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29 July 2022. Grenfell | Futures
The lessons of the Grenfell Inquiry—none of them are good // Jumping into the future
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I’ve written here before about Peter Apps’ coverage for Inside Housing of the Grenfell Inquiry, and now that it has finished he has written a long reflective piece making sense of the evidence.
Inside Housing covered all 308 days of the Inquiry hearings, and if you only ever read one thing about Grenfell, this is the article to read. The Tower, the 72 deaths, the fire, the cover-ups, become a kind of microcosm of Britain in our grim decade or more of austerity.
(Photo: Andrew Curry. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
I re-tweeted Apps’ tweet about the piece, and the write Jon Turney responded like this:
It’s a long piece, and I’m not going to do it justice by pulling out some extracts, but there are three or four themes that come through.
But in summary: the Inquiry’s
investigations have, piece by piece, delivered a stunning condemnation of the state of our public and private sectors, from ground-level social housing management to the corridors of Whitehall, taking in the fire service and the construction industry on its way.
The first thing to say is that from Apps’ perspective, the process of the Inquiry has been immensely valuable. He writes as someone who thought that when it opened, in January 2020, he knew a lot of what was to be known about the fire and its causes.
The truth is I had only the faintest outline of the story and it would never have emerged without an inquiry tenacious and powerful enough to take on a secretive government and giant corporations with much to lose. The steady, fearless cross examination of the witnesses has left them with nowhere to hide and forced significant admissions about the mistakes which led to the blaze.
For this reason he is pleased that the Inquiry has preceded the police investigation, even though (understandably) there are those in the community who are frustrated ny this.
Now if we do not see justice, then we will at least be able to explain in detail why this is a miscarriage of grave proportions. And if we do not get change, we will at least be able to state in the clearest terms why this is a devastating mistake.
The most depressing thing about the evidence is that it is impossible to identify even one organisation, in the public or the private sector, that did what it should have done by the residents of Grenfell, at any stage in the process:
In the private sector there was a callous indifference to anything – morality, honesty, life safety – that was not related to the bottom line of the business. In the public sector there was an aversion to anything that disrupted the status quo, a weary cynicism and an insular desire to protect the reputation of organisations by refusing to admit or actively concealing flaws.
During the refurbishment, none of the private sector businesses took any responsibility for anything, safety included:
Questions about safety could always be passed up and down a complex supply chain. In an environment where profit margins were constantly squeezed and companies flirted with insolvency, cash was all that mattered. The cheapest option and the quickest option won the day. Compliance and safety were silly questions, to be addressed only in terms of what could be gotten away with.
And sitting behind them were the cladding companies, three huge global businesses with a relentless pursuit of profit:
Devastating fire tests were concealed, misleading safety certificates were knowingly obtained and products were pushed for use on high-rise buildings despite their dangerous fire performance being known... The evidence exposed a system where the checks and balances which may have kept this behaviour in check were provided by private companies who viewed those they were supposedly scrutinising as clients.
The same confusion about purpose was seen in both Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Tenants’ Management Organisation that managed the block on the behalf of the council:
Sitting behind this was an attitude where the managing company and council appeared to see themselves as in conflict with the residents of the tower, instead of a company providing a service to them. Residents who raised complaints had checks run on their tenancy background and were branded troublemakers in internal emails. External scrutiny, meanwhile, appears to have been treated as an annoyance to be avoided, not a crucial warning that all was not well.
National politics and national politicians also contributed to this. Over a period of 30 years, governments of any stripe
pledged to cut ‘red tape’, reduce regulation on industry and free companies to “innovate” by setting their own rules and managing their own affairs. Amid industry pressure not to toughen standards, successive governments failed to explicitly toughen fire standards to ban the cladding ultimately used on Grenfell, despite increasingly clear warnings.
These warnings included a fire at Lakanal House in 2009 which six people died and where the coroner—in 2013, four years before the Grenfell fire—had been explicit about the risks from cladding.
But the other related factor in the public sector was just how little capacity it had to do basic functions:
There was also a constant theme of decay in the public sector. From the fire service to the civil service, staff were demotivated and exhausted by resource pressures and appeared capable of little more than keeping the most basic functions going... A crumbling public sector doesn’t show itself immediately. People carry on, patch things up, work overtime, stretch themselves beyond their capabilities and eventually break. That’s what happened here.
There are some obvious lessons here, although the most obvious one—of the importance of public investment—is probably the one that the government is least likely to hear. But it also underlines the benefit of regulation to keep people safe:
Grenfell shows us that, when push comes to shove, people do think the state should regulate to ensure their homes do not become fire traps, rather than leave this decision to the wisdom of the market. Deregulating in the face of safety concerns is placing economic theory above common sense and will be seen that way by the public in the final analysis.
Apps also underlines the importance of transparency, of things like fire tests, rather than letting companies hide behind a screen of “commercial confidentiality”.
Had Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan been obliged to release the full details of the testing on systems containing their products in the years before the fire, they would have been far less likely to end up on the walls of people’s homes. Had Rydon, Studio E and Harley Facades been required to answer candidly the questions of residents concerned about their work, then key mistakes might not have been made. The state has the power to enforce this transparency when it comes to matters of life safety. There is no convincing argument for it not to do so.
And finally, he says, prosecutions are essential. This would be a sign that the deaths and the cover-ups mattered. The opposite is also true:
Bluntly, if no one goes to prison, the message to the industry will be that this behaviour is tolerated and we will not see change, however well crafted the inquiry’s recommendations are. It is also no exaggeration to say that if the Metropolitan Police is to have any hope of a relationship of trust with the working class communities of London, it must show that it is willing and able to prosecute the people responsible for the deaths of a community like them in Grenfell Tower.
Will any of this lead to change? Apps is not optimistic. The government has already rejected the recommendations from the first phase of the Inquiry. And compassion isn’t high on the government agenda at the moment.
But perhaps we’re already in a different political moment—the current wave of strikes, and the wave of corporate profits that runs alongside it, has changed some of the discourse. It might be harder to ignore this time.
(Photo: Andrew Curry. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
The games designer and futurist Jane McGonigal has a new book out, called Imaginable, with one of those SEO-friendly subtitles that doesn’t really tell you what it’s about but makes the reader feel optimistic about buying it:
How to see the future coming and be ready for it—even things that seem impossible today.
On his Medium page, Ron Immink has an article about it which isn’t so much a review but more some of the insights he got from reading it.
Being ready for the future involves “pre-feeling the future”:
A deep immersion into a possible future creates lasting mental habits, especially when it comes to watching the real world for evidence that the simulated possibility is becoming more likely.
The books seems to be part method and part content: “the future of learning, the future of work, the future of food, the future of money, the future of social media, the future of health care, the future of climate action and the future of government” all get a walk out.
McGonigal’s preferred timeframe for this futures immersion is a decade, and I’ve found in my work that this works well, certainly for business audiences and often for policy makers as well. It is far enough away that no-one in the room is defending their current planning assumptions, but close enough to visualise it and imagine actions in the short-to-medium term that might make a difference.
(And even when trying to imagine routes to a 2050 Net Zero, as I did last year for mobility, the urgency of what needs to be done now means that having a ‘proximate objective’ as a waymarker 10 years away helps to concentrate the discussion.)
Ten years helps unstick our minds, and ten years allows us to consider possibilities we would otherwise dismiss... Ten years also has to do with a psychological phenomenon known as time spaciousness. Interestingly, brains respond to abundant space the same way as they do to abundant time. So she likes to think of a ten-year timeline as a kind of cathedral or Grand Canyon for the mind. It lifts the ceiling on our imagination.
She’s also a fan of stepping into that ten year future and imagining what it might be like. This is known as EFT, or ‘episodic future thinking’.
EFT is often described as a kind of “mental time travel” because your brain works to help you see and feel the future as clearly and vividly as you were already there.... EFT isn’t an escape from reality. It’s a way of playing with reality. EFT involves heightened activity and increased connectivity between eleven distinct brain regions. During EFT, you’re not only trying to simulate in your mind something that isn’t right in front of you; you’re also actively trying to make sense of it.
And so, by Immink’s account, this is a form of mental time travel in which three things happen. The first is that you start to construct possible scenes from the future; the second is that you start to identify opportunities; and then you start imagining goals. Immink suggests that such goals
are likely to be closely linked to your deepest values and most essential needs — especially when you think further into the future.
I’m not sure why this would be, but I can imagine that it’s a feature of being disconnected from the immediate present, and the many things around us day-to-day that might disconnect us from our underlying values.
In turn, this is good for our well-being:
EFT is strongly linked with mental well-being. Researchers believe this is because when you practice EFT, you learn to control your imagination. Imagining literally anything you might experience in the far future, as vividly and realistically as you can, increases your motivation and likelihood of doing anything that has a longer-term benefit today.
(There’s a section of the article that follows this about the neuroscience of futures thinking—including fMRI scans— that looks interesting but seems to imply, from the way it’s written, that putting yourself into the future like this disconnects from out better selves: “the more our brains treat our future selves like strangers, the less self-control we exhibit today, and the less likely we are to make pro-social choices”. Since this is at complete odds from the paragraphs immediately above it, I suspect the syntax has got scrambled.)
The article goes off into some pretty mundane futures process description after that, which you might want to scroll through quickly, or not at all, but McGonigal’s weird futures, mentioned along the way, seem to be worthwhile provocations:
asteroid forecasting, challenge-based education, face recognition software implications, the breakdown of the internet, the launch of the Digi-dollar, howling at the moon, half the population allergic to meat, a new social network called FeelThat (sharing feelings), organised mass climate migration and no more garbage.
There’s also a welcome attention to some of the adverse contexts that these might unfold against—to borrow a phrase, we make our own futures, but not in the circumstances of our choosing:
So also suggest adding the digital divide, youth disillusionment, and mental health deterioration to one of your 2035 super-scenario. And to consider economic inequality, broken health system, extreme political divisions, racial injustice, brittle supply chains and overworked workers and the climate crisis as pre-existing conditions that should inform these scenarios.
There’s also some stats from the book to help you imagine different futures, although more of these are about colonies in space than is strictly useful. But this is Just Two Things, so here’s the two—from a long list—that jumped out at me:
- A fruit and vegetable prescription program that reached one in three Americans would prevent 1.93 million strokes and heart attacks and 350,000 deaths and save $40 billion in health care costs over eighteen years. One example is the nonprofit Wholesome Wave’s fruit and vegetable prescription (FVRx) program. The FVRx program deposits funds of an average of one hundred US dollars per month in low-income households’ shopping accounts to cover fresh produce purchases.
- Air pollution from burning coal, gasoline, and diesel kills an estimated 8.7 million people every year, four times as many as COVID-19 did in 2020, accounting for nearly one in five deaths worldwide.
There’s also a more conventional review on Medium by Jesika Brooks at Tech Based Teaching Editor.
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