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Celebrating the life and work of Robin Murray

Nesta co-hosted an event at the RSA to celebrate the life and work of Robin Murray who died in the summer. Robin had a big influence on everything from fair trade to industrial policy, coops to social innovation - achieving far more than many better-known thinkers and economists. Here we share the talks given by Geoff Mulgan, Hilary Cottam and Ed Mayo.

Geoff Mulgan:

"Some people are like yeast. They make other things rise up. Robin was one of them"

Some people are flat. Some people are like yeast. They make other things rise up. Robin was one of them, enlivening in every sense of the word, with charisma, presence, a chuckle on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, exuding joy in life and in other peoples’ voices and lives.

Like yeast too he was relatively invisible – certainly not a household name – even though, through his method and his work, he influenced in profound ways how we eat, how we shop, how we work, how we create and how we handle waste.

I was lucky enough to know Robin Murray first as a rather distant boss in the now ancient days of the GLC, then as a collaborator on many projects, from reimagining tax systems to recycling, to later teaching municipal officials in China, to mapping the world’s social innovation system.

I directly benefited from his enlivening character but also saw his impact on others, his contagious practical optimism.  

At the Young Foundation he sometimes came to just hang out, serving as an in-house therapist as a stream of people would pass by, have a chat, and come away with their cobwebs cleared away, a stronger sense of their way ahead, and confidence that obstacles could be overcome.

This evening I want to say something about his method, and why it matters, and why his work is so worthy of this medal.

When I first worked for him at the GLC he periodically wrote detailed critiques deconstructing what I had done, and reconstructing it in a far better way. These were quite remarkable and involved. Indeed, the first time he took me through one of these lists of improvements, was also the first time I heard the word ‘seventeenthly’. Here I will restrict myself to five points.

1. Dive

First, he liked to dive deep into detail and believed that you should observe, talk, listen, map and then reconstruct until you gain a sense of how a system works. That could be energy in self-build homes, recycling of plastics, distribution of cocoanuts, but always following Bertolt Brecht’s maxim that “truth is in the concrete”.    

I fondly remember walking the streets of Huddersfield 20 years ago mapping waste, piecing together the movements of glass and paper and plastics. Perhaps not entirely glamourous but never dull.

It’s an approach opposite to most of the economics profession who tend to deduce, to make sense of the world from an armchair and secondary sources. But it’s a much healthier approach not least because it means being constantly surprised by the peculiarities of the world at it is.

2. Interrogate

Second, Robin liked to investigate through interrogation, learning by asking questions, as if decoding a fascinating puzzle, and so eliciting that curiosity we all have somewhere inside, the excitement when codes are broken.

That’s one of the reasons why he was such fun to work with. Projects were not linear, but rather voyages with detours, rambles and hikes, and, to mix my metaphors, they were less like linear logic and more a mix of peeling onions, cracking nuts, unravelling knots. Again, that ability to use questions must be part of why he was such a good educator.

3. Embed

Third, everything he did was infused with values and the ability to see in everything not just what it is, but also what it could be, the untapped potential that’s waiting to be emancipated, set free, a distinctive fusing of Quakerism, liberalism and Marxism.

That confidence in potential meant that Robin always believed that people could be competent interpreters and shapers of their world, far more than current conditions could allow, and it was an approach he was able to apply to neighbourhoods, workplaces, indeed whole societies, and that seeking out of latent possibility gave an energy to everything he did, from his work on education in the Seychelles to local government in Britain.

4. Production

Fourth, he was much less interested in distribution than production, in contrast to much of the left who essentially wanted to leave capitalism to make the wealth and then get on with redistributing.

He wanted instead to explore different models of making things, to go upstream rather than downstream: hence the interest in the economic lessons to be learned from Emilio Romagna or Mondragon, the ideas of Deming and Toyota, and later to the circular economy, and he wanted to generalise these to the wider economy so that production could be democratic and egalitarian in spirit not just distribution.  

The question of how to do that should be right at the heart of economic policy at a time the vanguards have pulled further away from the rest, leaving behind stagnant pay and productivity, when democracy has still made so little inroads into the world of work, and when perhaps more than ever we need new organising models for everything from taxi services to care, that empower rather than enslave, one of many reasons why the timing of his departure is so unfortunate.

5. Meaning

Fifth, and finally, he believed that it was not enough to do projects, to be satisfied with interesting pilots. Instead he believed we should always look to their meaning and implications, how they could be part of a large whole.

This ambition to link the micro and macro was always fertile – the macro could be reimagined by drawing on the lessons of a million small experiments, the theme of his work on post-Fordism and later of the Open Book of Social Innovation I worked on with him and Julie Simon. But the micro could also be illuminated and energised by being connected to the electricity of grander goals.  

That was why he so appreciated the work of Carlota Perez and others, their political economy in the grandest sense that situated the financial crisis and its aftermath in a much bigger historical story that showed how as the tectonic plates of economies shift new spaces open for social innovation.

It was why from his work at the GLC to coops, he sought in everything ways to prefigure, to see what in the present could point to a better future, a wholly refashioned trading system; a city without carbon; a circular economy. It’s also probably why he so liked local government – which handily straddled the micro and the macro – even during a period when it was being savagely cut back.

Together these meant a constant iteration between the small and the large, seeing the world in a grain of sand but also seeing a possible world in a small seed too.

And out of these methods, diving, questioning, liberating potential, remaking production and using the small to illuminate and transform the big, he influenced how we eat, how we shop, how we work, how we create and how we handle waste. So why spell these out? Partly to celebrate him but also because everything in his method is what we need now.

At a time of nostalgia, blocked progress, we need that infectious optimism, that sense of latent potential. At a time when politics on many fronts is comfortable with vague slogans we need that attention to the real and the concrete. And, at a time of widespread fatalism, we need that confidence that the world is waiting to be made and remade right here, right now, the spirit which says that if something is wrong, then something must be done and we might as well be the ones to do it.

One of greatest pleasures visiting Robin and Frances was when a conversation would be fuelled by something they had just cooked, a cake, bread or scones, fresh from the oven.

That may be why I associate him with yeast. Some people are flat. Robin made things rise.

Hilary Cottam:

"I woke up intellectually when I met Robin – we all did"

Robin was my teacher. He was a truly exceptional and gifted teacher. I was lucky enough to arrive at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex when Robin was still on the faculty and teaching in the early 1990s.  

There was a Capital reading group that you heard about almost as soon as you arrived. It was packed out – you had to find a space on the floor, on the windowsill, on a cupboard, anywhere, for an electrifying interrogation of volume I. You know with Robin it was balletic, physical and intellectual - I can still play this class in my mind and draw on it for inspiration. I woke up intellectually when I met Robin – we all did.

Robin taught a course on Public Administration. I have the pamphlet, published in 1992. It’s typical of Robin’s work: wide ranging, drawing on practice from the UK, Korea, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh – much of which Robin had been engaged with personally – intellectually brilliant and far ahead of its time.   

Twenty-five years ago Robin was already writing about the potential of open systems and the network. I have just been using this pamphlet for a book I am writing, because it remains one of the best expositions of radical thinking about public administration that I can find. I told Robin last year I was using one particular article and he told me how long it had taken him to edit and make possible – that was so Robin – it was all about making other people’s work shine.

On our course we moved into a house Robin had rented in Harlow, we divided ourselves into teams and we started to work on the future of Harlow’s services. It was full on – 24 hours a day focused and crowded chaos. It was a small house with three rooms, one of which was allocated to Robin and the male students amongst us, but Robin was moved into the kitchen because they decided he snored.  

He must have been incredibly uncomfortable and foregone all his sleep, but of course, being Robin, he never complained and he never pulled rank suggesting that because he was our tutor perhaps he deserved a bed.

The team I was in worked on the waste round – we were up at dawn working bin rounds and getting a granular understanding of how the service worked. This was Robin’s teaching – he challenged us theoretically and he pushed our practical work until it resembled something that could help Harlow (I first met Geoff when he was on a testing committee that listened to our early ideas).

And then Robin challenged the system of learning: he wanted us to submit group project work which combined our practice with the theory we had been studying. Both were totally antithetical to Sussex’s way of grading students at the time.

Looking back, I realise that Robin must have really suffered fighting this corner but he won. I know that for each and every one of us on that course our lives were shaped: we knew that we had to continue to combine practice with theoretical rigour if we were to make change in the world. We, Robin’s students, are part of Robin’s legacy.

Robin was generosity personified – he would assume you knew so much more than you did, and with his gentle questioning he would make you raise your game. Later, Robin became my collaborator – although of course always my teacher – and he was my maternity cover in my role at the Design Council. I mention this because of Robin’s modesty. I don’t know any other teacher that would consider themselves as their student’s maternity cover, but Robin didn’t think about hierarchy in this way – what he saw was a brilliant team and an opportunity to make practical change.

And this was the thing about Robin - you can’t separate Robin the man from Robin the teacher/ entrepreneur and intellectual who changed so many lives. Robin was democratic to his very marrow, this was one of the many reasons I loved Robin and this is how he made change.

I don’t know how many of you here have taken a train journey with Robin. I asked Robin if he would come with me to look at our ageing service - Circle - in Rochdale. Robin got on the train – and shook the hands of everybody sitting around us before he sat down – of course they were both charmed and disconcerted. But, by the time we got to Rochdale, we not only had made an ally of a senior health leader who happened to be in the carriage, but Robin had taken Circle apart and suggested a myriad of ways we could improve it.  

Later that day we got stuck in the lift at Rochdale Borough Housing – our wonderful partners on Rochdale Circle. I felt panic and wanted to get out, but for Robin it was marvellous – in the time it took to rescue us he had worked his magic on the leaders in the lift, opening them to the next phase of work.

Robin was a visionary thinker and practitioner. He worked across sectors and across continents, changing lives and pushing for possibilities before others thought of them. Most recently Robin had been writing about economies of co-operation – about how we can grow the future through relationships and collaboration with those who share our values and principles. Economies of co-operation are the opposite of economies of scale, where the purpose is to grow the infrastructure and the organisation regardless of social purpose. This idea is just one of the inspiring legacies Robin has left us – and it's important because it reminds us of the ways that Robin’s ideas and teaching are alive in so many of us and how we can take his work forwards.

Finally, I want to say that I think it’s particularly appropriate that Frances has accepted the Albert Medal on Robin’s behalf this evening. Robin’s family was the root of his creativity – his brothers Hubert and Sandy, Beth and Mika and Joe, the very new Isabella and, of course, above all Frances – your warmth, intellect and your incredible gifts as an artist – that so inspired Robin’s creativity. Robin lived the ideals he promoted at home and in his work – it is why I admired him so deeply and why there cannot be a better more appropriate recipient of the Albert Medal.

Ed Mayo:

"Robin’s ability to infect was like that of a smile spreading smiles, an enabling virus of hope"

I want to endorse the award made by the RSA in the form of five quotes, quotes that I suspect might bring that gentle smile to mind, among those of us who knew Robin.

1. Professor Ian MacPherson says of values that “one can never expect to achieve perfection. The ideal will always be beyond one’s grasp and that is partly what creates the special kind of entrepreneurship one can identify with co-operatives.”  

In 1985, Robin co-founded TWIN with Michael Barrett Brown. TWIN was rooted in the values of: democracy, and the labour and co-operative movement. For all its success, TWIN also became an enduring teaser for Robin, asking how do you organise if your business is social change?  

2. Stephen Yeo comments that Robin’s own achievements were “always drowned by his enthusiasms for what his friends and comrades had done”.

Alongside a host of distinguished affiliations, such as the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Young Foundation, Robin was an Associate of Co-operatives UK from 2010. He pointed me to the Greater London Enterprise Board’s Industrial Strategy - saved by he and Michael Ward. (Frances can confirm, but I understand they were stacked like bricks in his cottage in Cumbria, keeping out the cold).

He would have been pleased to know that one of his recommendations to the movement, the establishment of a co-operative university, is being moved forward at a Co-operative College event in Manchester.

3. Hilary Wainwright said that “Robin exuded vigour and hope. And he infected those around him with his mood”.

Robin’s ability to infect was like that of a smile spreading smiles, an enabling virus of hope. In this, he was an organiser. He was modest enough to be a joiner, in his local co-op in Hackney where he lived, or Cumbria, where he rested.

We are living in an age of ‘I’, where individual action and lone social entrepreneurs are lauded as the way to make change. Not so for Robin. He sought out the ‘we’.

His ideas were both hands-on and birds-eye. In one of our last exchanges, he categorically rejected the fashionable left notion that practical action amounts to no more than ‘folk politics’...

“There may be some who remain happy to remain at the micro (a proud anarchist tradition) but most gain their macro picture from their experience of their particular grains of sand and are inspired by it. There is also a confidence that there are others doing it and their practice together supports the general case for new policy in the battle against the old order who will always argue that the new policies are practical and their conventional ways are the only way. Once you leave that root into practice, you are in the world of the unrooted intellect.”

4. My fourth quote is from the nineteenth century co-operative champion and thinker, George Jacob Holyoake, casting back to an Owenite tradition that Robin would have been happy to locate himself, and I think Hilary and Geoff too.

“Knowledge is greater; Life is longer; Health is surer; Disease is limited; Towns are sweeter; Hours of labour are shorter; Men and women are stronger, fairer; Children are happier; Industry is held in more honour, and is better rewarded; Co-operation carries wholesome food and increased income into a million homes where they were unknown before, and has brought us nearer and nearer to that state of society which [Robert] Owen strove to create—in which it shall be impossible for men to be depraved or poor.”

This is what we strive for.

5. My fifth quote, for Robin would always look forward, is from Robin himself.  

“The information economy is growing with the speed and diversity of a tropical forest. It is informal and astonishingly inventive. It shares many of the same values and practices of formal co-operatives, and opens up numerous possibilities for a meshing between them. William Morris’s News from Nowhere depicted a world based on mutualism that, for more than a century, was seen as utopian. But in the last decade it has emerged as a reality not on the banks of the Thames but in the world of the web.”

Here on the banks of the Thames, we can celebrate his insight and his gift of creating narratives that can fast forward social change.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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Ed Mayo

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, the national association for co-operative and mutual enterprises.