Going postal and other disruptions

I was recently asked what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning. The answer I gave back was a perfunctory, “My kids”. This is true as they are wide-awake each morning at 6.30am and I have no need for an alarm clock.

A conversation with a distant relative made me rethink my answer. He reminded me that our shared relative was Sir Rowland Hill, our Great x 4 Uncle.

For those who don’t know him (or haven’t clicked the link to Wikipedia) was famed for inventing the Penny Black, the first postage stamp in the 1840s.

Up until then letters were priced according to their weight and distance travelled, and they were always paid for by the recipient. Makes sense when you think about it.

Except Uncle Rowland figured out that some folk would send empty envelopes to their families. The idea was that they would let their loved ones know they were OK and that their families wouldn’t have to sign for the letter. From this, he mused, the system becomes inefficient.

Furthermore, he saw that the art of letter writing had become a rich-person’s pastime. There was no reason for the vast majority of people to write to one another, save for the envelope trick.

Uncle Rowland had an idea. What if every letter cost only 1 penny, no matter where it went to in Britain, bought in advance and stuck on? He believed that 2 things would happen:

1. The volume of mail would expand hugely, more than compensating for any losses on longer deliveries and, crucially,

2. Everyone would be able to send letters to each other.

The latter is important, as Uncle Rowland saw, because it brought the country together through communication. People had a reason to read and write as this enabled people to connect with one another on a different level – distance was no longer a barrier.

The trouble was, Uncle Rowland didn’t work for the postal service. Although he worked in the civil service, it wasn’t in Britain. He worked in South Australia for the government there.

As you can imagine, trying to convince the British authorities round to his way of thinking took some persuading. After a few years of building up influence his thoughts were listened to and, with a favourable reformist parliament, in situ, the postal service with pre-paid postage stamps took off.

It took a lot of convincing the UK parliament to bring in this change. After several false starts, Parliament passed the Act in 1839. In just under 10 years, 50 other countries had adopted the idea of pre-bought stamps over charging the recipient for distance delivered.

Letter writing and communication over distance became open to more people. This enabled ideas to spread faster, people to have a reason to be educated and connected friends and families.

So why tell this story? It took Uncle Rowland about 14 years to transform the way we communicate to one another. It was a managed revolution, with lasting benefits felt to this day.

The way the world is designed now, there are more Uncle Rowland’s out there; applying new ways of thinking and solving what they see are obstacles in life.

Digital and social media are the great enablers, providing us with influence, outreach and disruption. Here are some examples of these ideas:

  • Cahootsy – mashing up retail marketing with word of mouth and crowdsourcing
  • CommuterClub – reinventing the way UK consumers pay for public transport
  • The Happiness Index – gaining a pulse of a business heartbeat through data

There are many more and I am sure that Uncle Rowland would have loved to be part them all.

I’ll leave the final word to Suli Breaks, spoken word artist, “Create the Future”.