Ethos meets: Jon Alexander

Ethos meets: Jon Alexander

There’s power in numbers. Jon Alexander’s New Citizenship Project aims to shift the story of the individual in society from consumer to citizen – and his new book, Citizens, shows us why the key to fixing everything is… all of us. He chats to Andrew Beattie.




Andrew Beattie

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to the New Citizenship Project (NCP)

I started my career working in the advertising industry. I began asking myself deeper questions about what I was doing in the world. Advertising works from the starting assumption that people are lazy and selfish; that you have to appeal to individual self-interest in order to make anything happen in the world. The journey from there to NCP was an intellectual one, really, asking, ‘what are we doing? Do we have to start from that assumption?’

Businesses and government – and actually charities and civil society organisations – are trapped within what I’ve come to call ‘the consumer story’. All of them can achieve far more, both in big world ways and in the immediate term, by thinking of people differently.

It’s been quite a journey, starting at the coalface, as it were, of consumerism and deep in the story of people as selfish individuals, but then opening out and going, ‘actually, we can do much better and more interesting things if we work differently.’

How do people respond when you first present them with this, the idea of consumers and citizens?

Donella Meadows, who was the godmother of systems thinking, has this lovely phrase about how to work for fundamental change in the world. She said, “Don’t waste time on reactionaries and people who are going to fight it. Start with the people who are attracted to it and the huge middle ground of people who are open.” That’s been the journey. There are some people who look at you as if you’re mad and dismiss you as a naïve idealist, but we didn’t start there. I’m getting to them now though!

 Do you know Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene? Often, people refer to that as evidence that nature is inherently red in tooth and claw and we are selfish humans. It’s just not true. A friend of mine called Nichola Raihani wrote a book called The Social Instinct. She’s an evolutionary biologist. While you could say that genes are selfish in the sense that they want to be passed on, what she talks about is that – throughout the animal kingdom and throughout evolutionary history – arguably the most successful strategy at the level of the organism is cooperation, whether that’s meerkats or bees or monkeys or whatever.

When I first started working with these ideas in ad-land, one of my bosses said to me, “what you’ve got to remember, Jon, is that humans are just nasty monkeys, and consumerism is evolution.”

But this work and this way of working to change the world begins and ends with believing in people; believing in each other. Its easy to lose that faith because we look around us and all sorts of rubbish is going on, but I guess my thing is its the story thats failing. Its not humanity. Its the systems and the processes that were trapped in that are broken, not us. Seeing that and resiliently holding onto the belief in one another and going, Right. Okay. How do we find a way to create something that unleashes us?The work is about unleashing us, not about controlling us or channeling us or harnessing us or whatever.

The majority of the response we get when we start to share these ideas and share the tools we’re working with, is people go, ‘oh my god. Thank you. You’ve given me language and a set of tools that actually work with what I sort of knew to be true and a sort of discomfort I had with what I was doing in the world.’ We sometimes talk about it as a veil that drops. It’s like, ‘oh, cool. We can actually be us now.’

"Businesses and government – and actually charities and civil society organisations – are trapped within what I’ve come to call ‘the consumer story."

Have we reached a point in the consumer story where we’re at its limit?

Yes, but there’s also something else happening now. In Citizens, I talk about the subject story and the authoritarian idea. I use the language of ‘subject’ as in subjects of the king – the ‘little people’ who should keep their heads down and do as they’re told while the god-given few lead us to the best outcome. The idea of the subject story is where the bargain is protection in return for obedience. In times of uncertainty and danger, it rises.

Frankly, until March 2020, I would’ve framed it exactly as you just did. The consumer story was running out of road, was reaching the end of the extent of its useful life and its own contradictions were starting to undermine it. Now, we’re living in a time where that collapse of the consumer story is happening and it has happened to a large extent. The moment in time we’re living in now is one where, actually, all three of those stories: the subject, the consumer, and the citizen story, are in play. That’s what the rise of authoritarianism represents, around the world, and here in the UK.

Working from the ‘citizen story’ is this idea that there is another approach available. We have the tools and the processes that could allow us to tap into the ideas and energy and resources of everyone. It’s precisely by doing that, in the face of these complex poly-crises, as someone called it who I spoke with the other day, that’s actually the only vaguely believable, vaguely credible way that we can get through this. We need everyone on the pitch.


What is the role for business in this movement?

One of the worries I have about using the language ‘consumer’ in the negative sense I do is that it tends to make people think that business doesn’t have a role – and business absolutely does. Business can invite people in. Purposeful business – a business that has an idea of what it’s trying to do in the world in service of which it’s making profit – has a vitally important role in this.

The default is to start in this mindset of people as consumers and think that the business is the hero, and the only thing people can do is buy from a business. But if you start by going, ‘what’s this business actually trying to do in the world? It’s trying to support local economies or it’s trying to be a champion of young activists – in the case of The Body Shop, for example – and then ask, ‘what would it look like to involve people in that work?’ You can sell products as part of that. Selling people products is often a way of inviting them to participate, but it’s only one way.

We have a set of idea prompts we call the ‘Seven Modes of Everyday Participation’ – things like ‘tell stories’ or ‘gather data’ or ‘share connections’ or ‘learn skills’ – little prompts to say to a business or a charity “what if you think of people as potential participants and see consuming as one way of participating among many, rather than be only one?” That’s really the invitation.

"Selling people products is often a way of inviting them to participate, but it’s only one way."

Tell us a little bit about the business and the work that you do

The New Citizenship Project is essentially a consulting business. We like to say we help organisations do stuff better because we think of people differently. If you think of people as consumers, the only ideas that you ever come up with are transactions when people buy from you. If you think of people as citizens, you start by asking, ‘what are we trying to do in the world?’ And then you ask, ‘how can people help?’ And then your organisation enters into relationship with people, instead of them just buying from you.

What we’ve done off the back of that is everything from designing participatory democracy processes for councils (and even the Government of Jersey) to doing new product development processes for businesses like Cook and The Body Shop. We’ve done big strategy processes with charities like the National Trust or Parkinson’s UK, that are really about reframing their entire relationship with the people formerly known as ‘supporters’, as ‘participants’ instead.

The Parkinson’s project is one of the pieces of work that’s touched me most. When you step back and think about it, that organisation was founded as a way for people affected by Parkinson’s disease to come together and it became a professionalised charity treating people as recipients of services rather than participants in the work and making something better. In doing that, the risk is that you limit people’s agency when that’s almost the worst symptom of Parkinson’s – having your agency limited. My father-in-law had Parkinson’s, and actually, one of the biggest things he wanted was to be able to be useful and needed. That’s humanity. And when you start from that assumption, you get to a very different place and there’s a lot of value to be had there – all kinds of human value, of financial value, are generated by doing that.

Want to become an active citizen? Here’s your Citizenship toolkit:

Inspired by the idea of citizenship? We asked Jon about the process of getting started on your citizen journey. This is what he had to say.

  • First, decide what the domain is that you want to apply this stuff to


  • The second step is find the others, because the nature of being a citizen is that you’re a citizen with other people


  • Step three is get together and decide what you’re going to do first


Jon says: “I sometimes phrase the first step as, ‘where’s home for you? What’s the community?’ The word ‘home’ makes it sound like a geographic thing and it often is. It’s often like, ‘I want to make Liverpool better…’ – but it can also be your workplace or a club or whatever it is that you’re really committed to. Choose something. Go, ‘right. This is the domain of which I’m going to be a citizen.’”

That recipe applies in lots of different places and in lots of different contexts. It could be geographical, or “a group of employees in a company getting together and going, ‘we’re going to challenge the leadership in this company as to whether we should work with fossil fuels or not and fossil fuel companies or not,’ like a gang of employees at McKinsey did,” he says.

“The most difficult initial response from people, actually – and the one I’m most worried by – is people in positions of power who have the ‘right’ motives. That’s a loaded word, but people who want to make the world better, but are trapped in the idea that they need to do it for people and this hero complex that comes out of that.

“I’m less worried about the fascists than I am about the people who think that they’re going to save us from the fascists. It’s precisely that mindset of doing it for people – saving people –that is going to push people into the arms of the subject story of the authoritarian and the fascist. There’s a lovely Terry Pratchett quote that speaks to that. He said something like, ‘you can’t build a better world for people. People have to build a better world for themselves, otherwise it’s just a cage.’

“The key challenge for me – the key audience for me – is those people in positions of power in organisations, to help them. I say it with a laugh because I know that, to have gotten to those positions within the existing systems, you have to have been able to do stuff for people. That’s how you’ve been conditioned. But the act that this moment needs – and those people too – is an act of opening up and inviting people in and holding challenges together, rather than having the hero complex.”



Jon shares some examples of citizenship in action:

Ideas for a better Reykjavik

One 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.

Citizen power in Brussels

In Brussels, they have a deliberative committee set up, which is partly made up of elected councillors and partly made up of randomly-selected citizens who delve into an issue and make a recommendation. As a result, those recommendations have become a lot more famous and a lot more legitimate because randomly-selected citizens are involved in them and can tell the stories of them.

From litter picking to housing in Grimsby

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. Four years on, and it’s an organisation with a fortnightly magazine, a six-monthly arts festival, and it just 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.

Ethos meets: Jon Alexandra is featured in issue 17 of Ethos magazine. If you enjoyed what you read online, issue 17 is packed with innovation, inspiration and global good business stories. Grab your copy now!

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