We asked Austin Williams to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
The idea that progress is a universal, not a relative concept. It’s not exactly a new idea as Marx and Mill got there a long time before me, but it’s worth reclaiming. I’m working through my understanding that overcoming natural barriers and defending political autonomy; material improvement, liberty and labour efficiency are fundamental to moving society forward.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
The Big Society and its promotion of ‘localism’ has exercised my mind greatly – not in a good way, you understand. If we want to be politically-informed, critical, opinionated, truly engaged, and genuinely active citizens – in the sense that we become subjects rather than objects of history – then we have to move beyond local concerns.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
There are many but I’ve just finished reading Ferraris For All: In defence of economic progress by Daniel Ben-Ami which is a left-wing challenge to what the author describes as ‘growth scepticism’. As we enter the new age of austerity, he says, ‘the temptation will be to focus on curbing consumption rather than raising production’. Arguing for ‘more’ is an inspirational starting point.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
Unfortunately, future generations will not thank us for sustainability and the precautionary principle – that constantly tell us to rein in experimentation and innovation, allegedly, for their benefit. Imagine what we would have thought of the Victorians if they had environmentally risk-assessed the potential of their age – industrialization, motorized transport and non-renewable power in order to prioritise nature and ‘save’ future generations.
Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project, founder of the Architecture & Design Winter School and producer at NBS TV. He is the author of The Enemies of Progress and is currently writing Better Cities: Better Life. He runs the Bookshop Barnies at Foyles and has written for a range of magazines and newspapers: from The Times Literary Supplement to Top Gear, from New Humanist to The Tablet.