On 16 April we launched the Bennett Institute for Public Policy with a conference bringing together policy-makers and academics to discuss some of the most pressing public policy issues facing governments and populations around the world.

As our mission statement puts it, one of the major goals of the Institute is to ‘to rethink public policy in an era of turbulence and growing inequality’.

The theme of the first panel of the day – an auspiciously sunny day here in Cambridge – was therefore poverty and inequality. Stefan Dercon began the conversation by reviewing global progress on reducing poverty in the 20th century. There have been remarkable advances in reducing extreme poverty, usually attributed to economic growth. If we are to see similar progress in the 21st century, Stefan argued, there are three essential elements: peace and stability; a mature state; and a commitment by political elites to progress.

Similar topics were reflected in Ian Mitchell’s talk. He examined the necessary policy frameworks for reducing global inequality, particularly in relation to trade, intellectual property and migration. He also explored the current context in which these policies are being made and asked what impact the rising tide of nationalism and populism might have on the potential for development.

Keetie Roelen asked us to consider another aspect of poverty – the psychosocial dimension. How do feelings of shame and disrespect impact the ability of those who are disadvantaged to take up help? She emphasised that policies too often reinforce shame, and there is also a wider structure of shame. This highlights the importance of compassion and respect in policy approaches to tackling poverty.

Context was a central feature of Eldar Shafir’s remarks. He spoke about the impact of poverty and its impact on people’s ‘bandwidth’ — the finite mental resources we can apply to our everyday tasks. If you are poor, he argued, certain concerns constantly occupy your mind and diminish your capacity to think about anything else. This additional disadvantage needs to be acknowledged by those seeking to devise strategies to tackle poverty.

The second panel also took up the theme of inequality, looking at the places where poverty is often most prevalent – large cities. Ricky Burdett started the discussion by considering where cities are growing and how resources are distributed. He showed that as urban populations grow, there is an even larger increase in the carbon footprint of cities. Part of this is caused by a design flaw – the places where we live are not always the places where we work. Can we design cities in a better way?

Jan Gehl’s answer was unequivocally ‘yes’. We need only to look to Melbourne, Moscow and his native Copenhagen to see the potential to build cities that are not made for cars, but for people. Cities should encourage us to be outside, active and engaged. Not only does this make cities more productive, it makes them more inclusive, combats ‘sitting syndrome’ and reduces our carbon footprint.

Cecilia Wong shared the broadly optimistic outlook of her fellow panellists, but asked us to consider who is designing cities and what their motivations might be. In comparison with the strategic investment which has been made to Chinese cities, she explored the uneven investment in infrastructure in the UK and the impact this is having not only on urban economies but on the societies within them. The discussion then returned to the central question posed to the panel. Are cities sites of inequality or engines of growth? Ultimately, our speakers felt the answer was both, but that there is huge potential for more sustainable, equitable, healthier and happier cities.

The need to put humans and their needs at the centre of public policy was a key theme of the first two panels of the conference. Policies to reduce poverty cannot be calibrated in simple cost benefit terms. They impact upon people and their complex emotions and experiences. Similarly, city planning is not just about the efficient use of space. Cities are the habitats in which humans live and work. People must be at the heart of public policy.

The third panel looked at the impact humanity is having on the planet and asked why policies to combat climate change have rarely become popular. Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger emphasised the importance of international legal frameworks but also acknowledged that law is just one tool among many. We also need organisations, networks and open discussion. There are no easy, technical fixes in this area.

Laura Diaz Anadon suggested that the problem goes beyond the tools we have at our disposal and involves, in part, how we conceptualise climate change itself. There is disagreement about the role of science in policymaking, about the value of combatting climate change, and in our beliefs about personal responsibility and our perception of what is at stake.

The gap between our current trajectory and the UK’s official targets for combatting climate change through emissions reduction featured in Julian Allwood’s talk. What do we need to do to meet those targets? The figures indicate, he argued, that we will have to eat significantly less meat, keep things for longer, use the boiler a fraction of the time it is on now, and reduce the number of tonnes per kilometre we use to travel by switching to much lighter vehicles. He also argued for reframing the debate in terms of the threat to food supplies, and increases in migration due to climate change, if we are to make give mitigation policies more popular traction.

Our final panel explored what had become a major question of the day. Why is it so difficult to formulate effective public policy? The answer, in part, lies in measurement, valuation and judgment. Gus O’Donnell began his talk by posing a key question: what constitutes success? Politicians tell us that economic growth, and ultimately re-election, are signs of successful policies. What about improving quality of life? More robust measurement, and more ex ante analysis, are, in his view, two missing ingredients in the current approach to public policy.

Theresa Marteau agreed that analysis and evidence matter. In fact, both can change minds. Experiments tell us that if people are shown evidence of an effective policy, support for that policy is likely to increase and vice versa. If we hope to change behaviour, we need to engage our publics in an open conversation about the challenges we face. Evidence is key to having that discussion.

So what evidence do we need? Diane Coyle offered answers to that question by returning to the theme of measurement. In her words, ‘statistics are the lens that the state has on society’, and we need to make sure the lens is appropriately focussed. Significant sectors of our economy – including the digital sectors emerging in the 21st century – are missing from our current measurements, like GDP. New types of statistics might be needed to measure whether or not society is making progress.

Finally, the panel reviewed questions from the audience that had been collected throughout the day. Two of the questions were:

How do we find balance between implementing policies that we know work and finding the resources to research and test new policies?
Is technology increasing or decreasing inequality?
The first question invited an important discussion about the relationship between experts, academics and practitioners. One area where collaboration is needed is in ensuring that we are measuring our goals, instead of letting our goals dictate what we measure. For this, we need evidence, political will and most importantly, open dialogue between publics and policy-makers.

The second question cropped up again in the final part of the launch event – a plenary session which involved a talk delivered by Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of DeepMind – and a follow-up conversation with Martha Lane Fox, most recently founder of DotEveryone, and University of Cambridge Vice Chancellor Stephen J. Toope. Their remarks, on technology and society, reflected the title of the launch event, ‘Remaking Public Policy in the 21st century’ and touched on some of the major concerns of the Institute.

Mustafa identified himself as an ‘optimist by necessity and a sceptic by instinct’ and argued that technology was rapidly losing society’s trust. He said that part of the problem stemmed from the internal culture of inequality in the tech industry, emphasising the importance of achieving genuine diversity within this sector. Martha Lane Fox reflected on similar themes and said that if we are to regain society’s trust we need three things: highly skilled and knowledgeable legislators and practitioners; corporate responsibility; and an engaged civil society.

Overall, the day raised important questions. How should we frame the challenges we face and measure our goals and outcomes? How can we keep people at the heart of public policy? The 21st century brings new challenges and opportunities, particularly in relation to harnessing the power of technology without losing the trust of the people who use it. These questions and issues will be at the heart of the research pursued within the Bennett Institute.