States of Change’s Learning Festival Weekly Digest: Unconventional cooperation is the future

Creativity in pandemic relief and recovery

Why It Matters

The COVID-19 pandemic and the global protest against racism and police brutality are demanding deep changes to our political and social systems. The Learning Festival, from States of Change, is sharing lessons on how to make this kind of change happen, from public innovation thinkers and actors around the world. In week one, we learned that now is the time to harness unconventional ways of working together, from collaborating with political enemies to closing down defunct organizations.

The global context for States of Change’s Learning Festival could hardly be more extreme. Panthea Lee, the executive director of Reboot and a session leader, has been spending most of her recent days organizing and protesting in Brooklyn, New York, with police helicopters circling the city. Chris Eccles, a senior bureaucrat in the Victoria government in Australia, has been helping to lead the state’s efforts to fight a pandemic.

With this backdrop, the Learning Festival is sharing insights about public innovation from leading thinkers and actors around the world. This week, the major lesson shared by the sessions was that people and organizations need to work together in unconventional ways and, in doing so, embrace the fact that the ways we structure and organize collaboration will need to adapt.

This means working with people who have different worldviews, finding clarity of purpose together, and working to shift cultures around an issue. Instead of just finding ways to innovate in piecemeal ways, the session leaders talked about the need to achieve profound systems change, or even admit when the time is up for organizations and when new structures should be formed instead.

Setting up the Learning Festival at the end of the plenary session, States of Change executive director Brenton Caffin quoted an important line from the award-winning Indigenous author (and session leader) Tyson Yunkaporta’s book, Sand Talk:

“If people are laughing, they are learning. True learning is joy because it’s an act of creation.”

Despite the solemn nature of world events, the sessions were about encouraging creative relief from the front lines – allowing public innovators to think beyond their daily priorities, to find new ways of working. 

Tyson Yunkaporta’s plenary session, How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, helped to contextualize current events, to think through Indigenous approaches to our relationships with one another and with nature. Using ancient symbols drawn in the sand, Yunkaporta discussed how all cultures are adaptive, and the need to co-evolve together as people and nature, recognizing that there is “no one singular empirical truth.” He described four protocols to act as an agent for change within a system: 1) connections with people; 2) building genuinely diverse connections, instead of box-ticking; 3) exchanging knowledge, resources and energy across both friends and enemies in the system; and 4) adaption, allowing that knowledge exchange to change you as an agent. He also spoke to the importance of reversing the colonial approach towards issues, which too often begins with unhelpfully jumping straight into interventions, instead of building respect and connections.

The session with Chris Eccles, Secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, on Governance Innovation in a crisis – the Victorian Experience, then highlighted lessons of effective government collaboration from Victoria, Australia and the country’s response to COVID-19. In the space of weeks, he said, the crisis led to a “profound” change to the structure of the state government – with entirely new cooperation structures, and radical innovation from service deliverers adapting to their new context. For example, eight ministry secretaries were put in charge of distinct missions, such as addressing the health emergency or business continuity, for which they were directly accountable to the Premier. Eccles highlighted the power of creating “missions” for people to rally around, the importance of creating a data-driven framework for assessing innovations, and how the crisis saw collegiality trumping politics. He said the trick is to seize the “unparalleled opportunity” to build on these lessons, and not snap back into old ways of working. 

From Australia to New York, we heard from Panthea Lee and Alyssa Kropp from Reboot, a social enterprise working to tackle structural inequity and injustice, on Designing Collaborations for Courageous Change. Despite dealing with intense issues, said Lee, like police brutality and racism, it is vital to take advantage of this “window of opportunity” to achieve systemic change. Lee and Kropp explained some of Reboot’s strategy of designing collaborations of stakeholders to work through important social justice issues. “Systems change requires all of us,” Lee said, from activists and researchers to companies, governments and journalists.Their biggest tips included involving the perspectives of those with lived experience of an issue, building a sense of community among collaborators before tackling the substance, addressing any elephants in the room as early as possible, and framing the problem at the start – instead of beginning with solutions, which can restrict creativity.

But what about pre-existing structures? In How Do We Steward Organisational Loss and Support Organisations to Close? Cassie Robinson, Senior Head of UK Portfolio at the National Lottery Community Fund, described and workshopped ideas for a new project she founded called “Stewarding Loss.” Everyone is focused on systems change or starting new organizations, she said, but the elephant in the room is that “some things need to end.” Robinson is setting up a fund to help steward the loss of civil organizations which have reached the end of their life cycle, and said that there is a lot of anger that establishment organizations – by artificially continuing operations when they have ceased to be useful are stopping new, more innovative organizations from breaking through.  Working with the Paul Hyman Foundation, they have now found an organization which they know is going to end, to prototype their work on how to steward organizational loss responsibly, intelligently and with compassion. With COVID-19 threatening many organizations’ futures, she said, now is the best time to have those conversations.