A few years ago I had a chat with Brian Eno, a musician and thinker I greatly admire, when he made a comment that stuck in my mind. He said that it was enough to propose a broad direction of change and the world would work out how to make it happen.
At the time I wasn’t sure if he was right. The more I think about it the more I think he wasn’t, or at least not quite.
Most ideas do indeed start off half-formed and incomplete. It then takes time to flesh out how to make them work and how to adapt them to different contexts (I wrote about this in some detail in my recent book Another World is Possible, describing this as a move from thin to thick imagination).
In that sense Brian was right. Ideas as varied as the circular economy, veganism or data sovereignty began as quite vague, and then were fleshed out over decades, thanks to more detailed plans and actions, experiments and knowledge.
The problems come if you are proposing a new idea and want it to be acted on faster. In these cases, failing to attend to the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ risks leading to serious problems. Many movements have failed because, although they had a broad sense of what they wanted, they lacked a plan or a vehicle. The Arab Spring was a very obvious example. So was Brexit.
I know many intellectuals who have proposed ideas and given lots of talks about the ‘what’ but were uninterested in the ‘how’ - and as a result their ideas didn’t work.
Some of them are colleagues of mine – very articulate and inspiring. But I notice their eyes glazing over both literally and metaphorically when people want to talk about the (boring) nuts and bolts of how their idea might actually work. Often it turns out the broad brush idea isn’t as good in practice as it is in theory.
Yet all experience shows that in every kind of change downstream implementation matters just as much as upstream ideas: the old saying that it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration holds a lot of truth.
Barack Obama recently made a parallel comment, that the best bit of advice he could give to young people is: learn how to get things done. It's not enough to describe, analyse or critique. What the world needs most are people who can turn ideas into reality.
I’ve also increasingly noticed in conversations with governments that they are as interested in advice on the how as the what. Good evidence is fine but guidance on how you make it happen is, if anything, valued more.
One way of thinking about this is by analogy with a car or vehicle. The fuel may come from creativity, passion, anger, fear and commitment. Movements – and ideas - are at least the starting point for moving things. But there is then a need for an engine to turn that fuel into motion. That might be a party, an organisation, a part of government or a committed group. Then you need drivers who are skilled in how to drive, who can handle tactics as well as strategy. And finally of course they need some roadmap, some sense of direction.
Together these get change to happen and to become embedded. But it's easy to have some not others. That is why so much energy gets dissipated.
Recent examples include many progressive ideas. Universal basic income is an interesting idea, but the reason it’s had so many pilots but so little success beyond them, is that quite basic questions about the ‘how’ remain unanswered (if you're interested, we at IPPO published a survey of experiments and a guide as to how to run them last year). The idea of widening the role of the commons as a legal form is appealing in many ways. But when mayors or ministers ask for practical guidance on what they might do in cities, or around new assets like data, there turns out to be a big gap between the generic idea and the practical expression.
Similarly, a carbon tax is a great idea, and long promoted by economists, but it's surprisingly hard to implement, both for technical and political reasons. I’ve been in and around the ‘mission-oriented innovation’ space for two decades, and seen many governments buy into the broad arguments with enthusiasm. But I’ve seen just as many struggle with acting on them because of the lack of designs and plans for the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ (a piece I wrote on this five years ago remains relevant and I’m chairing an EU programme that has been set up in part to help answer these questions).
I’m now based in an engineering department. I admire engineers who take the how as seriously as the what. If you are building a bridge, an aircraft or a new energy system you have to take implementation seriously. In Brian Eno’s field, music, the same applies: to be a good producer you have to be as interested in execution as ideas.
Policy people are often, by contrast, a bit more casual. In recent years this has been a particular curse of the political right, from the neocons who invaded Iraq without a plan, to the Brexiteers and the Trussites who thought the habits of a newspaper op-ed could work in government. But it’s as often been a curse of the left. Karl Marx didn’t bother doing any work on the designs for socialism in practice because he thought history would sort it out. That spirit guided many of his successors, with often disastrous results.
I'm sceptical of the idea that there is such a thing as 'implementation science'. But even if in reality it's more of a craft than a science, much is known about how to do things, how to deliver and implement. Wise leaders try to make the most of that knowledge.
We have entered a period when governments are expected to do a lot more: not just to handle pandemics but also to achieve greater equality, cut carbon emissions and retain trust. Broad brush ideas will help a bit. But we risk serious disappointment if we don’t respect the practicalities of implementation as much as the inspiration of the big ideas. We can’t just rely on the world to work things out.