Wow, what a week. I’m starting writing this at Brisbane airport about to embark on the long journey home. If you are looking for Digital Fund content, you won’t get that here today. Instead I’ll be reflecting on my week in Australia, as a faculty member of States of Change.
What I’ve been doing
I arrived in Sydney on Saturday early eve. It was my first time in Australia so I wanted to make sure I saw some of the City before leaving on Monday.
On Sunday morning I met up with Leisa. Leisa was the person who brought the idea and practice of “start with user needs” and being a “user-centred” organisation into digital government. She was the first Head of User Research at Government Digital Service in the UK. Leisa hired me back in 2014 as a part-time user researcher, and I learnt so much from her. Not only about the skill of doing that well, but also how to be a great leader. It was lovely to catch up with her and walk along the coast from Bronte to Bondi.
Later that day I met up with my old flat mate Sarah Lloyd, who I met back in 2006 through the Nesta Creative Pioneer programme. Sarah is a proper inventor — back then she’d designed pens that once used could be planted and grown into flowers. Now she’s a Design Director who’s been living in Sydney for 6 years. By chance my friend Sarah Perry was also in town, over from the UK to promote her book at the Sydney and Auckland literature festivals. The three of us caught a ferry over to Manly and walked along the waters edge, paddled in the sea, and sat talking on the beach as the sun went down.
It was the best start I could’ve asked for to ground me and prepare me for what was going to be an intense week ahead. Women, water, conversation, emotional connection and solidarity.
At 8am on the Monday morning I was speaking at a breakfast event. The States of Change team had invited a range of people working in the New South Wales government, the Sydney Policy Lab, the new-ish New South Wales Policy Lab and people from TACSI too (the Australian Centre for Social Innovation) to come and meet me. Some of them I knew already, others I knew their organisations and it was a real privilege to have them all around one table like that. I shared 6 short stories about work I’d done recently and am currently doing, and then facilitated a conversation to hear from them about the questions they’re currently asking.
We flew from Sydney on Monday afternoon to start the course early Tuesday morning in Brisbane. The cohort on the course is made up of 8 teams — 7 from Australian State Government’s and one from New Zealand. This is month two of a six month learning programme and you can read more about what they did during the introductory week here.
This week was themed around Exploring & Framing — in other words, before the teams go off to do probing and prototyping around their complex systemic issues, are they asking the right questions?
Aside from doing a short presentation about myself to the group (which included a picture of me looking very witchy in front of our Scottish chapel), my role that first day was just to be on hand to work with the teams. The delivery team for the week was Ryan as lead facilitator, with Brenton and I delivering content at different points during the week, all expertly held together by Nicole.
Wednesday was a really special day, as we headed off to Stradbroke Island, which is where one of the teams’ projects is centred. The content of the day was all about systems, transitions and futures, and we tried to make the most of the natural environment around us to imbue more meaning and understanding in to the sessions — especially referring to how everything is interdependent in large, messy human organisations as much as it is in ecological systems.
I delivered sessions on zooming in & zooming out when working systemically, had the group work in their teams doing rich picturing — a way of surfacing different (not always conscious) perspectives on the issue, and then a session on “flipping the paradigm” for systems transition (developed by my Point People colleagues Jennie Winhall and Cat Drew) where teams look at the purpose of their current system and experiment with what happens when you change it. A good example of this is the work Karen McCluskey lead in Glasgow where they reframed knife crime as a public health issue.
Over lunch that day I also seeded conversations about diversity and privilege. That didn’t go so well! More on that in the learning section below.
On Thursday I ran a session on ‘Dark Matter’, with similar content and activities that we use in the Systems Changers programme. There were some great discussions in this session, especially around the difference between lore and law in organisations. In other programmes we’ve run, we’ve found this an area ripe for “finding flex in the system” and not only around culture and behaviours but in thinking about new forms of governance, regulation and contracting too.
In the morning the Innovation Champion Network across the Queensland Government hosted their meet-up in partnership with States of Change and I gave a talk to the members and the cohort about Beyond Human-Centred Design. It’s based on this blog post, and as I tweeted, people seemed to find it a helpful provocation. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever had so much positive feedback from a talk.
In the afternoon I ran a session on engagement, influencing, narrative and coalition-building — which are all very linked in my experience. A lot of this is common sense stuff about human relationships but I do think people forget to *design* relationships and the interactions for engagement and influencing. It’s really important to think about what relationships need, what different people need to hear, see and feel, and how important coherence is.
What I’m learning
As it was such an intense week I learnt loads:
- About the challenges and opportunities the teams are working on – from keeping people in the primary industries (like farming) and ensuring it works economically for them, to climate and the land, future transport systems and encouraging public use, place-based community health systems that focus on prevention, through to the astonishing number of false alarms that fire fighters respond to, the cumulative effects of that and what to do about it.
- About how States of Change is planning to grow and use their faculty, and how you blend in different peoples expertise and experience into an already well constructed programme, that also wants to be a platform and network for many other (exciting) things.
- About how uncomfortable I find doing delivery like that, because I’m so out of practice. I’m going to make sure I don’t let that kind of gap grow again for me between designing programmes and delivering them. It’s important to do both.
- About how the set up of any conversation or activity about power, privilege and diversity is really important.
However, the main learning for me this week and what’s really stayed with me on a visceral level, is our trip to the island and understanding more about its history and current challenges. What is happening on Stradbroke Island feels emblematic of so much more, and (I think) a sign of what’s to come in many places around the world.
North Stradbroke Island was and is also known as Minjerribah. Minjerribah is the traditional Aboriginal name for the island. The traditional custodians have a relationship with the island which dates back thousands of years (archaeological evidence dates occupation back to at least 21,000 years ago!!!) and “there is a deep spiritual connection between the Quandamooka people and Minjerribah.”
In July 2011, the Quandamooka people of North Stradbroke Island won a 16-year-long historic battle to have their Native Title claim recognised.
“I have not come here today to give anything to the Quandamooka People. These orders give them nothing. Rather, I come on behalf of all Australian People to recognise their existing rights and interests, which rights and interests have their roots in times before 1788, only some of which have survived European settlement. Those surviving rights and interests I now acknowledge” — Judge Dowsett, 4 July 2011
There was something profoundly unsettling, uncomfortable and shameful standing on land that has been cared for over many 1000’s of years by people who respect and understand it. People who see themselves as being part of the land, not separate from it — who revere and respect it, nurture it, live from it and breathe back life in to it. What a contrast to how so much of the West has treated the earth, myself included, in such extractive ways.
Not only that, but the island was colonised by Europeans — I felt like I was standing on land that I’d stolen, that I had then ravaged, and was now handing it back to it’s rightful owners, acutely aware of the state I was giving it back in.
There are so many First Nation people around the globe that need what is rightfully theirs to be given those legal rights. This is only the first of many steps towards reconciliation ever being possible and at the scale in which it needs to happen. I hope the story of Stradbroke Island symbolises the start of a great transition.
I have also taken away with me that gaining the legal rights to the land can cause other challenges within indigenous communities, because not all of the indigenous people will have the same kinds of rights. The team working on this project as part of States of Change is made up of both people from the Quandamooka tribe alongside people from government and they’ve a long but important road ahead of healing, reconciliation and collectively agreeing on the islands future with all of the residents.
I love this quote from Ryan’s website:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
— Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s
What I’m celebrating
Aside from meeting so many great people this week, I want to give a special shoutout to Ryan. He is such a pleasure to work with, so skilled (I learnt so much from how he facilitates) and he’s also involved in lots of brilliant projects, which you can see more of here. I’m looking forward to diving deeper in to the work his studio, Hinterland, have done, especially on friendship, and about how humans reconnect with nature and see themselves as part of it.
“We’re especially interested in friendship and community, connection to the natural world, and rituals around how we live meaningful lives connected to our values.”
And to Nicole, who did such a brilliant job of making me feel welcome and comfortable in the team. She also asks great questions and is one of those people that’s always one step ahead of what needs doing. And to Brenton and Jesper for inviting me to join the faculty in the first place.
Lastly, I am hugely celebrating The Point People this week because at various times either before I left or during my time in Australia Jennie McShannon, Cat Drew and Jennie Winhall all made themselves available to help shape and think through the content I was going to deliver. Thank you.