In 2012, New York was pummelled by Superstorm Sandy: a wall of wind and water that would kill at least 53 people, cut power to large parts of the city, and flood the subway and most of Manhattan’s road tunnels.
As the federal authorities struggled to respond, messages started appearing on Facebook asking for space to cook food and help with building a website. The rump of the Occupy movement, which had so spectacularly camped out in Zucotti Park the previous year, was starting to turn itself into a disaster relief operation. Over the following months, a scheme that hoped to recruit about 40 volunteers ballooned into a 60,000 strong operation. Where government was failing, the anarchists were stepping into the breach.
Disasters are highly unusual times, but the Occupy movement still teaches us a simple lesson: where government fails, ordinary people can sometimes devise better alternatives for themselves. Across the globe we can see similar examples of citizens taking on public assets, reinventing public services and hacking the urban environment. At a time when city governments are under huge pressure, the idea that the people themselves might be able to drive innovation from the outside-in is hugely appealing.
The problem is that most people simply do not have time to make this kind of contribution to their cities. People are simply too busy to create the new urban commons.
But over the past few months we have seen the revival of an old idea that might unlock huge change. The universal basic income (UBI) is a radically fresh way of thinking about welfare. Instead of having a benefits system which imposes complex conditions on recipients, a UBI simply pays an unconditional flat amount of money to everyone.
It is an idea whose time may have come. Dutch cities are clamouring to run pilots; the Finnish government is discussing how a form of UBI could be implemented; and in the past week, the UK has seen the publication of a major study into the idea from the RSA.
There is a lot to recommend UBI. It would massively simplify the benefits system, render much of the Department for Work & Pensions obsolete, and provide everyone in the country with a basic level of security that might help empower them to leave a bad job or an abusive partner. Under the RSA’s plan, most working age people would receive £3,692 a year as a right of citizenship, with a higher payment for pensioners and lower ones for children and under-25s. Housing and incapacity benefits would continue to be paid separately from the core basic income.
At a time when many people are concerned about a labour market being transformed by automation and the huge rise in self-employment, the appeal of UBI is obvious. This is a welfare system which recognises that many short periods of unemployment might become a feature of the British economy, rather than a moral failing on the part of the individual claimant.
But from the perspective of the city, the key benefit is the time and energy that UBI might unleash. Some people might choose to use their annual payment to watch more television – but if even a few percent of the population engage in Occupy-style activism, then that might represent a renaissance of civic life.
The Italian city of Bologna is starting to create something approaching a mass movement for the commons, bringing citizens into the management of public assets and spaces. Imagine that movement turbo-charged by the free time and enthusiasm unleashed by a basic income.
There is no such a thing as a magic bullet for the challenges cities face. The pressures of growing populations, falling funding and pressurised infrastructure require a wide range of solutions. But we can probably all agree that a new wave of civic activism is part of the answer. Will UBI unlock it? I suspect we are going to find out very soon.
Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network and author of “Taking Power Back: putting people in charge of politics”, available from Amazon.