Jon Alexander on why the private sector should treat people as citizens and not consumers

What does it mean to be a citizen?

What are we doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we’re consumers over 3000 times a day?

How is the world changing? And what would the impact be on society if the private sector started to treat its people as citizens and not consumers?

Jon Alexander, Co-Founder of the New Citizenship Project, a strategy and innovation consultancy that aims to shift the dominant story of the individual in society from Consumer to Citizen, suggests in this chat that we are living at a time that presents a remarkable opportunity for change.

We talk about the power of language and how very quickly, due to how we talk about something, we can automatically limit what we believe people are capable of.

We learn about what participatory democracy looks like from a fascinating Taiwanese case study involving the world’s first transgender government minister.

We talk about the power of creating community and the vital importance of building agency.

And we reflect on Jon’s book CITIZENS – and why the key to fixing everything is all of us. (You can pre-order a copy at jonalexander.net)

If you want to stretch your brain, and find tangible ways to change things today, tune into this one.

So throw on those running shoes, or grab that favorite beverage, and here is Jon.

And please don’t forget to let us know what you think of this episode, leave a review, and subscribe.

00:00:02:05 – 00:00:27:03
Philippa White
Welcome to the show, where we unearth new ways of looking at ever evolving lights around the world. Seen from a number of different industries, cultures and backgrounds. But there’s one thing that unites everyone I speak to. They all want to do their part to make the world better in their own unique ways. It’s a uniting passion. Whether they’re from the commercial world, third sector or public sector from the Global North or the global south.

00:00:27:15 – 00:00:50:23
Philippa White
My name is Philippa White and welcome to TIE Unearthed. Hello and welcome to episode 43 of TIE Unearthed. Today we have my long time friend John Alexander with us and he gives us a lot to think about in this episode. What does it mean to be a citizen? What are we doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we’re consumers?

00:00:50:23 – 00:01:17:11
Philippa White
Over 3000 times a day? How is the world changing? And what would the impact be on society if the private sector started to treat its people as citizens and not consumers? We cover off a lot. John is co-founder of the New Citizenship Project, a strategy and innovation consultancy that aims to shift the dominant story of the individual in society from consumer to citizen.

00:01:18:03 – 00:01:43:17
Philippa White
They’ve worked with the Guardian, the European Central Bank, the BBC, Amnesty International, the National Trust, the British Film Institute, Tate Galleries, among many others. And they’re a certified B corporation. John started his career in advertising, and that’s how we know each other and is a proud former winner of Brand Republic’s Big Idea of the Year award for creating the concept of my farm in 2011.

00:01:44:07 – 00:02:20:12
Philippa White
The idea was to hand over decision making on a real working farm to the public by online vote and debate as a way of engaging people with sustainable food production. John holds three master’s degrees in disciplines spanning humanities and business and is very active politically and publicly, having presented at various events and forums, including TEDx X his May 10th, 2020 essay on Medium, which analyzed the British government’s response to COVID 19 through the lens of citizen versus consumer, went viral.

00:02:20:20 – 00:02:41:10
Philippa White
And so far 650,000 people have read it probably more by the time this goes out. John will leave you with lots to think about. So throw on those running shoes or grab that favorite beverage. And here’s John. John, it is absolutely wonderful to have you with us today. Thank you for joining us.

00:02:41:16 – 00:02:42:08
Jon Alexander
And Jeremy.

00:02:42:18 – 00:02:46:06
Philippa White
Tell me for our listeners, where are you sitting right now? Where are you?

00:02:46:11 – 00:02:55:08
Jon Alexander
I’m sitting in my living room home. I am looking out at gray skies, but feeling very optimistic. So it’s all good.

00:02:55:08 – 00:03:04:04
Philippa White
That’s good. And you’re saying you’re at home. Where are you? I know where you are because we went for a walk. But just for our for our listeners, where are you in the world?

00:03:04:04 – 00:03:08:16
Jon Alexander
So in the leafy surrounds of Sevenoaks in in Kent, just outside of London.

00:03:08:20 – 00:03:16:20
Philippa White
Oh, it’s so nice. We met us just actually a month ago, I guess it was, and went for a wonderful walk in. What is it? No, no.

00:03:16:24 – 00:03:31:03
Jon Alexander
There are no park. So is this the joy of Sevenoaks? We moved out of town six months or so before the pandemic and basically, if you designed an algorithm, it would be to maximize the number of trees for the minimum distance from the center of London.

00:03:31:03 – 00:03:51:23
Philippa White
It’s it’s pretty special. It is very special. Yeah, it was definitely a highlight for sure. Now, John, tell our listeners a little bit about you. I’m so excited for this conversation. Obviously, the intro will have explained a little bit more about what we’re going to be covering of today. But it’s a fascinating area, something that you’ve obviously been involved with for a very long time.

00:03:51:23 – 00:04:00:15
Philippa White
It speaks to your soul before we get into all of that exciting stuff, bring you to life for our listeners. Tell us a little bit about you.

00:04:00:18 – 00:04:22:24
Jon Alexander
So I well, I started my career working in the advertising industry for nearly a decade, so we first met off it is many moons ago and I guess I sort of fell into that industry really having my only previous dream had always been to be able to be an Olympic athlete, and I sort of fell into the advertising industry really wanting to.

00:04:23:03 – 00:04:49:03
Jon Alexander
I guess, do something creative, something that would sort of contribute to the world in some way. And and it’s interesting, I think, to know that, like, it was a couple of years before I started my career that the the Twin Towers came down, the World Trade Center came down. And there was that sort of that moment when the leaders of the free world came out and said, right, citizens of the world kind of go shopping, really like going, consume, go to contribute, go to show that we’re not bound.

00:04:49:08 – 00:05:16:18
Jon Alexander
I think at a pretty deep level that had an impact on me. I think I went into the advertising industry really believing that I was going to do good work, as it were. And then yeah, from that moment on, I started pretty early on asking deeper and deeper questions about what the role of the advertising industry, what the role of what I’ve come to think of as the consumer story, the right thing to do, I think, which is by how I come to understand the consumer story.

00:05:16:18 – 00:05:36:15
Jon Alexander
The right thing to do is to is to sort of look out for number one and get the best out of yourself. I, I think that was something I kind of bought into at the beginning. And then and then increasingly it was asking questions as to what is this all about? Does this really add up with all the things that I care most about and, and with the things that I believe about humanity and that I think are possible for us.

00:05:36:15 – 00:05:56:07
Jon Alexander
And it was that journey of inquiry, the journey of asking questions that led me to this moment, really a realization where I was going, Well, what are we really doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we consumers 3000 times a day, when we when we’re surrounded by that messaging all the time? And what would it look like to put the creative energy that goes into that into something else?

00:05:56:07 – 00:06:07:05
Jon Alexander
And that’s that’s really been the journey for me, like a journey of asking questions and trying to find better questions, trying to be someone who I want to be in the world.

00:06:07:05 – 00:06:19:11
Philippa White
So before we get into you leaving advertising and, and obviously the book and, you know, the new citizenship project and all this exciting stuff. You were a rower.

00:06:19:14 – 00:06:37:23
Jon Alexander
Yeah. So I’m still like a part of me. I consider myself an athlete still. I think it’s sort of an ever more tenuous connection to that identity, that part of my identity that I’m. But yeah, I used to ride pretty seriously. I did the junior on the 23 International Road at Cambridge, so I was on a path.

00:06:37:23 – 00:06:41:10
Philippa White
And what did you roll from? What was your boat?

00:06:42:00 – 00:06:54:21
Jon Alexander
So I rode everything I had single sculls, everything in between. So I never quite made the blue boat, never quite made the boat ice crew. But I was in the I was in the Goldie Crew for the Cambridge Reserve Crew a couple of times.

00:06:55:11 – 00:07:05:23
Philippa White
I don’t know if, you know, I used to row as well for my province. I don’t think we knew that got invited to there. But I just read your bio. You’re a reporter in hero for Great Britain. That’s amazing.

00:07:06:01 – 00:07:18:17
Jon Alexander
I’m like a good friend of mine and still someone who I’m talking to actually about how this citizen story shows up in elite sports was the Canadian Olympic rowing coach for a long time, like a martin and who I should maybe introduce you to.

00:07:18:18 – 00:07:39:08
Philippa White
Oh, well, my friend, she wrote in the Olympics for Canada won a bronze, I think her silver I can’t remember she was in the eight. So she would have she would have been coached by him. So it was only it was actually two Olympics. So but yes, really, my brother was a big rower as well. He had to make the decision whether to go Olympic route or go to study.

00:07:39:08 – 00:07:47:11
Philippa White
And he went to Cornell, ended up doing engineering, but yeah, very similar. Yeah. So but it’s interesting because obviously you’re a triathlete as well, aren’t you?

00:07:47:11 – 00:08:00:09
Jon Alexander
Yeah, I am. Now. Yeah, that’s that was the challenge when I quit rowing in about 2007 and wasn’t doing any sport seriously for about eight months. And then my partner was like, You need to find another sport, actually.

00:08:00:18 – 00:08:18:00
Philippa White
And I think it’s interesting because you and Jean both train together, don’t you? And I think Sevenoaks is such a I mean, knowing that nature is such a huge part of you, obviously triathlons and just insane exercise. And you can do that on your doorstep, can’t you?

00:08:18:00 – 00:08:35:22
Jon Alexander
Yeah, it’s it’s it was a big part of the decision to move here. We’re quite old. We actually we took an Airbnb for a week in Sevenoaks before we to make the decision to move here in order to do a week trial membership of the triathlon club. So all the other people make their decisions up slightly different places.

00:08:35:22 – 00:08:54:14
Jon Alexander
Plus, I guess on a serious level, like it’s my meditative practice, it’s, it’s my, my reconnection. And yeah, whether it’s running, swimming, cycling, like all of that has that, has that kind of healing quality for me. Like the older, I mean sometimes I joke that it’s like it’s the only time my brain shuts off when I’m physically exhausted.

00:08:54:14 – 00:08:55:05
Jon Alexander
So yeah.

00:08:55:16 – 00:09:03:06
Philippa White
Yeah, I hear you. And so it was also when you were in advertising that you did the sustainability degree.

00:09:03:06 – 00:09:20:22
Jon Alexander
Yeah. So as I was starting to ask these questions about sort of what are we doing in the world, what’s, what’s it all part of what’s the, what’s the bigger picture rather than just sort of the, the individual briefs I was working on what there was some things that I had I felt conflicted about in individual bottoms of them.

00:09:20:22 – 00:09:45:01
Jon Alexander
But there was also something bigger about sort of what they all added up to what the broader story I was part of was. I went to do a part time Master’s Bath University that at the time was called Masters in Responsibility and Business Practice. It was essentially built I need to Roddick was one of the founders of the course, and it was sort of somewhere between change agent training and two years of group therapy.

00:09:45:04 – 00:10:20:13
Jon Alexander
And it was really about holding a space. And so many fascinating things have come out of that program that the things like the Carbon Disclosure Project, which obviously now is very influential in the world of finance, things like Forum for Future, I know has strong connections, thought masters and an awful lot of the things that that an organization called the purpose disruptors which is directly I’m working in the advertising and communications industry to sort of hold deep questions about what’s going on with a lot of these organizations and EU citizenship projects as one of them were were born out of the alumni of this master’s by leadership project, like all sorts of things.

00:10:20:13 – 00:10:48:06
Jon Alexander
And yeah, so, so I went to do that and it really held a space for me to a safe space. I think to go further and deeper into these questions about the role of advertising, the role of the story of the consumer in society, and not that time. That sort of is and of the 2000 was really quite difficult and dark for me because I felt like I was trapped in the negative side of this work, the kind of the analysis and the diagnosis of what I believe consumerism to be.

00:10:48:06 – 00:11:15:03
Jon Alexander
And that took me some, like I say, some pretty dark places. There was a point where I actually was found myself still working in advertising, asking these questions, doing this research, or I found myself standing on Oxford Circus tube station every evening for a week, like actually physically retching, like some like quite visceral physical level. I found my body kind of rejecting who I was and what I was doing and what I was and how I was understanding what I was doing.

00:11:15:03 – 00:11:42:04
Jon Alexander
And it was the Masters course that that held the space. I mean, to be able to do that is a weird language, but I think I needed and I think we where we are in our society today, we need some of that. We need some of that holding because I think we do have to ask. I think collectively as a society, we need to be asking at the moment really deep, difficult questions about what it is we’re doing and be able to hold each other in that process and find ways the other side of that.

00:11:42:04 – 00:11:59:15
Jon Alexander
But but I’ll genuinely commend sorts on the scale of the challenges we face. I think we’re we’re in a moment in time where the the sort of nice everyone’s a winner like we don’t have to change that march is just like adding another bottom line or whatever that these sorts of solutions just don’t cut it anymore.

00:11:59:16 – 00:12:04:04
Philippa White
Talk to us about citizens. You know what does it mean to be a citizen?

00:12:04:11 – 00:12:30:00
Jon Alexander
For me, I think there’s two ways to think about citizenship. The first is the way that we’re we sort of more immediately think of it, which is which is as a as a sort of status. Like, what are you where are you a citizen of where is your passport from? Like and the opposite of citizen in that context is a non-citizen, someone without the rights and, and opportunities and benefits that derive from, from having a passport or whatever.

00:12:30:03 – 00:12:53:13
Jon Alexander
So what I’m talking about when I talk about citizenship is actually an idea of the individual in society, an idea of who we are and what we can and should do. And a story more than anything, a story about what it is to be human and what it is and what the right thing to do is. And for me, the idea of a citizen is someone who kind of wants to shape the world, but they’re part of the society that they’re part of for the better.

00:12:53:13 – 00:13:14:16
Jon Alexander
That that who brings their creativity and energy and ideas and resources to bear on on the world that they live in. And and who believes that they have a they have a right to do that and the responsibility to do that. And I think so one of the ways I describe the story of the citizen is it’s a story rooted in an understanding that all of us are smarter than any of us.

00:13:14:19 – 00:13:51:18
Jon Alexander
It’s when we talk into the ideas and energy and resources of everyone that we are, that we will truly be able to find the best outcomes for society as a whole, because we will be drawing on that understanding. The more I’ve done things this, the more I believe that actually humans are by nature citizens, that this is who we are, and secondly, that we are living in a moment in time where the technology ages and the opportunities that exist in a way that arguably hasn’t been possible on a scale that reflects the scale of the societies we’re living in.

00:13:52:04 – 00:14:14:10
Jon Alexander
Actually, it is possible for us to be citizens. It is possible to create a citizen society. It is possible to tap into collective intelligence and to organize our societies through collective intelligence in a way that has never, has not been possible ever certainly not since we lived in very different in a very different way since since hunting and gathering was was that was the norm.

00:14:14:13 – 00:14:24:12
Jon Alexander
So it’s a pretty deep set thing. But I think I think when you see it through the lens, through that kind of lens, you go, this is a remarkable time of opportunity.

00:14:24:12 – 00:14:46:07
Philippa White
It’s interesting, when you started to define citizenship, I heard a lot of purpose and when you finished explaining it, it was collective ness. And that that that’s the difference, isn’t it? Because there’s a bit of purpose in there, as in realizing a potential of somebody, which in your view is everybody is a citizen. But actually it’s that collective ness, isn’t it?

00:14:46:07 – 00:15:06:12
Jon Alexander
I think I think that’s true. I think the way we talk about citizenship today, we often talk, like I say, whether you’re your citizen of a place or whatever. And there’s some really facet like the etymology of the language is actually fascinating because we tend to think that because society is a shorter word than the citizen, we sort of think that the word citizen must come from a city.

00:15:06:12 – 00:15:32:21
Jon Alexander
And so like we think of citizenship as geographically defined. What’s fascinating, actually, if you go back into like the actual the words the word city is actually a declaration from citizen rather than vice versa. And the word citizen like directly comes from from language that literally translates us together. People, someone who is if you if you sort of push into that language, it’s only meaningful in relationship to others that with.

00:15:32:23 – 00:15:57:06
Jon Alexander
And so there is a collective ness that’s inherent in the concepts of citizenship that a very deep level linguistically as much as anything else. But but I think what’s what’s important to emphasize is that that is not a ness that disappears the individual. I think the idea of citizenship as an idea of nested individuals, we are all unique, but it’s when that uniqueness comes together that we all the way become more than the some of our past.

00:15:57:06 – 00:16:04:15
Jon Alexander
Yeah. It’s like a it’s an idea of interdependence, not an idea of, of of the disappearance of the individual. Yeah. The thing that’s really important to.

00:16:04:16 – 00:16:04:18
Philippa White
Us.

00:16:05:01 – 00:16:11:05
Jon Alexander
That so often the rejection of consumerism is seen as a rejection of the individual. That’s not what this is about.

00:16:11:09 – 00:16:19:19
Philippa White
So, John, I feel like in order for us to move forward, I think we just need then for you to define what is the consumer story.

00:16:19:21 – 00:16:45:02
Jon Alexander
Sometimes I think of the advertising industry in particular has as almost the priesthood of consumerism as a religion. If you think about the like religions calling adherents to the most insistent religions in the world, call their adherents to prayer four or five times a day. Consumerism, the message that you are a consumer, that the communications with the underlying message you are a consumer, that the implicit message you’re a consumer.

00:16:45:02 – 00:17:17:01
Jon Alexander
We see, I mean, 3000 times a day was the estimate back in 2003 when I started working in advertising. That was the estimate that was given to me. Then in framing my job today, the estimates are anywhere between four and 10,000, depending on on the ethnographic research, on the particular peer reviewed study that you look at. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2008 or whatever for understanding lower like unconscious processing in the system to you think this is the biggest nudge in the world that level that I’m talking about low involvement processing as Robert Heath talks about in the advertising industry.

00:17:17:01 – 00:17:44:04
Jon Alexander
But actually the underlying thing is this constant background conditioning that says you’re a consumer and when. And so to your question, what’s the consumer story? I like I say, I tend to think in subject consumer senses are not holding them together. I think is really powerful. And so the subject story is one which says the right thing to do is to keep your head down and do as you’re told on the basis that the God given future, you know best.

00:17:44:11 – 00:18:05:18
Jon Alexander
And therefore, if we, the little people keep our heads down, those we’re told, then the best society result because those those God given view will lead us that the consumer story replace that I think has replaced that over the last century and the consumer story says look out for number one, get the best deal for yourself. And again, it’s it’s an idea of how the best society results.

00:18:06:05 – 00:18:31:05
Jon Alexander
And the consumer story is an argument that the best society will result when we aggregate the individual pursuit of self-interest to the whole. The individual self-interest adds up to collective self-interest. Milton Friedman basically said, in business language, I like the social responsibility of business that is to maximize its profits. That is an expression of the but arguably the most direct expression of the consumer story, I mean, is Orwellian.

00:18:31:05 – 00:18:41:16
Jon Alexander
When you actually stop and think about it like it’s selfishness and selflessness, it’s like it’s properly like doublespeak. But, but that but that is the hypothesis, I think.

00:18:41:17 – 00:18:42:02
Philippa White
Okay.

00:18:42:06 – 00:19:03:06
Jon Alexander
And so so when I talk about subject consumer sectors, I’m talking about those three stories. I’m talking about story that you have down there. You’re told because that’s best. No. Okay. Pursue self-interest because that will lead to the US. No. Okay. So why we step into now as all kind of new hypothesis as it were, of what of what will lead to the best outcome for society as a whole?

00:19:03:06 – 00:19:25:24
Philippa White
And this is this is where this conversation gets interesting because the traditional models of capitalism and socialism, they’re old, like they were created in a completely different time. And the world has changed, customs have changed, social reality has changed. And this is obviously what you touch on a lot. And, you know, we won’t have time to go into the history of all of this.

00:19:25:24 – 00:19:42:06
Philippa White
But when your book comes out on the 17th of March, everybody needs to get a copy of it because John does go into a lot. I mean, there’s a chapter going through all of this in a lot of detail and it’s fascinating. You touched on it. Now, you know, there is, of course, an inertia from big groups and we won’t name them.

00:19:42:06 – 00:20:02:14
Philippa White
But I think we all know many of them that want to maintain the status quo, you know, those old models. But there are there are these rumblings and there are these companies and these people and these movements out there that recognize that the world has changed. And the vision of the world has to be more just in human dynamics are taking us there.

00:20:02:17 – 00:20:16:21
Philippa White
Employees are looking for it. Consumers are looking for it. If we’re going to be talking about consumer, there is this sort of movement. And, you know, there was the lovely quote from Leonard Cohen. You say there is a crack, a crack in everything. And I just wonder, you know, and I said it. I said, you know, consumers are looking for it, too.

00:20:16:21 – 00:20:35:04
Philippa White
And this is this is part of this conversation. I guess my question and this is a this is sort of a loaded question, isn’t it? But like, what can this look like from a citizen point of view? What are we talking about? So where in your view do you see things going? And can you help our listeners kind of understand this new potential model?

00:20:35:05 – 00:20:55:19
Jon Alexander
No, no, maybe pick off parts of that. I think the first thing I want to highlight is how important language is in this. I hear you using the word consumer and I understand why you do. And I understand how present it is in the world. But you and I work in and I want to just emphasize that it really does matter.

00:20:55:19 – 00:21:16:05
Jon Alexander
And there are social psychology studies, peer reviewed studies in which we’ve replicate that at scale, which we speak for this. For example, there’s one study where you set a resource dilemma scenario. You say, so you’re one in four households depend on a single wealthy water supply and the world is starting to run dry. So you need to use less water.

00:21:16:05 – 00:21:36:02
Jon Alexander
And then you ask people, to what extent do you trust the other three households to use less water, and to what extent are you prepared to use less yourself? And then if you split the sample and you change the word household for the well word consumer, for half of the sample, you get significantly lower levels of trust and significantly lower levels of willingness to compromise when the word is consumer up in the household.

00:21:36:14 – 00:21:43:05
Jon Alexander
So the moment that you use the word consumer, you are setting your brain on and I’m not saying this to you.

00:21:43:05 – 00:21:44:11
Philippa White
But I it’s absolutely.

00:21:45:01 – 00:22:10:14
Jon Alexander
Right. When when we use that word, we set ourselves on a train track where unconsciously we’re limiting what we believe people are capable of. And when that is the norm, that is the normal language in our organizations and even in our societies. We cannot help but limit what people are invited to do and what state can, what power people are invited to have because we implicitly conceive of them in a very deeply limited way.

00:22:10:15 – 00:22:37:15
Jon Alexander
The second thing is about this idea of like capitalism and isms and big words. And I’m like, one of the things that over the years of working with these ideas and pushing them and shaping them and challenging them and losing faith in them and regaining it is thinking about the society that results at the end of it. And I think for me there was a moment for me was like, actually, I don’t need to talk about capitalism or socialism.

00:22:37:15 – 00:22:54:07
Jon Alexander
I don’t like what I think is so empowering about this idea of a shift from consumer to citizen. As you flip the telescope, basically, right, you’re looking from the other end, you’re not going like, how do we design? What does the ultimate world look like? You’re going, What if we orient ourselves a little bit differently here from where we are?

00:22:54:08 – 00:23:24:03
Jon Alexander
Let’s just let’s come in, turn a little bit and start acting. And what manifests as a result of that series of actions and thought processes may well be something different to capitalism. It may well be, or it might be citizen capitalism. That might still be a valid definition. I don’t mean to judge that, but what I do need to do is, is orient myself in my in my life and in my organization as a citizen rather than a consumer, and encourage others to do so as well and trusts and explore where that goes from there.

00:23:24:03 – 00:23:45:19
Jon Alexander
The most exciting part of this work for me and part of the research for the book was looking at and interviewing my new hero that the Digital Minister of Taiwan, Audrey Time, the world’s first transgender minister who’s an awesome person, dropped out of school at the age of 13, went to live with a matriarchal indigenous tribe in eastern Taiwan.

00:23:45:19 – 00:24:22:08
Jon Alexander
Transitions became a software program for Apple and Google. And then and then basically set up a hacker movement called GitHub zero became part of the hacker movement called Gulf Zero, which was a response to an increasingly authoritarian tendencies from the Taiwanese government only as long no longer ago than 2012. And what comes? Zero. The reason they’re called Godzilla is because they created shadow versions of government websites with the URLs g0v dot two W instead of dot gov dot two W and they invited people into these processes of essentially sort of understanding what participatory democracy might look like just outside of government.

00:24:22:10 – 00:24:40:05
Jon Alexander
Come 2014, the government tried to rush through a trade deal with China and there was an Occupy style protest and got zero rule in a broadband connection and started streaming what the protesters were doing and the protesters were in the parliament, occupying the parliament, debating the clauses of the trade bill and the Speaker of the parliament in that moment.

00:24:40:05 – 00:25:08:03
Jon Alexander
And this is this was actually the critical moment. And maybe we’ll come back to this and sort of what this means for leaders of organizations. But the speaker of the parliament said this is democracy, so this is what this space is for. And he refused to boot them out despite being a member of the governing party in the same way as all speakers, a member of the party sets aside their membership in the UK and since then, like so much is completely different that almost all of the political representation changed in the following series of elections.

00:25:08:10 – 00:25:34:02
Jon Alexander
Audrey went from being a hacker to being outside of government to being a mentor to a minister, to now being a minister. Taiwan now runs a presidential hackathon every year focused on the Sustainable Development Goals, where they gather ideas from everywhere and try. And this they’ve they responded to COVID with a national team effort. They included a telephone line that any citizen could bring in to with an idea for how the country’s response could be better.

00:25:34:02 – 00:25:52:23
Jon Alexander
With a voicemail recorded by the president herself. I mean, it’s just unbelievably transformative and an incredibly short scale and time scale. And that is part of the reason why I find that such an inspiring story, because I think what it speaks to is this is who we are. My first belief about humanity is that we are by nature, citizens.

00:25:52:23 – 00:26:11:04
Jon Alexander
My second belief is that we are by nature, storytelling and story dwelling creatures, and we are currently trapped in what I call the consumer story. But if we can give ourselves the space from that, it’s not that we have to learn how to be citizens. There’s going to be some sort of gradual generational process. We just have to get out of the way, right?

00:26:11:04 – 00:26:12:24
Jon Alexander
Like and open the spaces.

00:26:12:24 – 00:26:34:17
Philippa White
And you know what? So just in your book and you talk a lot about the importance of flexibility, communication, listening, empathy, I talked a lot about that with TIE and how those are the competencies that we need for today’s world to be able to move forward. Everything you’ve just talked about with the Taiwanese example is all of that.

00:26:34:17 – 00:26:52:13
Philippa White
It’s listening, it’s empathy, it’s understanding, it’s openness, it’s embracing. And that’s what citizenship is, right? It’s understanding the other person. It’s understanding it’s it’s coming together. It’s being there for the other person. And it’s understanding how I can impact you or you can impact me.

00:26:52:13 – 00:27:15:08
Jon Alexander
It is. And I would go one step further and say it’s about creating space for the other. It’s not doing things for people, or just empathy in the sense of understanding what you always must be like and trying to help. It’s about cultivating agency that we’ve always admired about what you’re doing and celebrated about what you’re doing. I think it’s creating space for people to become a different type of leader.

00:27:16:05 – 00:27:37:06
Jon Alexander
Whether you’re doing that, whether that’s the individual experiences or whether that’s sort of the whole presence of TIE in an organization, I think it’s the space for understanding that when you create space for people, people want to step into that. And it’s an idea of leadership that is neither about command and control nor is actually about service servant leadership.

00:27:37:06 – 00:27:51:11
Jon Alexander
It’s about facilitative leadership. It’s about we are more together than we would be apart. It’s not about people coming into these projects in other countries and with miracle solutions from the wisdom of online, it’s about getting down.

00:27:51:11 – 00:27:51:20
Philippa White
There.

00:27:51:20 – 00:27:58:01
Jon Alexander
And right, okay, what if you go, what can I offer and how can that multiply? And that is the beauty of it.

00:27:58:01 – 00:28:17:01
Philippa White
So John, what I really want to understand is I think this is the crux of this conversation because in the book you provide lots of examples of NGOs involved in the citizenship conversation, the kicker and the future of this planet and your thinking, which is hopefully going to contribute to it, is how we can engage the private sector in this way of thinking.

00:28:17:02 – 00:28:43:17
Philippa White
Because the private sector until now, I still remember in my business class with us, you know, being forced to create what’s the main goal of business to make my day, which made me feel physically ill, serious. I would really like to understand and knowing, you know, we are talking about shared value, we’re talking about purpose, talking about the SDGs, we’re talking about all these things.

00:28:43:17 – 00:28:48:03
Philippa White
Talk to us about how the private sector can engage in this and what does this look like.

00:28:48:03 – 00:29:23:17
Jon Alexander
I appreciate the challenge. I slightly defend myself against some of of your characterization, honestly, because the chapter on business in the book is just as long as the chapter on Jason. Actually, I think the consumer mentality has showed up in the end as co-opted the NGO world, the charity world, arguably even more than the business world in a lot of ways, like the idea that people are either donor donors or beneficiaries, the idea that people sort of get benefit for joining a charity like I know that that’s not where we’re going, but I didn’t just want to make that point that like the consumer story, it showed up and co-opted that world just as much

00:29:23:17 – 00:29:46:17
Jon Alexander
as any other. And who’s come up to government as well? Yeah, that’s true. But the to to really zoom in on business, which I think is the is the sort of real nub of the of the question and of this of the opportunity with this audience. I think what I would say is that it’s the same businesses will thrive if they tap into that the ideas, energy and resources of everyone, whether that’s their employees or their customers, than if they don’t.

00:29:46:20 – 00:30:13:21
Jon Alexander
You’re looking at the most underutilized resource space that you can possibly imagine. I mean, so take a couple of examples and I think it does apply both to employees and beyond and to on to other stakeholder groups as well. I think you can apply everywhere. Well, if we think of our employees as citizens of our organization with the idea who want to kind of want to contribute their ideas, energy and resources to shaping this organization for the better, rather than seeing them as consumers of jobs.

00:30:13:23 – 00:30:38:04
Jon Alexander
If you get and if you go to that mindset, then you get then so many things. I mean, take take it. I think employee activism becomes completely reframed, for example. So take on the moment. There’s this thing about McKinsey 11 employees sending a letter saying we need to think about our role in relation to fossil fuel companies. That’s now been signed by 2000s of McKinsey’s consultants or something.

00:30:38:04 – 00:30:57:21
Jon Alexander
And it’s causing disruption and is being managed as if those people like the good ones, are being offered salary increases in salary and in order to keep them quiet and the initiative, ones who are really upset about it, are just being allowed to leave and that’s the consumer response from the organization, right? If that organization when what what really are we here for?

00:30:57:21 – 00:31:21:20
Jon Alexander
And this is where purpose, as you’ve hinted, does come in. If we’ve really had to help the organizations, the most influential organizations in society to perform better then which I mean, that’s my approximation. I’m guessing like who knows if they actually have a purpose statement. I don’t really care, frankly. But but if that, if I imposed if I project that purpose on McKinsey, then I go, there’s some wisdom here, right?

00:31:21:21 – 00:31:52:02
Jon Alexander
There’s some smart people. How do I hold the space for them to bring them together and not just like not just assume that, but that is necessarily about taking all those clients out the door. But I actually bring together a conversation goes, okay, how do we want to engage in this? Like if we are in a moment of fundamental change where the world has to get beyond fossil fuels, how do we as an organization, as a collective with with different perspectives and ideas and intelligences, understand what role we might play in that?

00:31:52:03 – 00:32:11:20
Jon Alexander
And I bet they would get to something way smarter than they’re currently doing and would find some tools and ways of working that would make them invaluable advisors to those organizations of all shapes and sizes. So that’s a that’s like a just a just like a thought experiment at that similarly. But then the customer side of things as well.

00:32:11:20 – 00:32:18:19
Jon Alexander
I know this is something I talk about a lot in the book, like with examples from Brewdog and Tortoise. Here we go.

00:32:18:20 – 00:32:21:01
Philippa White
Green Dog is a great example.

00:32:21:01 – 00:32:54:22
Jon Alexander
Technology will say yes, yeah. Yup. And there’s so many really fascinating organizations that are going, hang on a minute, like we’re channeling, we’re tapping into one kind of value that people can contribute financial but one, a minimal transactional relationship and just just to illustrate the power of this and actually to go back to the NGO challenge that you go, I think probably the most the single most commercially impactful case study, the new citizenship is at the heart has been its involvement with the national.

00:32:54:23 – 00:32:58:20
Philippa White
Oh, I was hoping you were going to break up the National Trust. I love this example.

00:32:58:20 – 00:33:23:22
Jon Alexander
Yes, but you’re like, say so. This is this is I mean, yes, it’s an NGO technically. Not technically. It’s going of it is a charity, but it’s a half billion turnover organization. Right. This is a beast. And yet this organization and what we were doing with them, you basically we’re standing at the point where if they treated people as consumers of those out, the values that they were harnessing from that group was was minimal.

00:33:23:22 – 00:33:53:04
Jon Alexander
Like, I mean, it was it was it was decent and it kept them going. And it was an important but ultimately, you’re you’re feeding a beast and you’re creating expectations. And then if you when you switch that relationship to say, what if we saw those people as participants in the purpose of this organization? What if we see people not as consumers of those out, but as people who really care about special places, people who who understand the need for beauty in the world and want to champion that alongside us, not just be served by us with gloss finish days out.

00:33:53:04 – 00:34:25:08
Jon Alexander
Then you get to a place where you start tapping into the like I say, I mean, I keep using this phrase ideas, energy and resources, but you go like, how can we show the work of conservation, not hide it behind closed doors? How can we give people opportunities to kind of micro volunteer in that? How can we? And when you do those sorts of things, my favorite example of our work was moving from a campaign that was going to be called Get Outdoors with the National Trust and try and sell outdoor days out to consumers to a campaign that was called 50 Things to Do before 11 and three quarters.

00:34:25:08 – 00:34:48:22
Jon Alexander
That was about connecting children to nature by crowdsourcing lists of the things of the experiences every young person should have. That campaign alone was has been infinitely the most successful marketing campaign in the National Trust’s history by any commercial or other measure. When you make that shift in in relationship, you go way beyond the transaction and into something that builds loyalty and emotional community and this.

00:34:48:24 – 00:35:12:19
Jon Alexander
Right? And then and then you’re going, this isn’t it. This is an infinitely more valuable relationship. And then this is why I mean, Brewdog has had some in recent years, it’s a UK brewery. They started up only in about 2007. It’s been one of the fastest growing companies in the UK and now worldwide over recent years and effectively invented equity crowdfunding about other things.

00:35:12:19 – 00:35:30:12
Jon Alexander
Before any of the platforms that existed existed, they had sold the stake in the company to the customers. They talk about being on a mission to make everyone as passionate about craft beer as we are. They open source their recipe sell brew at home kits, the sorts of things that you would never do if you were trying to maximize transactional sales of beer.

00:35:30:19 – 00:35:52:05
Jon Alexander
But if you’re trying to involve people in a movement around craft beer, you come to a different set of ideas. So there’s obviously, like you say, there’s way more you can talk about. But but I think that the critical flip is this notion of going, what if we see people, whether it’s employees or customers as participants in what we’re doing, not just consumers of all products.

00:35:52:05 – 00:36:08:20
Jon Alexander
I want to talk about Unilever briefly, because this is a really profound experience in my life, and I think they’re in real difficult times at the moment with pressure from shareholders and sort of old school shareholder language coming back. And what I would be encouraging them to do is to really lean into it, to really go, no, double down.

00:36:08:20 – 00:36:30:22
Jon Alexander
We’re going to like they’ve talked about purpose, but they’ve never gone further into like let’s create a different relationship with our customers. And if they did that, they would really unlock the financial value that purpose makes possible. One of the things I say in the book is like purpose for business is a is necessary but not sufficient. You need a purpose in order to be able to unlock participation.

00:36:30:22 – 00:36:35:07
Jon Alexander
But a purpose only allows that value to be created. It doesn’t create it directly.

00:36:35:08 – 00:36:43:05
Philippa White
Well, we’re coming to the end of the podcast, but I just wanted to ask you, is there anything else that you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you?

00:36:43:08 – 00:36:59:05
Jon Alexander
The place I tried to end the book is I know you’ve talked to some really fascinating people. You talk to leaders in many different organizations and spaces. And and I guess it leaves me wanting to say two things. And I know I also know that much of your audience is in the advertising industry, and I guess I’ve been pretty down on that space.

00:36:59:17 – 00:37:17:10
Jon Alexander
I guess on then I guess what I, what I want to leave with is two things really. The first is that I think is good work to be done from those places. And I think but I think the idea of marketing needs to change just as much as anywhere. And it’s to start with an idea of people as citizens, not consumers.

00:37:17:10 – 00:37:42:21
Jon Alexander
And if you do that, I think capitalism itself change. It might not be marketing anymore. It might be forum, right? Like it’s it’s like, you know, like what’s the language we use if we’re inviting people into their agency and into the space? I think that it’s not a simplistic like advertising as evil story has gone that has gone deeper and through that and out the other side to go like actually this is a this is a societal scale story that we have to work on from everywhere.

00:37:42:21 – 00:38:05:02
Jon Alexander
But I do think that advertising has to face into it because advertising is more directly guilty of perpetuating, of perpetrating and perpetuating this story than any other industry. And so, so while there is good work to be done from within it, there is seriously direct a much deeper negative impact than almost any other industry. I believe at the moment.

00:38:05:02 – 00:38:14:22
Jon Alexander
And the second thing I want to I want to leave you with is what it means to be a leader in this moment in time and what it means to lead. And where I in the book is this idea of being an antihero.

00:38:14:22 – 00:38:22:05
Philippa White
And I love. Yes. And I didn’t that was one thing I did actually want to talk for. I didn’t touch on a love that thought.

00:38:22:09 – 00:38:41:21
Jon Alexander
I actually think to your thing like there are lots of people and organizations wanting to face this moment in time. And yet I think the barrier is the deepest psychological barrier, I think, and therefore the deepest barrier is actually this idea that we have to know. We have to know the answer. So we have that if you’re a CEO, that you have to be the hero.

00:38:41:21 – 00:39:05:16
Jon Alexander
You have to have all the answers and actually that the perceived need actually stops people from being able to ask the questions in the first place and therefore makes them put their fingers in their ears and pretend that this stuff isn’t happening. And so when I talk about being an antihero, I think it’s about I think it’s about saying, look, I mean, look, I’m not saying the book like I’m about to turn 40 on y64 IPOs in this world.

00:39:05:16 – 00:39:29:02
Jon Alexander
But the role that I need to play is not one of of having the answers. It’s one of getting. Let’s open the doors, guys. And I have this thing that I’ve been challenging myself to do as much as I can of like, yes, go into these spaces and places and institutions and establishments, but then but then open the door and bring others in and go like look at what we could do rather than go in.

00:39:29:02 – 00:39:45:17
Jon Alexander
And because people are looking to me and I’m really conscious of holding this as I put this book into the world that I do believe has some useful answers, not making myself be the carrier of answers, but practicing what I preach and trying to go, No, let’s, let’s open this up. We need more wisdoms in this space. Yeah, I think.

00:39:45:17 – 00:39:52:07
Jon Alexander
I think that idea of leaders antihero is one that I would like to leave us on just as I love the book.

00:39:52:07 – 00:40:20:18
Philippa White
Yeah, I love it, I love it. I love our conversations. John, thank you for your time. You’ve left a lot of people with a lot to think about. I have mentioned it a couple of times throughout this podcast that you can read more and I do highly recommend it. It’s a really great read and just leaves all of us with lots to reflect on and consider as we collectively move forward with a lot of these challenges that we’re all facing and together we are definitely stronger.

00:40:20:18 – 00:40:35:15
Philippa White
Thank you for your thoughts and your passion and your hard work and I’m just excited to follow the journey once this gets out there. And obviously I think people can can order sort of a copy even though it hasn’t been launched yet.

00:40:35:15 – 00:40:50:18
Jon Alexander
So there’s a lot of free press in which my publisher, but also all all outlets you can you can preorder if you want. I’m trying to get all over the country. So if you are into organizations, if you’d like me to come talk, I’m the default answer will be yes. Thank you for having me and thanks.

00:40:50:19 – 00:40:57:05
Philippa White
How can people reach you? Because all on the on the blurb I will put a link just LinkedIn I.

00:40:57:05 – 00:41:02:16
Jon Alexander
Guess the probably the best website is my is the site for the book which is just John Alexander dot net.

00:41:02:18 – 00:41:08:00
Philippa White
John, it’s been a pleasure as always. Thank you. I look forward to our next walk in the know.

00:41:08:09 – 00:41:08:20
Jon Alexander
Yeah.

00:41:08:20 – 00:41:12:17
Philippa White
No no part of and until then be well.

00:41:13:07 – 00:41:16:08
Jon Alexander
Loved and I would love to be feel better.

00:41:16:14 – 00:41:20:05
Philippa White
Yeah thank you. Yes. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.

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