How to build a successful society; lessons from a blind Aussie teenager who invented a $5 note that’s worth more than $5.

5-dollar-noteHow inclusivity drives economic development

I read a headline last week about the new five dollar ($5) note which has recently been introduced in my home country of Australia. With hope, I thought that perhaps we had decided to remove the image of the queen from our currency but this was not to be.

Turns out, part of the new note was designed by a twelve-year old kid, Connor McLeod, who’s now fifteen. In his article for The Advertiser, originally titled The new $5 note that’s worth so much more Connor recounts how people had told him that “everyone thought it was ugly”. The thing was, as he jokes in his article, he couldn’t see for himself, literally, because he is blind.

The cool feature of the new fiver is that it has tactile markings on it so that blind and vision impaired people can tell the value of the note through touch. People with OK eyesights who say the note is ugly are missing the point because the note wasn’t designed for them, and people who have trouble telling a fiver from a fifty because of impaired sight might be inclined to consider it’s bright colours a beautiful thing. Connor is a real inspiration and he has a great story which I won’t recount now because you can read it in his article.

The new $5 note that’s worth so much more is a cleverly literal title for the article because even though both old and new banknotes both share a precise monetary value of $5, the new note is worth much more.

It’s worth more simply because it allows more people to do more things more efficiently and independently. In an accompanying video embedded within Connors article, he discusses some of the problems that vision impaired people can encounter when they can’t tell how much money they have in their wallet or how much money someone has given them.

The new $5 note which is worth more than the old $5 note made me think about the book Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson, in which the authors argue that this kind of inclusivity is key to a nation’s success. At the risk of perhaps oversimplifying their writings, they argue that nations which increasingly develop inclusive institutions, where more people benefit from the creation of wealth, will be more successful than nations which have institutions that are more extractive by nature, such as those that benefit a narrow milieu of society like it’s elites. Their findings are based on some fourteen years of study and dedicated historical analysis.

Connor writes about how he lobbied the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and of their initial refusal to print tactile bank notes. I used to work for the Prime Minister’s Department in Australia so I’ve seen first-hand how bureaucracy becomes the art of making the possible impossible, and the frightening degree to which the leaders of the current Australian Government have a decision making process which is, generally speaking, geared towards making Australian institutions more extractive to enrich themselves and those within their limited sphere.

For all of the Australian Government’s talk of increasing productivity, such as cutting penalty rates for example, it often overlooks how building a more inclusive society, socially and economically, also increases national productivity. Tactile bank notes will help a portion of society become more independent and more productive in one particular aspect of their lives, whilst expanding their opportunities, including economic ones. This is how value is created in society, and if you ask me, the main role of government is to create value for its constituents.

When calculated into dollar terms, it’s likely that the contribution that tactile bank notes will make to boosting Australian productivity would be minuscule in the grand scheme of things, but that’s not the point. As one reads through Why Nations Fail they learn that small changes can make big differences and that historically, small institutional differences have determined which nations became successful and which ones became basket-cases. One chapter is titled A small difference that mattered and another Small differences and critical junctures.

Australia has five bank notes, so changing one represents only a small change, but perhaps it’s the start of a gradual move to have all of the bank notes become tactile, and gradual change is nothing to be scoffed at, as Acemoğlu and Robinson write:

There is great virtue in this sort of gradual change. It is less threatening to the elite than the wholesale overthrow of the system. Each step is small, and it makes sense to give in to a small demand rather than create a major showdown.

The change in the $5 note represents a small change that was pushed through by a kid with a bit of gumption.  If we all took a leaf out of Connor’s book we could initiate a gazillion small or gradual changes that would eventually culminate to make Australia an inclusive economy and society, sowing the seeds of prosperity for our children and grandkids.

One person who is literally sowing the seeds of a better future for our kids through doing “the small things” is the Adelaide-based artist who goes by the name of Textile Warrior. Aware of the importance that bees play in the global ecosphere and concerned about the dangers that declining bee numbers pose to us all, Textile Warrior puts organically grown seeds inside small artfully designed envelopes and leaves them in carefully selected locations for passerby’s to collect (often making their day!). The seeds, when subsequently planted, produce flowering plants that help to increase local bee populations. The small monetary expense that’s incurred with the production of each Seeds for Bees packet is insignificant when compared to the real value that each packet delivers, and increased bee populations benefit all of us, even those who wouldn’t see any value in a project such as this one.

Textile Warrior’s weapon of resistance is crafting, or craftivism as it’s known when combined with activism, and as she pointed out in her recent Heartsy Talk:

“Crafting in any form can be an act of resistance… hand making itself opposes consumerism and choosing organic, fairly traded, thrifted, repurposed or vintage materials acknowledges the limited resources of our planet. The ethics of crafting itself are often centred around environmetalism, sustainability, human rights and anti-capitalism and tend to place people well before profits”.

She also provides some wise advice which might be helpful for people who are contemplating doing something small to make for a better world:

You shouldn’t dismiss your influence because it might seem small.

seeds-for-bees-hosierlane
Seeds for Bees by Textile Warrior. Hosier Lane, Melbourne Australia

We need more people like Textile Warrior. Sometimes we will need governments to help build inclusive institutions on our collective behalves, but sometimes we will be able to bypass governments altogether and build the institutions ourselves and increasingly new technologies are allowing us to do so. New technologies are also allowing people doing good “small things” to connect with others, build coalitions, automate operations and ultimately scale up their seemingly small and local projects into world changing ones.

They say that in a democracy the people get the government they deserve and whilst I don’t believe this is always the case, when it comes time to vote I suggest we all look to select people who are likely to create inclusive institutions rather than destroy them or create extractive ones. We need to look for leaders who can build real value in our communities and empower people. We need to dismiss those who reduce value and who seek to disempower portions of the community.

It appears to me that Australia is at a critical juncture. With the level of national debt rising alarmingly, the concept of building an economically inclusive society, let alone a socially inclusive one, doesn’t appear to be a concept that our elected conservative representatives can fathom.  You rarely hear our governing representatives talk about inclusivity in either an economic or social sense, but the stories of history as detailed in Why Nations Fail shouldn’t be ignored.

Can Australia commence a process that builds inclusivity? I reckon that this will depend on many people making many small differences that matter.

I nominate Connor McLeod for Australian of the year.

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