“Power seems to be important in your work. How do you think about power?”
Yesterday I caught up with Søren Vester Haldrup from the UNDP’s Innovation Fund — and this was one of the questions that most intrigued him about our work. The topic had caught his attention through this blog about the Boundless Roots programme — and it’s a topic that he’s explored in more detail here. For me it almost took me by surprise: building power is so central to our thinking at Friends of the Earth that it almost becomes invisible: of course we’re always aiming to move people on a journey from ‘power with’ to ‘power to’. (That’s trickier for a development programme, funded by a foreign government — and ‘empowerment’ doesn’t always translate into power). But because it’s so obvious I realised that I don’t always pick problems up and turn them around in this light. This week’s weeknotes are viewed(where it makes sense) through the lens of power.
Models for innovation
With new Executive Directors in post — and a new strategy in development — inevitably we are grappling with organisational structures, and questions about where to locate our innovation team. These conversations are often quite emotional; and it helped me navigate them when I realised that they are always conversations about status, about inclusion and exclusion (whatever the actual topic in hand). Nesta’s ‘Playbook for innovation learning’ has been super helpful in providing a mental model for these conversations, especially the diagram below.
But the situation has also given me the excuse to have conversations with a number of people with expertise in this area this week from other civil society organisations. Some key things I’ve taken away are:
- There’s no right or wrong answer to where innovation sits in an organisation — there are pros and cons to almost every option (reflecting the classic ambiguity in innovation about integrated it’s helpful to be).
- Metrics are key to building common understanding and purpose. They also give my team power: if we agree a goal, but our operating condition means we can’t achieve it, then we have leverage to make the case for change. (Metrics for systems change are of course very slippy — and the wrong ones create perverse incentives too. How you measure the quality of relationships, or the depth of learning remains hard).
- It’s essential to have support for innovation as cross-org function that can draw on resources from other teams.
- Clear project sponsors are important (we know this from past experience — if you have a great idea, but it doesn’t fit anywhere it’s hard to keep it alive).
- What if we approached changes in our team as an experiment with the same openness and curiosity we would apply to external phenomena?
I also found myself returning to more commercial models. 8 ways to kill innovation from the Egremont group is a helpful and provocative piece. This long webinar with Northumbrian Water also has some good practical insight, in particular the ‘innovation readiness assessment’ or scorecard (about 47 minutes in).
Power and organising
On Wednesday we were lucky to have a lunchtime talk with Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah and Gary Fuller, about the why the UK needs to adopt tougher WHO targets for air pollution. (One policy point really struck me — that there is no safe limit. One colleague in the chat likened limits to cutting down from 41 to 39 cigarettes a day and saying “I’m OK!”). As I was listening I had in mind my recent experiences of trying to coordinate Clean Air Day action outside my daughter’s primary school. What we heard time and time again was “but I need to use the car for x, there’s nothing I can do.” And we didn’t have clear policy asks. I felt that some ‘quick wins’ — stepping stone achievements — could be important in building a campaign. But when I asked the speakers what the ‘quick wins’ that make a difference were they — especially Rosamund — really challenged this. There are no quick wins for her: there is the slow, careful process of building the awareness and confidence — the power — of the people most directly impacted. It’s an endorsement of Our Air Our City’s approach — and a direct challenge to me. We haven’t done this around our school for all sorts of reasons. So how could I / should I best exercise my power and privilege in this space? And if I don’t have the resources for deep sustained commitment, is it better to just step back? (But this doesn’t feel right either).
Meanwhile, we’ve been thinking about how we support knowledge sharing in our network. We’re at the prototyping stage (or ‘create’ — to use the Design Council’s new language) and so I’ve been working up hypotheses and tests about how to stimulate more sustained engagement off the back of events — like this one. One of the interesting things about air quality campaigning is that campaigning seems very fragmented — lots of people, lots of local campaigns and local data — but are they/we maximising the opportunities to work together or is there a lot of duplication. Next week is rapid prototyping week, so more on that next week.
From information to action: is knowledge (enough) power?
Our Hope Spots work has recently been taken by Lancaster University through their Rurban project. Thanks to Maddy (networking ace!) and the Urban Agriculture Consortium I took part in a lunchtime sharing session with Incredible Edible Lambeth, who are doing some very similar work with support from Arup. They’ve used an overlay approach + crowd-sourcing to create a map of food growing potential in Lambeth.
The challenge however — and one that we’ve also encountered through our mapping tools — is how you turn this knowledge into action: how do you do the hard on-the-ground work of mobilising, organising, securing access, developing and sustaining volunteers? I.E. has lots of experience in this of course — and it will be interesting to see how this evolves. It was also great to hear from Shared Assets on the call about their Land Explorer tool. Julian Thompson from Shared Assets seems to be the energy behind an amazing array of campaigns and projects, including VocalEyes (a platform and stakeholder engagement to spread the tools of public participation) and the network of Climate Emergency Centres, using meanwhile space to build public support for and understanding of urgent climate action, which is a project of extraordinary vision.
What happens when you hit rock bottom?
Not me, fortunately, but a lot of this week has also been taken up reflecting with and supporting Oliver with one of his projects. A combination of factors created a crisis over the weekend — and without going into details — from a distance it’s been interesting to observe that sometimes it takes a crisis to make us realise where we have drifted from our North Star (thanks Enrol Yourself for this concept). And that through the application of the permaculture principle ‘the problem is the solution’ we can start to see ways through. This particular crisis is a climate emergency crisis in microcosm (it’s about power in the other sense — how to reduce dependency on fossil fuel generators in an off-grid setting) and in this respect it foreshadows many of the challenges we will all be facing in the future.