Top 5 Learning Experiences of 2017

In Tuesday’s blog post, I reflected on several “firsts” for 2017.  In a similar vein, I always enjoy opportunities to learn about new things and this year has been no exception.  There have been a huge number of such experiences but here a few of my highlights:

1) Systems Change

I’ve been fortunate to have had two chances to act as a Mentor for Ashoka UK supporting two of their inspiring change-makers to accelerate systems-change ideas.  While I know of systems change as a concept, this highlighted what building a strategy with it in mind means in practice and allowed showed a framework to achieve this.  It demonstrated how having the discipline of truly focusing on the long-term vision can refine thinking about the essential activities to achieve it, and potentially to take a different approach altogether.

2) Human Centred Design/ Service Design

In something of a contrast, I also undertook a Plus Acumen course “Introduction to Human Centred Design”.  While again, this requires a focus on the end goal and could be a route to systems change, in this process, along with my fabulous team I was guided to look at the needs and context of individuals and generate ideas for basic prototypes that could be used to test products or services that could serve them.

I took the course as, becoming more aware of Service Design as a defined discipline it seemed to be a “sweet spot” in many of the elements I am most interested in bringing to my work.  Alongside the course, there were other opportunities to learn about Service Design including attending a Service Design Lab meetup “Transitions into Service Design” where I was heartened to discover there is no “classic” path and in fact having an eclectic range of past experience seems to be a bonus.

3) Approaches to sustainability

My largest project during 2017 was continuing as an Associate with Eastside Primetimers, acting as  Programme Manager for 30 projects being delivered under the Local Sustainability Fund.   This fund allowed recipients to shape their project designs around identified priorities with a view to creating the changes needed to secure the organisations’ futures.  Throughout the programme, my role allowed me to gather insights into the diverse approaches to achieving this aim. This culminated in performing an evaluation across all 30 projects, bringing together the key lessons.

Primary among these was the fact that while the term sustainability is often associated with a focus on diversifying income streams and establishing trading activities, many of the organisations recognised the need to delve into the underlying structures as the most important factor.

This programme also truly demonstrated the value of flexible funding allowing organisations that rarely have the available reserves to do so, to truly invest in taking a strategic focus and access the support they need to allow them to implement measures to secure their impact longer term.

4) Grassroots networks in London and Essex

In January I received an e mail about an event that piqued my interest – an exploration of Social Action in the Digital Age and on the development of London as a Networked City.    While I had expected nothing more than a thought provoking evening, this has since become an ongoing thread throughout the year, as the project has evolved into the “Connecting Londoners” and “Our Way Ahead” initiatives.

While I don’t have a defined role in these projects, they tie closely to my interests in fostering collaboration, connection and peer support to strengthen and maximise the impact of the people, projects and organisations working tirelessly for social change.

This stream of activity has also opened my eyes to the huge number of active networks across London which are already allowing grassroots social action projects to combine forces, share knowledge and boost each other.

While much of my work continues to be in London, I’ve lived in Essex since I was under a year old so it is a little ironic that I feel less aware of the change-making activities happening on my doorstep.  Towards the end of the year, I’ve therefore endeavoured to begin redressing the balance (more in the next blog), including joining a group considering how we might develop an Essex Social Enterprise Network and also attending the relaunch of the Essex Voluntary Sector Alliance which showcased some of the collaborative projects happening locally.   I now have some clear touchpoints from which to begin to learn more about local projects and ideally to share learning across the London and Essex contexts.

5) Sketch-noting

The final structured gathering of my Together Tools meetup  (described in my last post), was an introduction to Sketch-noting.  As someone who has both feet in the “I like words and I don’t draw” camp, I recognise that as a facilitator, I need to begin to develop my visual skills to accommodate the preferences of all of those I work with.   I was, however, a little sceptical about how well I’d be able to engage with the session.

I needn’t have worried… I’m so please that Makayla and Nidhi from Sketchnote London were willing to run the session and couldn’t have done so in a more accessible and enthusing way.  Messages such as “no such thing as can’t draw” and it just takes the discipline to do a small amount of practice each day, very much hit the mark for me.  Taking these thoughts to heart, the start of advent presented the perfect opportunity to use the Christmas theme to generate ideas for a daily #sketchnoteadvent doodle.  As I haven’t yet reached day 24, it’s too early to review them all together but I’ve been persuaded that I’ll see the progress over that time if I do so… Watch this space.

So, my Open Ears have come into their own this year – how about yours?  What learning experiences have resonated with you in 2017?

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