Cogito Ergo Sum: Croydon and the death of the ‘Big Idea’

By - Tuesday 7th April, 2015

Jonny Rose takes aim at postmodern cynicism, unimaginative councils, and boring Croydonians

Whatever happened to the ‘big idea’?

Once upon a time, an idea could ignite fires of debate, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.

An idea could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers: Albert Einstein, C.S. Lewis, Germaine Greer, Ayn Rand, Carl Sagan and Bertrand Russell, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology”, “the medium is the message”, “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory”, “the end of history”.

The implications of a borough that no longer thinks big are enormous. Ideas aren’t just intellectual playthings. They have practical effects.

It seems nowadays that we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetised are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them (the internet notwithstanding, obviouss). Bold ideas are almost passé.

The death of the big marketing idea

As Mad Men has taught us: marketing and advertising used to be about the single concept – the ‘big idea’ that conveyed brand values and resonated with the consumer.

Talented agency execs would sit around reviewing research, brainstorming in their war rooms and staying up all night drinking scotch so they could come up with the big one:

“Just do it”

“Because I’m worth it”

“Impossible is nothing”

These days the big-idea model has shifted to a series of smaller ideas, customised to a billion potential eyeballs across myriad digital and offline channels. There are glimmers here and there, but for the most part the age of the “single concept” across all media channels is outdated.

The death of the big political idea

British politics has seen a similar degeneration.

The decades after the war saw the emergence of something known as “consensus politics”: characterised as a belief in Keynesian economics, a mixed economy with the nationalisation of major industries, the establishment of the National Health Service and the creation of the modern welfare state in Britain. The policies were instituted by all governments (both Labour and Conservative) in the post-war period until the ‘big idea’ of the ‘New Right’ ushered in by Thatcher’s government.

Despite the ideological battles of the ’80s in Britain, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that it’s difficult to tell the big three political parties apart any more; Party A may spend a little more of your money or Party B may take a little less of it, but mostly the ‘big ideas’ that used to really distinguish them are not so big anymore – a neoliberal consensus has, by and large, set in.

The death of the big existential idea

The death of the big idea isn’t just a marketing or political tragedy – it’s one felt at an existential level, too.

We’re often told that we live in a postmodern world. My favourite definition of postmodernism is Jean-Francois Lyotard’s, which is “an incredulity towards metanarratives”. In simple terms, it means that there no longer exists a grand, overarching story that explains what is happening in society.

Metanarratives have historically ‘anchored’ us and given us each a sense of purpose, value and direction. Examples include the Enlightenment, where theorists believed that rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress; or feminism, which suggests that the patriarchy has systematically oppressed and subjugated women throughout history. The metanarrative I subscribe to – because it’s the correct one – is good, old-fashioned gospelicious Christianity.

Of course, nowadays we’re all too sophisticated to believe in such things: the result is the constant anxiety, malaise and relentless self-delusion of existentialism – living out the moment-by-moment sum of our choices in an absurd, meaningless universe.

Croydon needs its big idea

An article I read in the Croydon Guardian back in December reminded me of how desperately Croydon is in need of its own ‘big idea’.

The idea mooted by the council in the article to rename East Croydon Station to ‘Croydon Central’ to “help position Croydon as the economic capital of south-east England” is typical of an administration that is bereft of big ideas.

Wonderfully, we are starting to seeing the ideological vacuum being filled by Croydon citizens impressing their big ideas on the borough and seeing what sticks. Far from ideas having no practical effect, now is the opportunity for your immaterial opinions about Croydon to be worked into material change. As James Naylor argues here – the biggest danger for Croydon is that it becomes “boring”: an unremarkable, nebulous, idea-free town.

Croydon needs its ‘big idea’. I think I know what it should it be, but what do you think Croydon’s ‘big idea’ should be?

The next Croydon Tech City event takes place on Thursday 23rd April at 7:30pm at Matthews Yard. Meet Croydon entrepreneurs filled with ideas, be inspired yourself: sign up NOW.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Stephen Giles

    Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt!!