2017 has been a strange year. Nothing has felt quite right. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to ignore (and I don’t want to ignore) all the things happening in the world — from natural disasters to human tragedy (where a sense of humanity is truly failing) and the suppressed voices of people from all over the globe rising through the #metoo campaign and unsettling everything because we can’t ignore it any longer. It’s not all overseas, as this tragic film shows, and child and pensioner poverty in the UK is at its highest for 20 years. I found Barack Obama’s reminder helpful during his recent interview with Prince Harry.
“Despite all the terrible news of the hardship people are facing all around the world, the world is healthier, wealthier, more tolerant and less violent than its ever been.”
Even so, that’s no reason to rest or be silent, it certainly doesn’t mean that the health and wealth are evenly distributed (because they are not!) and he made a rallying call for us all to get involved.
“Take responsibility for being involved — participate, speak out, engage, volunteer, give time in your communities. We can’t sit back passively, we have to continuously push if we want change.”
With all that in mind as fuel for 2018, I wanted to reflect back on all the important things that made up my 2017, things that I want more of in 2018, that will enable me to use my privilege to take more risks.
I’m always making time for friendship and being in relationship with others. It is the most important thing for me.
The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence. — David Whyte
When I moved to SE London from Hackney 8 years ago, there was hardly anyone I knew living there. Now there are so many people it has been possible (and lovely) to run the South East London dinners. Every other month between 6–14 of us cook dinner for the others. It’s meant I’ve made new friends, like Foe, had less worky time with others like Ade, and seen more of people like Cate, who before I’d only ever seen through mutual friends. Knowing there is a community of people in close proximity — literally a few miles apart — has been important for me.
I’ve had lots of time away with groups of friends. At the beginning of each year a group of us go away to one of the Living Architecture houses. This year we marked Roanne’s death by going to the sea together. Every year we spend time making plans for the year ahead and informally coaching one another on how we can make those things happen. It’s a really nourishing time, with lots of lounging, and what I particularly value is the way we collectively lounge and cook together in the space we share. It’s probably the closest I get each year to the way I’d ideally like to live. Thank you Camilla, Laura, Ella, Leonora, Sarah, Suzy, Bea for being my companions in that for the last 5 years.
A Summer holiday in Crete with Celia, Andrea, Cate, El, Sophia, Louise, Laura, Bea, Katherine and Alison meant stretching out in the sun, lots of laughter and silliness, sharing ideas about things we wanted to work on in the future, and lots of time beside or in the sea.
Then there was a rainy weekend in Cornwall with George, Kim and Anne, but we still went swimming in the sea water Lido, and I still chuckle whenever I remember Anne walking in on me stark naked in the un-lockable changing room.
In December a group of us that have been meeting for bi-monthly dinners for the last few years graduated to a weekend away. In Margate Alice, Anna, Rowan, Catherine and I walked along the coastline in fierce winds, did a mini workshop for one of the group who’s trying to get a new idea off the ground, and lounged whilst some did needle work, others read, and others napped.
My last trip this year has been to Annecy and the Alps, with old friends that I grew up with in Cambridge. The sort of friends that remember terrible, embarrassing things that you’ve done, that you’ve lost all memory of. Suha and Jenny did a great job of remembering a stream of these to share with everyone as we drove back from our new years celebrations last night.
I’ve also loved organising people coming together to mark someone’s arrival in the UK. In May I brought together a group of design and digital folk for drinks with Ariel whilst she was over visiting from NYC. In September a group of us welcomed Erin over from the US, as she embarks on two years in the UK as a Marshall Scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute, and in December I arranged a dinner with Milicia, a Heroine of mine, who was visiting from Istanbul.
It’s not just the richness of conversation and variety of perspective that these friendships bring me — “friendship affords us a more dimensional way of looking at ourselves and at the world” writes Maria Popova — there is something uniquely important to me about being in a collective of women, lounging and doing very little together, yet bearing witness to one another.
But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone — David Whyte
This was the year that the Sisterhood fully came into being. The wonderful Abby Rose introduced me to the Many Moons Workbook back in the Summer of 2016, and in 2017 a group of us started using it regularly as a workbook for life.
In April this year I met up with the books creator, Sarah, in LA and in August a group of us paid for her to come over and run a retreat for us. We’ve grown now to a group of about 16 and in 2018 we will be having monthly Moon Circles.
This is a place where I can connect with something beyond the everyday, a place where intuition and emotion have value, and where there is humility aplenty that doesn’t shut down the idea that maybe, just maybe, there is more to the world, and to the energies we all feel, beyond what we can see or comprehend as human beings. I love the creativity, wonder and the wildness that this group brings to my life. This is a group with whom I‘m able to connect with, and express, my Agape love, as defined by Aristotle.
Agape is a broad kind of love, the kind that religious people feel that God has for us, or that a secular person may have for humanity at large — Pigliucci
I’ve also reconnected with people from my past through this, like Sam Roddick, who I first knew back in 2002 when I was designing bedroom uniforms and sex toys for Coco De Mer, it’s so lovely to be back in regular contact with her, and have her courageous and generous energy back in my life. And Deborah Szebeko, one time flat mate and someone that inspired me to leap from fashion to public sector design back in 2006, after meeting on the Nesta Creative Pioneer programme — we’ve always been in touch but now it feels like we’re connecting deeply again. I’ve also made new connections like Abby’s Mum, Christiane, an unassuming yet wise presence who also does dowsing, which I loved learning about and seeing work in action.
This whole year has been tinged with grief. Losing someone I loved dearly and deeply muted the colours in my world. A 2 week road trip with my Mum in the US earlier in the year was just what I needed those few months after Roanne’s death. The vastness and beauty of those landscapes drowned out my pain, bringing me welcomed feelings of insignificance and awe.
The blog I wrote about Roanne after her death has continued being a useful guide for me, especially the last quote.
You don’t forget the person who’s gone; you can never do that, and you should not worry that you’re going to. But you fold them, and their loss, into the new person you become; and maybe that, in the end, is the greatest tribute any of us can make to anyone who has died.
There’s been my personal grief, but also grief on a planetary scale too —I cried watching Blue Planet, I feel a sadness when I read the kinds of news stories at the beginning of this post — this has felt like a different kind of grief because it’s borne from destruction. It’s not part of a natural cycle of life, death, hope and loss. Then there is the imperceptible, slow-moving grief that comes from losing people you love over time, to dementia or alzheimer’s, or both (in the case of my Step-mum) — this kind of grief is still so invisible in our society. There is still so much work to do around loss, dying, death and grief. Even the decommissioning of services creates loss that we don’t design for — the dismantling of things that people have come to rely on, and the relationships that come apart through that — that’s something I hope to do some work on this year. And I love the body of work that Ivor Williams is building at Being and Dying, and hope we’re going to do some work together this year too.
I’ve been re-inspired this year by people who are taking risks. Partly because of Roanne — something I want to do in 2018 is set up an awards in her memory that honours people who act courageously against the odds, and in particular, those who speak up and out when there is huge risk involved. I’ve been having coaching this year and alongside her coaching practice my coach is primarily an investigative journalist and TV reporter. As a British Pakistani Muslim woman, she’s taken huge risks to make documentaries on mainstream TV about issues that rub up uncomfortably against her culture, exposing issues that need to be faced and saying the things that nobody else will dare say. I have huge admiration for this. I also had a long overdue catch up with Yvonne Roberts before Christmas who reminded me of the many risks she has taken over the years in her investigative journalism. Her courage fired me up and she’s going to “mentor” me this year to be bolder, to use my privilege to take more risks. I am not comfortable with power as it is currently exercised. I don’t want to entrench it further or be complicit in maintaining its influence.
Towards the end of 2017 I spent a day with two dear friends, Charlotte Miller and Ella Saltmarshe. We’d been having various conversations in different constellations over the last year or so about care. Care in all its forms, from self-care to childcare, and parental care. We wanted to explore what we are calling “Systems of Care.” We’d all come to the topic for different reasons, but we each have an interest in how care exists in the world, new models of families and relationships, how little care is valued or designed for, and how ineffective the relationship is between supply and demand when it comes to care.
This is an area that we will be exploring more in 2018. We explored the topic through 3 different lens using a model from my systems coaching training based on systems intelligence (SI), relational intelligence (RI) and emotional intelligence (EI). This meant we covered SI topics like the patriarchy, societal norms and the lack of visibility of alternatives, through to RI and EI topics like feeling a duty to experiment because of our privilege, frustrated by the lack of consciousness through which societal norms are continued, and sadness that a lot of our experiences were always on other people’s terms — we were expected to fit around those with a family, a home, a partner etc. Below is the drawing I sketched out when we were each talking about why we wanted to explore the subject area.
Innovation and invention
In December I went for a meeting at Nesta and had an unexpected set of feelings. I used to spend a lot of time in Nesta’s offices, meeting different people, using their space for events or just to work in, and was generally connected to the organisation — and the feelings were a recognition that I missed it. I’ve missed the types of conversation I would have through Nesta’s network. Conversations about invention and innovation, about things being possible, about ideas, about ways to problem solve that felt energising, creative and also implementable. And problem solving that was always focussed on meaningful and pressing social issues.
When I worked part-time at Government Digital Service for a year, we weren’t allowed to use the word “innovation” — it was a dirty word, because we had to “get the basics right” and only focus on user needs. I feel like the digital government movement has sucked up a huge chunk of design talent and yet I don’t believe digital government is where we are going to do the kind of problem-solving we need to do given the scale and complexity of issues we face. A lot of that work is important, vital even, but it’s very focussed on the existing system of government— it operates within those boundaries, often just playing catch up, and I wonder how that limits it. Is it just plaster sticking when instead we need to throw ingenuity at imagining an entirely new system?
This came up too at Robin Murray’s memorial, which I wasn’t at but I heard the same story from several people. Robin was a real pioneer, someone that took risks, who used his imagination to invent new ways of doing things. The room was full of people who’ve also been highly successful and who all share a drive for social justice, like Robin did. But many of them in that room that day felt like they weren’t doing enough anymore — they had stopped being courageous, they had stopped being inventive — there is a drought of innovation and invention at a time when we need it more than ever.
A group of us are going to start meeting monthly to challenge one another more in this way — are we using our creativity to really imagine what else might be possible? I hope that Social Innovation finds a renewed confidence as a field this year, because from my experience of working across quite a few different communities now, it is that community that I have most faith in, in terms of designing a better future, and getting us all there.
In a Christmas card I received this year, a friend described me as a human glowworm. I wasn’t sure about this until she explained that glowworms are most impressive when they shine collectively, and that she feels I get this, that I’m committed to the idea of the collective — championing the collective over the individual.
In 2018 I’m planning to do more on this — it’s why I’ve been training as a systems coach (I’ll be qualified at the end of January) — it’s why I’ve been reading up on collective intelligence (including Geoff Mulgan’s great book) and revisiting all the notes I made when I attended the MIT collective intelligence conference in 2015. It’s why I’m developing some design principles for collective design and cooperation. I truly believe there are things the collective can know that an individual can’t and that “the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Those are my mottos for 2018.