The citizen way of thinking

Reformed ad man Jon Alexander creates a better future

From advertising to activism | Image by TOPIA

Spending and consuming is officially outdated. As we stagger from crisis to crisis, how about we put the same creativity that goes into selling stuff into involving people instead?

In TOPIA series, My World of Good, revolutionaries imagine better

Jon Alexander wants us to reclaim our future by thinking and acting like Citizens, not Consumers – because it’s not us humans that are broken, it’s the stories.

The former advertising award-winner and author spent the first decade of his career selling some of the world’s biggest brands, and even winning a few awards along the way. But then everything changed: “Late one evening back in 2010, standing on the platform at Oxford Circus underground station, I stared at the floor as one train came and went and then another, waves of nausea passing over me. Another train passed, and then I started retching, and then threw up. It happened every day for a week.”

You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.

Terry Pratchett

He recalls one of his bosses telling him, “humans are just nasty monkeys and consumerism is evolution”, and realising he was caught up in a story he simply didn’t believe in. He calls this the Consumer Story, a foundational story of humans as inherently self-interested and competitive. The revelation made him sick. The penny had dropped. And he didn’t want to pick it up again.

In 2014, Alexander co-founded the New Citizenship Project with former adland colleague, Irenie Ekkeshis, as a strategy and innovation consultancy to help people shape the things that matter to them for the better. Their mission is to figure out how to use their skills not just to sell a glittering array of stuff but to involve people in the decisions that affect their lives. They have since worked with everyone from the National Trust to The Body Shop, because there is still a place for business – with purpose.

“Then in 2020, with Britain in lockdown, I saw the ideas we were working with come alive in front of my eyes,” he says. “As Citizens, we were getting involved, helping one another through unprecedented challenges. A whole new society became possible in that time. But our leaders couldn’t see it, because they were blinded by the Consumer Story.”

He realised we need to step into a new narrative of the ‘Citizen Story’, because when we start to act like Citizens, not Consumers, everything changes. That’s why the activist-author wrote CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us: so that we can unlock our energy, creativity and care to see what is possible. It’s an important book about believing in our collective power to create change.

Working with Ariane Conrad (aka the Book Doula), a New York Times bestselling writer who has built a career turning big ideas into books that change the world, he drew on his previous advertising experience (and no less than three Masters degrees-worth of knowledge) to pull together a book that offers optimism with a new story rooted in community and interdependence.  

CITIZENS shows us what we must do to survive and thrive – as individuals, as organisations, as nations, even as a species. A sort of upbeat handbook, it’s full of inspiring case studies of authentic participation being adopted around the world, from the slums of Kenya to the backstreets of Birmingham. It’s real proof that “unleashing the power of everyone” can equip us to face the challenges of economic insecurity, climate crisis, public health threats and polarisation.

“I truly believe that we humans are collaborative, creative, caring Citizens by nature – and if we give ourselves and each other the chance, we can fix this.”

Revered producer-activist Brian Eno is such a fan of Alexander’s approach that he wrote the foreword to this vitally important book: “When you see the world through the lens of this story, you see that there is a revolution in progress. The people are organising, not only in grassroots movements but also, crucially, inside the very institutions and organisations that are currently failing us. The people are starting to feel their power, and they’re making for the engine rooms.”

My World of Good is a TOPIA series where we ask revolutionaries to imagine better. We asked Jon Alexander to share his idea of a better world – one that’s less greedy, selfish and destructive – and then give examples of citizenship in action.

Jon Alexander: In My World of Good…

… we replace Consumer with Citizen

If I could dramatically change one thing about the world today, I don’t think one thing would ever cut it, that’s the pain and the joy of systems. But I do think it would make a hell of a difference if we could run a kind of societal ‘find and replace’ to replace ‘Consumer’ with ‘Citizen’ in every single instance.

My main focus is on creating and channeling the cultural moments when the story might shift. Covid represented a moment when the story might have shifted in the UK, but ultimately didn’t (think “Eat Out To Help Out” as an example of the imposition of the Consumer Story, directly co-opting Citizen instincts into consumption). The People’s Plan for Nature is an attempt to create such a moment around the new David Attenborough documentary.

The People’s Plan for Nature is a world-first plan created for the people, by the people of the UK 

… we ask questions

I try to ask myself the same question every day:
What would you do today if you truly believed in yourself and those around you?

Daily questions offer hope

… Bayo Akomolafe’s ideas will be mainstream

Bayo Akomolafe is a philosopher, writer, activist and executive director of The Emergence Network. I find his way of looking at the world, encouraging us to ask questions, as to whether we’re really having the impact we intend, very challenging – but absolutely essential. I really tussle in my mind with insights like, “Times are urgent, we must slow down,” but I know I need to hear them and I think everyone does.

In some ways, I’d love to more able to hold the urgency of our times and to slow myself. But I also love living life intensely and in full energy.

… we protect imagination

… everyone has read Ece Temelkuran

I’d recommend that everyone reads a pair of books, both by Turkish writer and activist Ece Temelkuran. The first, How To Lose A Country, details the path of decline too many nations are heading down from democracy to dictatorship; the second, Together, she wrote when challenged that her outlook left people feeling hopeless, and is an incredibly powerful and emotional call for belief in humanity. Between them, this pair of books will give you a clear-eyed view of the moment we live in, and inspiration to make the most of it.

… and listened to How To Citizen

The How To Citizen podcast with Baratunde Thurston is such a powerful, sometimes beautiful, often hilarious thing. A comedian trying to inspire the reconstruction of US and indeed global democracy from the ground up. Everyone needs this.

How To Citizen introduced new perspectives from people working to improve society for the many

… people turn off the TV

I’m more of a turn off your TV and get out there person!

… everyone gets to see the hill of the Pnyx

The Pnyx hill is the birthplace of modern democracy. Most people visit the Acropolis in Athens, but that was really the religious centre rather than the democratic. And it is just over the road! Standing there and imagining 20,000 people genuinely discussing how a society should work is pretty overwhelming.

It’s important not to idealise – obviously there were a lot of women and slaves who did not have a voice at all – and Athens is by no means the site of the immaculate conception of democracy that some imagine it to be, but it remains an important inspiration.

… we care and collaborate

Adrienne Maree Brown is a transformative justice scholar,  prolific writer and impassioned activist

If I could collaborate with anyone, it would be Adrienne Maree Brown. In some ways I think we do similar work as facilitators and space holders, but we’re such different people.

Perhaps my absolute favourite review of CITIZENS was someone saying it was “emergent Strategy for white people”! I know she would blow my mind, and I like to think I might be able to offer at least a little something to her too.

… I get to swim every day

My happy place is a 50m swimming pool. I’ve been an exercise addict since the age of about six. Big, amazing pools are the cathedrals of my personal religion!

Although, in an ideal world, I have a deep-seated addiction to M&S Extremely Chocolatey Biscuits, so those would just replenish automatically for me.

… there would be no arrogance

There is something about knowing what you’re bad at. I would love to be a really good manager of people. Fortunately my New Citizenship co-founder Irenie is incredible at this, but I’m so awful.

… meaningful power is in more people’s hands

This utopia would be called… Earth

I’ll steal the name from the brilliant Louisa Ziane in her My World of Good interview and say that my ideal world would be simply be called ‘Earth’. Because I think we’re so close to being there.

It’s motto would be “Fast, Fun, Fair.”

Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan, has a philosophy of “Fast, Fun, Fair”

As for its motto, I’ll steal the motto from the Taiwanese government’s Covid response: “Fast, Fun, Fair.” The country of 23 million people pretty much got Covid-19 sorted by figuring out how to do tracking and tracing in a way that was compatible with privacy concerns, and even increased the ability of citizens to hold their government to account. The Taiwanese parliament allowed the story to change by showing how tech can help a government be more responsive to and collaborative with its Citizens. It even found a way to control the spread of misinformation.

Examples of citizenship in action

1. Maybe the thing I find most exciting right now is that in the city-region of Brussels, they have just established a permanent citizens’ assembly with a specific remit to lead on climate action – a randomly selected, rotating group of citizens coming together to set the city’s climate agenda and ensure it’s followed through. It’s such an exciting example: our existing political systems clearly aren’t able to deal with the climate emergency; now there’s a city experimenting with an approach that could.

2. Another of my favourite examples is a campaign called Better Reykjavik. A group of game designers came together and built a platform where anyone could propose ideas for how the city of Reykjavik could be better. Then, one of the candidates in a mayoral election said that he would use it to build his campaign and then make it part of the city’s governance. He won the election and ten, 12 years on, it’s fully integrated into the governance of the city.

3. Coming from a more “bottom up” perspective, in Grimsby there’s an organisation called East Marsh United that I’ve been working with and chatting to and taking inspiration from for several years now. It started with people just getting frustrated at their town being called shit and their street being called shit and started with a litter pick… 16 people the first week, 30-odd people two weeks later. Five years on, and it’s an organisation with a fortnightly magazine, a six-monthly arts festival, and at the end of last year successfully closed a £500,000 community share offer to buy and refit ten houses and let them out as a social landlord. It’s this thing of ‘just pick home, find the others and decide where to start’. It evolves from there.

What’s so good about this?

Is there any way out of the mess we’re in? As Brian Eno puts it: “Equipped with the ideas in this book, what I now see is not just a climate emergency: it’s a civilisational opportunity.”

Jon Alexander will be speaking with Eno at the world’s first Earth Day Advertising Summit on 25 April, when a coalition of creatives reimagine what advertising needs to do to tackle the climate emergency – thanks to Purpose Disruptors.

Follow: jonalexander.net / @jonalex

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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