury goods on which so much current innovation is based.

In this way, citizen equity could unleash a huge new democratic enlightenment revolution, a new inclusive economic paradigm. Doing in a way what Henry Ford did at an unimaginable scale — but this time for social innovation not merely consumption.

A new social contract?

Seen through the intentionality of citizen equity, basic income can be a way to change the social contract  of welfare. Going beyond the language of rights, it can reframe welfare as a collective investment which seeks to unlock a new economic and innovation revolution. It seeks to unleash a renewal of democratic sovereignty and enfranchisement worn down by consumption fatigue and competition-based economies.

Fundamentally, these radical hypotheses are about reconceptualising basic income   not merely as a new safety net but instead a universal trampoline. A societal investment to unlock our individual and collective potential where we are all thereby obliged to provide societal return of civic investment. To create the breathing space for even more New Radicals.

To reimagine our 1950’s welfare state we need a real moon shot worthy of our age - a real StarTrek idea to match our Tricoders. Currently basic income is just a dream but basic income as citizen equity is a dream worth dreaming.  

As part of TEDXBrum and CityCamp, Impact Hub Birmingham will be hosting a Basic Income City Camp in partnership with Nesta and the RSA on June 10, 2016 in Birmingham.

Image credit: Wikihouse, an open source construction set and one of Nesta and The Observer's 2014 New Radicals​

Author

Brenton Caffin

Brenton Caffin

Brenton Caffin

Executive Director, Global Innovation Partnerships

Brenton is Nesta’s Executive Director, Global Innovation Partnerships, leading Nesta's work globally to help people and organisations get better at innovating for the common good.

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Indy Johar

Indy Johar is an architect, co-founder of 00 and a Senior Innovation Associate with the Young Foundation. He is also a co-founder of Dark Matter Laboratories, which aims to apply com...