Thoughts for the Autumn

In the Autumn there are a number of things I want to explore and focus on, alongside ensuring everything else I mentioned in my previous blog is being stewarded.

In my work at The National Lottery Community Fund

Now that the funding programme is open my focus will now be on three key areas.

  • When you work for a NDPB and you are spending public money, there is no way around evidencing value and progress in some way — it’s called being accountable, ensuring integrity, and most of all, ensuring learning and adaptation. So we’ll be working alongside our Evaluation team, the grantees, and some external experts to design ways to do this. Exploring these questions is one of the reasons I started the Dark Matter of Funding events with Indy Johar and will also be joining the States of Change enquiry about this.
  • I also want to grow funding ecologies around the initiatives — so that they are not just “TNLCF” grantees, but so that the Fund is just one of many funders investing in them. This also includes providing support for their ecologies to grow, through funding other initiatives linked and vital to the wider ecosystem thriving.
  • We’ll also be working with the grantees to design additional support to sit alongside the financial investment — whether that’s help with governance. legal work, recruitment, digital and data, narratives, strategic comms and so forth.

Soon we’ll (finally) be publishing some of what we’ve learned from the first round of the Digital Fund.

After that, we will be looking at the following:

  • How to build on the Impacted Communities work;
  • How to build on the Collective Tech work;
  • A Co-op Incubator — looking for ways to encourage more platform co-ops to start up, enabling different forms of ownership for tech;
  • Community Tech — exploring the relationship between long-term community resilience and adaptation, with tech and data infrastructure;
  • The relationship between ‘levelling up’ and digital, data and tech — wether that is infrastructure, data poverty, or communities actively shaping technology further upstream; and
  • Another intersection we’re focussing on is climate, ecology and tech — whether that is how digital, data and tech can be useful in community-led climate action or opportunities to bring together ecology, farming, land and regeneration movements with digital, data and tech in new ways.

We’re also underway with the New Infrastructure Digital Fund programme and you can follow what The Emerging Infrastructure Design Lab is doing as part of that.

Beyond all this, we are also funding a range of work through Catalyst.

Whilst the first version of Emerging Futures Fund is coming to a close, it’s not like we’ve got it all figured out in terms of where we, as a civilisation, are heading — far from it. As Alex Steffen says

“We must learn to remake our world.”

We will need our collective imaginations to do that and we’ll need to keep holding and resourcing spaces through which that work can be done. This work will include pro-actively seeking out the people on the edges — people whose voices and ideas have either been marginalised or not heard. I feel like whilst it’s (obviously) important for DEI approaches to focus on race, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, class etc — they also need to include those people who’s ideas might seem too radical, too unusual, to uncomfortable etc. Those are not always the same people or groups. We need their ideas.

“You and I and all the people we know live in a moment when learning how to move through a landscape stripped of its familiar reference points is an essential life skill.

Nothing is as it was.” — Alex Steffen

How we evolve the Emerging Futures work is something I’ll be focussing on.

Linked to the Emerging Futures work and our Growing Great Ideas fund I am asking the above question much more frequently. How will anything that is future-focussed remain distinct from climate and ecology work? In a way, isn’t everything aiming towards regenerative futures (or at least, shouldn’t it be)? I’ve started to question whether a ‘climate fund’ makes sense any more, in the same way that a ‘digital fund’ doesn’t really make much sense anymore — because digital relates to everything. In response to this questioning, maybe what we need is a ‘regenerative futures’ fund — regenerative in terms of a mindset and a paradigm for action.

“We’re in the midst of an all-encompassing discontinuity, and no one knows anything for sure about what’s coming. Predictability is extinct.”

“To unlock insight into the world we’re living in, it helps to remember that we’re in a new era, surrounded by systems designed and built in the old.” — Alex Steffen

I’m quoting Alex Steffen’s blog a lot in this post, but these two quotes really bring home why we need to innovate, to field-build toward the third horizon. The label of ‘innovation’ isn’t one I love, but I do think we need discovery and experimentation in order to enable a different post-pandemic future to emerge —to invest in work that counterbalances the gravitational pull of the present, and that contains the seeds of the future we want to see. Part of my role at the Fund (together with an excellent team) is to build a better understanding of what this means in practice. What does ‘innovation’ mean in this context? What does ‘good’ look like? What should we expect of ourselves as funders if we want to shape, not just react? What kinds of conditions do we need to create and resource? And how might we encourage more innovation in those we want to fund?

I still think this paper on system innovation is an excellent place to start and feel like very few people understand the difference between a systemic challenge and a systemic opportunity.

It is no longer possible to achieve that orderly transition, to combine action at the scale and speed we need with a smooth transition and a minimum of disruption. We have already failed to create the future most advocacy still seeks to bring on. Indeed, every approach that promises both bold action and the continuation of current practices and systems leads us inexorably into magical thinking.”

That’s the internal work at the Fund I’ll be focussed on in the Autumn.

Related — externally, I’m interested in the role of civil society in innovation. Geoff Mulgan has written extensively about this, as has Hetan Shah in this recent FT article, but it often feels like this agenda is shaped by government and business with civil society noticeably missing. We’ll be doing some work on this in the Autumn.

Other areas of work

I mention these because they are newer areas of focus for me and I’m keen to hear about people and organisations I should be connecting with.

One area of work I’m likely to look at for JRF is about intergenerational wealth — how value is redistributed and recycled (or not) and what we might do about inheritance and hoarding. I love the work that the Intergenerational Foundation are doing, Share Action and Resource Justice — who or what else should I know about and talk to?

I’m excited about the new Regenerative Design Fellowship that we’re developing with the Design Council (more on that in September) but where are the other ‘leadership’ programmes focussed on the ecological and climate crisis? I’m looking for good examples of initiatives that focus on community level action, and would love to hear of any programmes people know already exist.

At JRF there is an investment fund as well as grant funding so there is more opportunity to experiment with ways of resourcing bringing new systems to life, acknowledging that resource will come from many different sources, in different forms. As Jennie Winhall and Charlie Leadbetter write in a paper they produced for a roundtable I was part of:

“Not all of them will be traditional investments. Yet there are some common patterns to investing in systems innovation.

- Investing in systems change is an uneven, extended process.

- It invariably involves blending and combining different kinds of capital.

- It often involves long periods of slow change, punctuated by both booms and busts, as risks are shunned, taken, shared and passed on, hopes and aspirations are excited and over-hyped.

- It always raises difficult issues of collective action. The potential misalignment of private and public interests is ever present. One danger is that system innovation stalls because it does not overcome these collective action issues. Another is that systems can become dominated by private monopolies.

If we need accelerated transitions to new, better, different systems, the question is how can we get better at investing in the systems innovation that will do this, by finding better ways to:

- Layer and blend together different kinds of capital serving different purposes;

- Share the risks and rewards of systems innovation;

- Spot system shifting ventures;

- Create minimum viable systems for investors to back.”

I’m keen to learn more and speak to people who are thinking about financing transitions work, and who blend different types of finance as well as use new measures of value — natural, social, cultural alongside financial.

Please do get in touch if there are things you think should be on my radar or that link to any of the above.

Deputy Director at National Lottery Community Fund, Co-founder of the Point People, Policy Fellow IIPP, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.