On my journey with the RSA

From time to time, as you navigate the complexity of life, you can reach a vantage point, take a look around and see things differently, see new things emerging. Feel drawn to a different future, in a different direction. If you’re paying attention within and without, you know when it’s time. And for me, after six years at the RSA, that time is now. I’ve learned so much and changed so much over that time, been fortunate to have met so many amazing and inspiring people, and done some of my best work.  

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Local public services

Some of you will know that for nearly 20 years I worked in local public services. Landing in local policy, research and strategy was fortuitous for a geographer fascinated by how people shape, and are shaped by, the places in which they live. I developed strategy, supported community development and led partnership efforts across the sector to address important local issues – from educational underachievement to integrating health and social care. 

A core insight I was left with from this work was how centralised and disjointed the design and delivery of our public services was, and how much opportunity there is to make things better when you look at things from the perspective of someone on the sharp end of those services. In other words, the way we design and deliver our public services may have worked for the post-War challenges but this industrial, ‘factory’ model is no longer fit for purpose in a world where people’s circumstances and needs are characterised by complexity and uncertainty. We can fix broken limbs effectively in a hospital but it’s not the place to address complex health issues such as obesity. We can offer support to the unemployed but that’s based on a ‘job for life’ career model where redundancies are unfortunate breaks in work; it is inflexible and inadequate in the face of portfolio careers, zero-hour contracts and gig-work. What, then, might alternatives look like? How could we do things differently? 

I handed in my notice from my local authority without knowing what I would do next – except I did know that these were inquiries I wanted to pursue. Could I find the space and time to research, explore, to think about such challenges? At the same time I completed a Masters in Behavioural Science at LSE, to help me look at the behavioural aspects of change – and why it’s so hard – incentives, social norms, decision-making, defaults, and so on. I then found the perfect opportunity at the RSA to join the public services and communities team and explore just those questions. What might the component parts of a new settlement for public services look like, and what account would they need to take of people’s circumstances and behaviours? 

RSA part 1

There aren’t many institutions of such longevity that you feel humbled by the realisation that you are the latest custodian of a long line of people working on the challenges of the time. I was in some ways lucky that the future of public services was an important topic when I joined and as such our trajectories aligned for the subsequent six years. I felt like I had landed in the perfect playground for my enquiries. 

I looked at a variety of potential elements: from the role of social movements in catalysing community action and challenging the status quo to a basic income addressing economic insecurity, from the relationships between health and economic growth to the opportunities for public servants themselves to operate more innovatively and entrepreneurially

All this work has come together in the last two years. I’ve led the team that designed and delivered a entrepreneur programme to liberate the innovation instincts of staff and help them figure ways of bringing their ideas to life. We’ve delivered it with organisations as diverse as the NHS and the Church of England. It’s been the expression of my work to date: from my early days in local government, seeing the challenges on the ground and being too inexperienced to know how I could help effectively tackle them, yet knowing there had to be another way, to helping others in that position realise there is another way, and that we could start to bring to life a new paradigm together. 

RSA part 2

Underpinning this has been my work to bring together the RSA’s approach to change; at its best its Fellows and staff do such thoughtful, insightful and practical work that really helps those seeking change in their own context. Yet the danger is that these ideas, and the methods through which they are arrived at, languish inside reports and people’s heads. My work was to try and piece together the critical ingredients that characterised the RSA at its best and make them available to staff – what my colleague Alexa referred to as a knowledge commons. Could we develop a framework that meant that the design of our work and the production of world-shifting ideas wasn’t left so much to chance or individual inspiration (though they play a role of course) but was, so far as possible, curated through a set of principles that were tried and tested. 

The emergence of the RSA’s “Living Change Approach” during Covid was the public sharing of this journey to date, an invitational framework rather than a prescription. My research into the ‘art of change’ and the discussion groups we hosted as a part of this were some of the most stimulating conversations that I’ve had at the RSA. They reinforced my own belief that the worlds biggest challenges needed a breadth of approaches, perspectives and insights to address them.

Learning and growth 

The RSA has been the perfect space to explore these lines of inquiry, figuring out new ways of approaching change and surfacing innovations. I’ve gained a language of systems and design and complexity that helps me explain and make sense of the challenges and processes we face, even as I recognise that such language can be exclusionary for many. Indeed, the reductionist, cartesian paradigm still holds such sway over the way we approach challenges that those advocating for a systems- or complexity-informed approach continue to face an uphill battle for acceptance. 

It’s often hard to let go and end things and when we do we don’t always make a great fist of it. Ritual is an important aspect of this, helping us mark distance travelled and honor things left behind and, particularly, the learning gained. My personal learning has been intense over these years and particularly as – and in part probably because – we’ve gone through such significant challenge, trauma and change across society. Not only through Covid19 but also with the intersecting challenges of racial justice, inequality, falling life expectancy, rising food poverty, the climate crisis and so on.  My time at the RSA is book-ended with the Brexit vote and the Grenfell fire soon after I started and the House inquiry into the Capitol Hill riot of January 2021 and war in Ukraine as I leave. 

Global challenges

The planet, democracy and peace are all in a precarious state; their future is not guaranteed. We will continue to need ideas and actions that challenge the way things are and shine a light, however faint, on the possibilities of different. Of all the insights I’ve gained along the way, one thing I have come to see as crucial, and that is the power of our inherent values and beliefs to shape this world, for it is from these that our structures, processes and behaviours arise. They’ll need collectively shifting to a new paradigm if we are to truly leave the planet – and all its systems – in a better place for our children than it was when we inherited it. 

It can feel like such a tough ask. The extractive, industrial growth complex can’t be sustained by the planet indefinitely and yet alternatives to the global capitalist system can be hard to imagine. But imagine we must. A new paradigm can emerge in a moment, just as Copernicus had his insight, but we’ll need to be ready to nurture it when it does. In may respects, the ideas underpinning a new way of being and living are already out there. Perhaps it’s the nurturing of these seeds that form the task we all face, wherever and however we feel drawn to it – reimagining communities, sustainable approaches to local food production, liveable cities, devolving democratic responsibilities, new forms of energy, and so on. 

From practical action to a new social settlement, from new governance structures to policy innovations, we need to be bigger and bolder in our ambition for change. Everything could be up for grabs. Will we work it out in ways that prefigure a positive, life affirming and collaborative approach to society, or will be sink deeper into social division and inequality? It seems to me the emerging years post-Covid will be critical. Yet over the last six years I’ve been fortunate to meet, work with, and learn from some of the most committed, smart, challenging and hopeful people I’ve ever met; to all of you – you fill me with confidence for the future. 

Next steps

It’s now time to broaden my personal inquiry. I believe our global responsibilities stretch to each other and the more-than-human world. For me, this means I want to balance more equitably the needs of the local with the global. I’ve focused a lot in my early career on the former and now it’s time to do more to address the latter.

Some global communities are at the front-line of these global challenges, particularly the climate crisis, and I believe we have a moral and collective responsibility to find ways to mitigate the worst of the impacts. My continued inquiry focuses on areas where I can help address inequity and injustice by supporting change across systems for the benefit of people, communities, places and the planet. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do this in a new role with the START Network, a coalition of NGOs, aid agencies, charities and donors seeking to reinvent the global humanitarian system.

I’m excited to bring my experience and insights to help find ways to liberate the energy and creativity inherent in some of the most challenged communities on earth as they respond to very real crisis, disaster and change. The thesis is that by tackling some of the biggest systemic problems that the sector faces – including slow and reactive funding, centralised decision-making, and an aversion to change – we can ensure people affected by crises around the world receive the best help, at speed and thus avert needless suffering. That’s a mission I’m excited to get behind. 

From August 2022 I will be starting my new role as Head of Systems Innovation and Change at the Start Network.

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