The RSA – Inspiring 250 Years Progress

The RSA – Inspiring 250 Years Progress

On September 14, 2020, Long Now Boston welcomed Dr. Anton Howes, historian of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) for a conversation on the 250-year history of the RSA.  The RSA has demonstrated that non-profit, public interest organizations can live a long time – but they have to reinvent themselves constantly in the face of rapid social, cultural and technological change.  And they also have to have a powerful core vision.  For the RSA it is:

“Everyone is able to participate in creating a better future.”

Summary by George Gantz for Long Now Boston


In its 250+ year history, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) had many opportunities to reflect and re-energize. The COVID pandemic, like many challenges that have come before, is just one more.  Anton Howes knows these stories of renewal and survival well, having recently completed the RSA’s definitive history, “Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.” (May 2020.)  Founded in 1754 in a London coffee house by William Shipley and other members of London society, the RSA has been dedicated to the betterment of British (now global) life and culture. Since the beginning, the Society has championed innovative, practical solutions to social challenges. With only minimal infrastructure and no fixed mission, it has consistently supported creative innovations and inspired change through its network of volunteers, the RSA Fellows (FRSA)  That network now includes 30,000 individuals worldwide and represents a wide range of skills and backgrounds.  (NB: Two of the Long Now Boston leadership team, Bill Davison and George Gantz, are recent Fellows of the RSA.)

Creative Inspiration

A small group of people can influence social change — but it requires exceptional and inspiring communication.  One of the RSA’s most successful communication tools in recent years has 

been the award-winning animated “shorts” they have produced on a wide range of topics.  During the event, Long Now Boston shared the video “Knowledge:  What do we need to know?” In a world of vast scientific and technological advancement, there is much yet we do not know.  But one thing should be clear to all of us:  “Being nice to people matters!”

Anton shared many stories of the RSA’s creative inspiration.  In the 19th century, Britain was in danger of being eclipsed by France in the race for scientific and technological advancement.  The RSA was able to spearhead the incredibly popular International Exhibition of 1862, with 28,000 exhibitors from 36 countries.  It was held in South Kensington, London, on the site now occupied by the Natural History Museum, and attracted some 6.1 million visitors. Some refer to it as the first world’s fair.

A century earlier, England was facing a problem with deforestation, as the economic incentives for farming had, for centuries, outpaced the incentives for forestry.  Timber was increasingly imported, draining gold from the British coffers and causing concern for the independence of the British navy: a typical warship at the time required some 3,000 trees! The RSA considered setting up an investment pool or cooperative (tools they had previously used), but then deployed a simpler solution.  Medals were offered for those in the landed gentry for planting trees.  The RSA sold the program on nobility’s image of themselves as sacred custodians of the land, stressing the  patriotic aims and selflessness of investing for posterity.  But, by appealing to the desire for social standing, the RSA leveraged a potent cultural incentive.  Over the following decades the medal winners altogether planted at least 60 million trees – perhaps the largest global carbon sequestration project in history.

In the last two decades, the RSA had been challenged by the divestment of its independent professional examination arm, which had, for nearly a century, provided a secure income stream, at the cost of a decline in membership and innovation.  Under the new leadership of Matthew Taylor, the RSA has sought to renew its relevance and expand its global network, with a focus on design and innovation, using the latest communication media and creative methods.  Matthew Taylor has recently indicated he will be stepping down, but this latest chapter of the RSA has yet to be written.


The Long Now Foundation was founded 25 years ago (and Long Now Boston a mere 5), with the mission to foster long-term thinking. A relative newcomer to the concept and practice of being a long-lived organization, there are some things we can we learn from our RSA predecessors:

  • maintain a multi-disciplinary approach.  
  • focus on changing the institutions and the disincentives that impede social progress, rather than attacking problems with brute force.  
  • be action oriented, but incorporate principles of long-term thinking in those actions – you can’t fix the problem unless you understand the system that created it.
  • take advantage of opportunities when they arise
  • be passionate and persuasive
  • have fun  

That book has yet to be written.


Dr Anton Howes is the historian of the RSA, and head of innovation research at The Entrepreneurs Network, where he translates his research into practical policy proposals. Prior to this, he was lecturer (assistant professor) in Economic History at King’s College London, and before that was a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University. He received his PhD in 2016 from King’s College London. His recent book, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation, tells the story of Britain’s subscription-funded national improvement agency, the RSA. Anton is now writing a book on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution, focusing on the hundreds of individual inventors and innovators who made it possible, and the institutions they created to keep it going.  Anton regularly shares his research on the history of innovation at his newsletter, Age of Invention. He is @antonhowes on Twitter.

About the RSA:

From its beginnings in a coffee house in the mid-eighteenth century, the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has tried to improve British life in every way imaginable. It has sought to influence how Britons work, how they are educated, the music they listen to, the food they eat, the items in their homes, and even how they remember their own history. Arts and Minds is the remarkable story of an institution unlike any other-a society for the improvement of everything and anything.   This ambitious organization has evolved and adapted, constantly having to reinvent itself to keep in step with changing times. The Society has served as a platform for Victorian utilitarian reformers, purchased and restored an entire village, encouraged the planting of more than sixty million trees, and sought technological alternatives to child labor.  Society’s members have been drawn from across the political spectrum, including Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela, David Attenborough, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, and Tim Berners-Lee, as well as historical figures Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Karl Marx. 

The original event posting is here.

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