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Hilary Cottam:
the future is hiding under a pebble

Hilary is a gifted maker and a thinker, blessed with a formidable mind, deep heart and fierce passion. She thinks to make, and makes to think, and her craft is helping communities design their own solutions to the challenges they face. When Hilary works with people for the first time, she asks them to draw maps of their lives. Every map is a zig-zag. Our lives, she says, are ones of constant transition but all our systems see us climbing up long straight ladders. Hilary birthed the concept of ‘Radical Help’ to build a future in which people can live and work as a whole human being – loving, caring, playing, learning and working.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


So I’m sitting here looking out into the garden with my 15 year old daughter, Mabel. Hello, Mabel. Hello. We’re looking at a rose bush that I planted when you were tiny, and now it’s grown up so beautifully so every morning you can wake up and see the roses. So, hello Mabel you’re going to interview me aren’t you. 

Mabel: Yes. So you start because you have to talk abou what you’ve done, your exercise. 

Hilary: Oh, okay. So, um, well, every morning I get up and I do yoga in the garden…

In terms of the emotions that steer the course of my life, I mean, it’s, it is a course of emotion really. It’s a course of friendship, and love. I mean, I suppose just at some very simple level, thinking that I’m very blessed in those emotions and how could we build a world in which everybody is blessed in that same way. I really believe that it is the bonds and the connections between us that determine our lives. And those bonds can become very, very complicated if you don’t have, you know, love, isn’t all you need. If you don’t have the kind of material surroundings and you’re kind of battling, I mean, just parenting when you’ve got, you know, you have to do two jobs to earn enough, to try and feed your children. That makes that, that sort of flow of love much more complex. And I see many parents that do that and I’m full of admiration. I think if there’s a motto for my work, it’s, it’s really take care of everyone. I really want to know about how we can build things that are deeply relational and reconnect us to one another, to our inner selves. 

We know that who we know determines what kind of work we’ll get and how we progress in that work. And we know that relationships are sort of… relationships and opportunities are kind of hoarded by certain classes of people, races of people too. And that makes it very, very difficult. We have to think about how it actually design interconnections in, you know, there’s a kind of big thing at the moment around kindness. And obviously I’d like to think of myself as kind, and I’d like to think that, you know, we’re all kind to one another, but you know, it has to slice through as well. There has to be, there has to be something that, that can also in the sort of in the way we think about these things in the way we work with these things that can see the kind of power structures as well, that are kind of blocking emotions, blocking love, blocking our connections to one another.  And we have to be able to work with that to make lasting change. 

I think the thing that’s most overwhelming is that I work in places that are struggling materially, where perhaps the economy is broken, there isn’t enough good work, But the amount of love and solidarity and power and potential is really, really humbling every single time. And so I suppose that’s, you know, on one level, that’s why I’m working in the way that I’m working, because I arrive and I think, well, what is there here that we can use to make something new? And that’s what that’s, what’s there, the connections, the bonds, the emotions. Hope. Often in kind of face of great adversity.  

Mabel: So obviously I know what you did, like when you were younger with your PhD. And I think that works really cool, but I sort of don’t know what you do on like a daily basis. So I leave school and then I don’t really know what happens. Like I have no idea what you actually do. 

Hilary: Maybe I do nothing… That’s a really good question. So I suppose it’s really changed in the last few years. So for 10 years I ran this organisation called Participle – and you remember all the people that used to come here for parties, but I don’t know if that’s really what you’re asking. Are you asking for more detail about how my work is?

Mabel: Not really, but that’s sort of about, that’s a couple of years ago when your book came out. So like, I mean, what will you do, not necessarily tomorrow, but just like over the past couple of weeks, or like even before we got into lockdown, maybe? Because it’s obviously changed from lockdown, but what were you sort of doing in those couple of weeks before lockdown?  

Hilary: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So now of course I have, I’m really lucky. I’ve got my little studio space in the levels in the car park, in Peckham, and this year, 2020, I started a new project about work. And what I’m interested in is how we can design good work in this century because we know that lots of things that defined good work before like paid holidays or decent wages are disappearing. So we have to think about how we can get those things back. But also I think with the technology revolution and the kind of huge wealth that is created, I mean, of course that wealth isn’t evenly distributed, but it should be possible for everybody to have a different working life. So I suppose part of the time I’ve been putting together a proposal to raise money…

Mabel: So what does that entail?

Hilary: To imagine the future, we’ve really got to be able to disrupt some of the kind of fixed things that channel that guide us in a particular direction, even without thinking about it. And I think that the conception, the modern conception of time of progress, of course, which is deeply linked with it, um, we have to disrupt it. And we have to see at least that it’s extremely recent. Even if it seems like a kind of fixed idea, it’s part of a kind of modernist industrial common sense that is going to not be there any longer in the future we’re creating. 

As lots of us know the ancient Greeks had two sorts of time: Chronos, which was the, the clock time. The time that we’ve celebrated in the modern era, and Kairos, which is spiritual time, flow time. It’s the time we experience when we’re immersed in something on a walk, doing yoga, perhaps playing with a small child, when we are in the flow of that activity and unaware of the passing of the Chronos time.  One of the biggest challenges they had in the industrial revolution was imposing Kronos time on their workforce. This idea that you had to be punctual, clock on, clock off. If you’re on a production line, you have to finish your bit to pass to somebody else. It’s a completely different idea of craft time, where you just make this thing and you fashion it and you work with it through the stages until it’s done. That is much more closely linked to Cistercian time, to Kairos time. But Kronos time, you know, you arrive at the factory gates and you do your repetitive task as fast as you can to Chronos. And then you leave. And this was so alien to people who’d grown up through a craft tradition that it was actually incredibly difficult to impose on the workforce. So there were lots of experiments undertaken in factories as to how to encourage people to adhere to Kronos time. 

Henry Ford, you know, we think of industrialism as Fordism, you know, where Ford’s factories were, where mass production was, became a science where everything, especially in the huge factory, where everything was experimented on. And of course he had the same problems. And so he set up these family inspection units. I think he had 50 workers and they visited the households of every worker in the Ford factory. And they wanted to check on all kinds of things, they inspected everything, you know – what was the state of your marriage? How clean was your home? And really critically, could you adhere to time? Were you ordered, in a Chronos time sense? And Ford raised the wages only for those families and workers or the workers, you know, for those families who could adhere to this kind of set of core concepts that the families inspected. One of which was time. 

I’m really conscious in my work, how the idea of time drives care and learning in particular. I mean, this idea that schools are ordered according to our age, you know, you, you have to do things only with people from your age. You have to sit in a period for only 40 minutes. You have to kind of pass on literally when the bell goes, as if you’re in a factory. And then you have to have a test at a certain point as if you’re a product and then you can pass the next set of time. And that, that we think that this education can fit into this, I find this an extraordinary idea, and yet it’s become common sense. And somebody with care for another, you know, care has become a service. And it’s become a service that in this country has to be delivered in 10 minutes slots. You can get to somebody’s house. You can read my note by door. White flannel for the face, blue flannel for the bottom. And then you can kind of ‘deliver’ care. You can fill out your form and you can leave in 10 minutes and move on to the next person that you’re supposed to care for. And, you know, I think of care as something in the gift economy, or in the craft economy. It’s not something in the Chronos economy. And yet we find it really hard to rethink how to design it because we have, because although we sort of think about the bits of care, we don’t, we don’t meddle with that bigger kind of framework of, of Chronos of, of the clock time, the modern factory time. And until we undo that modern factory time, I don’t think we can really think about how we care and nurture for one another.  

I went through about 10 rewrites and then a foundation agreed to support the work. And then after that, this year really I’ve been out in community. So I’ve been in East Ayrshire. I mean, you haven’t liked it cause I’ve been away a lot haven’t I. And so I’ve been, uh, in Kilmarnock and then in Barrow, sort of living in staying there. And what I did was I sort of pitched myself there for a week and a couple of days a week, I would run workshops, which I’ve designed to kind of work with small groups of people in different forms of work, like people who are carers or nurses. I worked in the BAE systems, um, factory in Barrow, where they built the nuclear weapons. 

Mabel: That’s cool. Not, not British Airways? 

Hilary: No British, British Aerospace Systems, um, and anyway, working with different, different people, but also just being in the community, um, and asking people who wanted to meet me or had community projects and would like advice…

So I’m going to talk about the future, I think, on this Sunny morning. And I thought I would offer 10, maybe, I don’t know what’s going to come, but 10 short meditations on the future. The future is actually already here. It’s kind of under a pebble where you might not see it or lurking in a corner or in a place in our country that perhaps very few people actually go and visit and isn’t presented in the common picture. Perhaps in Dorstone, in Herefordshire, or in Barrow. And I think that the future has speeded up in the last 10 years, perhaps whilst the power in the centre wasn’t looking, everybody got on with reinventing. Whether it was ideas, um, or whether it was actual practice. I love the work of Lucy Neal and her kind of radical artistic practice. And she tells us to be more earthworm that it’s the earthworms that are going to make the difference in the future, but we’ve just got to be in there. It’s very humble turning the earth over, but then things are ready to grow. And of course, Gramski says, everybody wants to be the person with the spade, but actually we need to be more earthworm. I think of it like turning inside out of pocket, that all those amazing ideas and practices that are more generative that give everybody more of a chance to kind of grow and thrive and reach for the sky in a way that doesn’t deplete the beauty that we have, that that is the future. And so the question is how we can take it from under the pebble in that corner and move it from margin to centre.  

I think whenever we design something, we cut it around an image of the human. So when we design a dress, we have a kind of human body in mind and we cut the dress on that body or the pair of trousers or whatever it is. And for a very long time, we’ve designed our economic and our social systems around a pattern of the human, which is very blunted. I guess that’s the pattern that people call Homo Economicus, you know, the rational human man, he’s self maximising, he’s rational. He just wants to kind of get on and get, you know, as much sort of material wealth as he can, but the design parts and we’re going to design around now in the future. I call her Sapiens Integra, and it’s about being an integral human being. I mean, above all, what we’ve learned from anthropology, from biological science, from social sciences from so much work over the last decades, is that what characterises us is something that actually we’ve known from time immemorial, which is that humans want to connect. That above all we want to kind of associate with one another. We want to be alongside one another. We’re like big trees that grow and they grow by kind of connecting their roots to one another. And that kind of deep interconnection in their roots allows each one of those trees to stand tall and to grow tall. Humans are like that. So in the future, this will be just an implicit unspoken understanding that this is the pattern we’re cutting around. We’re so multi-dimensional, and we can now think in all those dimensions and design around all those dimensions and that’s it, that’s the future that’s going to be here.  

We have this kind of endless discussion about whether change comes top-down or bottom-up. Of course, it’s both. I mean, if we don’t have those with power at the center and the top thinking really differently, nothing much can happen, but at the same time, we know that things have got to grow bottom up. We know that everything grows from a seed and it starts deep in the roots and then it emerges through the soil. And this is how change happens. In the future we’re going to think about change that happens sideways-out because we’re going to think all the time about how we horizontally connect to one another and how we keep moving. That’s really whether that’s as kind of the new humans that we are to growing and developing or whether it’s the way we think critically about how we design institutions. And I like to think about these institutions we have now in the future, they’re designed like bits of jigsaw puzzle. So each one has a little kind of a little cut in and a little cut out that can kind of connect to another piece. And of course that’s how we grow. And that’s how we kind of evolved not in a sort of old way, which was a sort of idea of industrial scale. And we’ve got a solution and now we can build big machines and kind of just cookie cutter it out. But instead about thinking, um, all we can, you know, in the old way, we can take things over. Now we can think about how we can connect and how we’re designed institutionally as well as humanly in order to meet those sort of interlacing things that enable us to be greater than the sum of our parts.  

The old world, the world that we’re emerging out of, there was the economy, it was all about material growth, GDP above all, how much could we produce? And then perhaps some social systems that either allowed us to be the cogs and the production wheel to get the right education. Or as I said, sort of bandage us up if we kind of fell out of it for any reason, but now we’re going to think really differently about generative, social and economic systems, which means we need to think about how we use resource very differently. I mean, very much rooting ourselves in the work of Kate Raworth and her brilliant doughnut economics, and also reaching back to ideas of the past. You know, the Anglo-Saxon word wealth meant life. We’re going to live in these systems, which are designed to support us to live rather than designed to grow economic wealth. Of course we need to produce because otherwise we can’t eat and play and love and so on, but we can do that in a way that is generative. And that’s what we’re going to do. And we’re going to particularly think about new forms of social economy that can support the social systems we need. 

As part of my work I ask people to draw a map of their lives and I asked them to put their personal lives and their working lives and their learning lives and everybody’s lives are extremely up and down. Everybody who draws for me, um, it’s very open and the graphs move in kind of great zigzags. And it’s always very striking to me because in the old world, we had this idea of kind of stability and that people had stable lives. And then if they fell into trouble, they could perhaps have a welfare system or, you know, that would pick them up. It would offer them a bit of support if they were unwell or if they were out of work, but lives aren’t like that, real lives, especially alive lives where it’s kind of bumpy, we’re open to things and that’s kind of difficult. So I think in every way, we’re going to design for transition emotionally, economically. And of course it’s particularly important thinking about a kind of transition to a generative green future that we’re kind of, well, hopefully in as I talk this, but definitely moving towards, and that needs support for people to move, and particular support for women because we know that we’re always the ones left behind looking after children, relatives, still in this 21st century. And it’s harder for us to think about learning or training. It’s always a thing that we dream of that’s lost on the left until perhaps we’re kind of quite tired when I think about social systems, which has caused what, what I work on, the the most important thing is that all these systems are designed to  grow our capability rather than meet our needs. And that’s just so important because the idea of a needs-based system is that when you fall over, I will patch you up. I will offer you the band-aid. And the idea of a preventative system is I’ll try to stop you falling over. I’ll kind of manage the risk of you falling over. But a capability  system is completely different because what it says is that all of us are like that seed with all that immense possibility inside us. And that what we can do is we can design systems that genuinely allow for every single person to kind of grow and develop that capability across all the different dimensions that I’ve been talking about, about the kind of human that has got so many dimensions around kind of relationships around play around, work around, learning, around being with one another. And this capability system is about a really fundamental shift in power. And, and that’s really important because the capability framework, which was originally designed by the philosopher, Martha Nussbaum and the, uh, Nobel prize, winning economist and Amartya Sen and it asked this really simple question, which is, what can you really be and do? And that question, which is so simple is so much about power, because what it says is what have you been taught to think you can do? Do you think you can do everything or have you been told you can’t do things and can you do things really? Or do you live somewhere where, for instance, it’s very hard to find good work or very hard to find good food. So it takes the internal and the external and the structural, and it considers both of those together and then thinks very practically, what are we going to do now? Because we have to continue to address this. The world’s dynamic. It’s not that we solve poverty once and for all, or we become equal once and for all, we have to kind of be alive to all these differences constantly. And the capability approach can allow us to grow. And it can allow us to grapple with these really fundamental ideas about distribution of resource, redistribution of resource and power. Transitions are always kind of uncomfortable and bumpy. We kind of might know where we’re going, or we might not, we certainly don’t know how it’s going to feel. And I think we need to think much more about how we support people to transition.

The future is about radical different economic thinking – which is coming from people like Carlota Perez, Mariana Mazzucato, Stephanie Kelton – and then thinking about how a different form of social economy can then support the social infrastructure we need. And so I think we can think again about what work can be like, what is good work for who, for under what conditions and in particular, I’m very interested in what I’m doing now in creating the future work, thinking about the integration of work and care. I mean, they’re two sides of the same coin. We need to be able to care and we want to be able to work. And so they can’t be seen as they are sort of in the old economy as things that play off against each other. And at the moment I’m working in communities, across Britain, asking people what they think good work would be like. And it’s amazing, everybody produces really multidimensional maps that have on them time outside in nature, time with relatives, time with friends, all sorts of different things, culture, art, everywhere I go. And then I ask people, I give them a blank tablecloth, and I asked them to design a work organisation that would enable this to be, and everywhere, different people – I’m working with welders with grave diggers, with young university professors very different sorts of people – and lots of common themes are coming out about what good work is. And it’s very much rooted in place. It balances a kind of much broader idea of well-being and purpose within the work. So I think that this is a sort of pillar of the future that we’re in.

Again, sort of looking back, we’ve had in sort of something we developed after the last industrial revolution, which was this hierarchy that it’s so much about verticals that we’re going to make into kind of new sort of horizontals, generative horizontals. And one of those most sort of important hierarchies that we had was this idea of thinking at the top, making and doing somewhere at the bottom. So you could kind of produce an idea and somebody else would make it for you. And well, there’s just so much wrong with that, that’s kind of what we, we saw and now in this future that we aren’t bringing with us. So one of the things is where ideas are made. Of course, they’re made through making and doing, and, and through thinking through that doing, and it’s a sort of circular process. It isn’t a kind of a vertical process. We’ve also seen that for things to work, particularly socially and to have meaning, we need to make them in place. So of course, you know, again, to go back to the design pattern and we might have a design pattern, I might have a lovely dress pattern, but I’m allowed to choose the fabric. You know, I want to wear florals and you want to wear stripes, or, you know, I live somewhere where kind of tweed is the appropriate fabric and you live somewhere where a linen is the appropriate fabric. I mean, I’m not sure that the metaphor really works, but I think what is really important is that the future is made and it’s made in place and it’s made by us. 

And so again, when we think about institutions, we have to think about what are the institutions that enable this local making. It’s about tools, and it’s about bits that I can use, dismantle, reuse and make again and again, I think that’s going to, we’re going to have such a different idea now about what innovation is, and it is about that reuse and remaking. So also when we think about the kind of technology that we’ll need, it isn’t about us uploading our data into something in a cloud somewhere that will then tell us what to do. It’s about apps in our hands that we can use to kind of create our futures. And again, this is about a really, really important shift in power. Of like, us with the tools to create and to make this future, which we’re already standing in – some of us with two feet and some of us with only one – but we’re kind of moving towards it so fast I think. Which isn’t to say that it won’t still be hard won, we need to kind of collaborate and, um, we need to make it. You know, I work on the welfare state and it’s really striking that, you know, in the sort of 1940s, the early part of the 20th century, Hayak the sort of godfather of neo-liberalism and Beverage, the architect of the welfare state were both teaching LSE students at the same time. So we always have these competing ideals, but the more that we can see the future that’s hiding under that pebble, the more that we can be part of making it the more we can tell us stories about it, the faster we move into this future, which actually is, is already around us. It’s the kind of waters that we’re swimming in.  

One thing I’ve learned is that you are a bit intimidated by the microphone because you’re usually so, chatty, I thought you would be chatting away about everything, but you’re, you’re not, you’re not full of your usual suggestions, creations…

Mabel: Yeah but people I don’t know are going to be listening to this, it sort of freaks me out. 

Hilary: I know, you have to pretend it’s not there. 

Mabel: Yeah. But I can’t cause also would not talk to you about this kind of stuff. So it’s hard. 

Hilary: Well thank you very much. I’m very grateful to you. 

Mabel: All right. Cool.