About 15 years ago, I wrote an article called ‘2020:  A Vision of the Future’ to provide a view of what life might be like if we followed environmentally sustainable practices.  The article wasn’t published, though it turned out to be reasonably accurate, but for households only.

Jess Scully’s new book, ‘Glimpses of Utopia’, shows us many examples from all over the world that exhibit new practices currently available for making our world more sustainable and more designed for people, rather than for organisations and profits.  It’s an amazing book that deserves a wide audience.  To encourage you, here are some of the main points.

Key Elements of ‘Utopia’

Scully is Deputy CEO of the City of Sydney, which is seeking to use more community-oriented and sustainable practices.  She argues that ‘Utopia’ for people requires:

  • Access to work
  • Access to green space
  • Good transport
  • Good education
  • Lack of crime
  • Affordable housing
  • A life with meaning, purpose, where potential can be achieved

In a society:    

  • Which is peaceful
  • Where resources are shared and
  • All work is honoured equally

From these criteria, she argues that the following areas need to be addressed:

  • Upgrading political systems, processes and values
  • Work that rewards humans (not organisations)
  • Recouping public investments
  • Reforming financial systems
  • Restoring the ‘commons’ (public resources and assets)
  • Rethinking house building and land valuation

It’s a daunting list, but under each heading she gives practical examples of how these issues are being addressed by different groups and governments all over the world.  They are impressive.

  1. Upgrading political systems, processes and values

Essentially, she argues that decisionmaking should be decentralised, opened up and made transparent, using modern technology.  Examples from Taiwan, Belgium, Argentina, Iceland, Chile and the US show how change comes from bottom-up groups pressuring politicians.   Processes such as participatory budgeting, citizen juries, spending local and online forums help involve more, different voices, using online tech to improve access, speed and efficiency.

2. Redesigning the world of work for humans

She argues we need to shift jobs focus towards ‘care’ (personal services) jobs, which employ many more people now and which provide what individuals need, away from ‘hard’ infrastructure (one-off) jobs, which sound good, but whose benefits are unclear.  Noting the huge increase in part-time ‘precarious’ jobs, she supports the Universal Basic Income concept, but believes it should be about providing Universal Basic Services (what people need, not money).

She notes that the Australian government supports people in jobs from school to retirement, leaving gaps at both ends.  She argues for government-run childcare (recalling the disaster of listed company ABC Learning in this field), fo the formalisation of domestic work and for proper, civilised aged care (the book was written before the aged care disaster from covid), consistent with a society built for people, not profit.

3. Recouping public investment

Scully notes that much public sector R&D (eg universities) is converted to private sector profits through start-up IPOs – social risk taking, but private profitmaking.  She believes governments should take stakes in such startups to recoup their early investment.  

She argues that organisations should pay tax!  The Panama Papers showed how corporations manipulate country tax systems, but emerging country-by-country reporting could change this. 

For efficient administration, she proposes a 0.01% financial transactions tax, a digital services tax and suggests that pollution and resource use should also have financial returns to the government/public to compensate for the private profit/society cost misalignment.

4. Reforming finance

She observes that money/banking has gone from a tool of trade, helping a business, to a profitmaking activity in its own right, where the profits of large financial institutions do not return to the local community.  She supports the development of community banking and a number of very radical financial arrangements emerging to reduce or change the profits from the banking/financial process (eg blockchain, Islamic lending, peer lending).

5. Restoring the ‘commons’

Air, public land, sun, wind, earth, water and data are some essential ‘commons’ elements that enable people to live.  As public ‘common’ goods, they should not be privatised.  She focusses on the emerging issue of the private capture of data management, highlighting this as a future issue of a utopian world. 

6. Restructuring house building and land valuation

Cities are for people, but housing prices and land valuations from alternative uses (by corporations primarily) are making it very difficult for most people to afford to live in city centres.  She argues for mixed living communities – people from all walks of life and incomes living together – so everyone is aware of issues for the whole society, unlike on gated communities and slums.

She provides many examples of housing clubs, innovative architecture for building design, different land valuation processes and community land trusts as possible models for better future management of housing and land valuation for better society benefit.

2021:  Glimpses of Utopia?

The value of the book is in the breadth of ideas – with currently working examples from all over the world – that can be used to improve the spread of benefits more equally across our society…if we want to improve our societies.  I was surprised at her failure to directly address environment issues however, which my old article had promoted. 

2020 covid showed us how unequally benefits are currently distributed, how much some have suffered (eg aged care, precarious workers, domestic violence, apartment dwellers, hospitality, travel, transport industries) while others have benefitted greatly (eg IT industries, online businesses, office-based jobs, retirees, share investors, regional areas).

As 2021 begins, we have the opportunity to make major changes to the societies we live in…or go back towards the old ‘normal’, so clearly revealed to be failing us.  What will we do?