The sessions were part of an emerging Futures experiment; JRF has been exploring how to work towards imagining and building fairer futures in which we can all thrive. The session we attended was the third in a series of three which covered different topics. You can find more information about the series here.
Tackling exclusionary language
Host Suzy Glass brought attention to the importance of language, particularly how it can be exclusionary and the need to balance a collective understanding for movement building with a sense of engagement and excitement for those not currently part of the movement or familiar with its language . We’ve had similar conversations in the Catalyst steering group. To help with this in the JRF session, Suzy gave explicit permission to question and explore use of terms — in chat or through breakout discussions. A shared glossary is being compiled to help explore some of the terms, to which participants were encouraged to contribute.
Understanding varieties of not knowing
Vaughn Tan, UCL, spoke on the difference between risk and uncertainty and why it’s important to disambiguate. He opted to extend this to cover ‘different varieties of not knowing’, stressing that different kinds of not knowing need different approaches to navigate, and therefore understanding the type of not knowing is fundamental to good decision making.
He outlined that in risk, generally all the possible outcomes and probabilities are known. It is mathematically calculable and reducible by risk management (eg through KPIs, cost-benefit analysis, insurance, forecasting etc). Whereas with uncertainty you may not know all the possible outcomes or their probabilities, or the preferred outcomes. He described different types of not knowing associated with uncertainty, with each requiring a different approach:
- We do not know what actions are possible — requires research
- We do not know what outcomes actions produce — requires a different sort of research
- We do not know what outcomes are possible — requires imagination
- We do not know which outcomes are desirable — requires philosophy
Vaughn provided the following pointers for dealing with uncertainty:
- Strategic questioning
He stated that important work is almost always uncertain, and organisations designed around risk (almost all traditional organisations) find it difficult to innovate. He raised the following provocations for participants to consider in their own work, how can you:
- build in effort to understand the situation?
- resist the temptation to start big?
- stay open-ended?
- start small, but be profuse?
- watch for insidious risk-mindset?
You can find out more about these concepts in Vaghn’s book The Uncertainty Principle, and listen to a similar talk on his website, which goes into more detail about design principles for job roles and goals in organisations with an uncertainty mindset.
Relating differently to uncertainty
She challenged the current narrative that we are living in unprecedented times of uncertainty and peril, claiming that uncertainty is a permanent state of being throughout human history. Talking us through an empathy-enriched timeline, we considered the causes and contexts of uncertainty, including examples such as the Spanish flu pandemic and World Wars, reflecting that our current narrative is unhealthy, unkind, inefficient, ego- and generation-centric. It takes away from the uncertainties that others outside of our context have navigated. Next, Victoria prompted us to consider ‘crucial certainties’ such as:
- Loving is beautiful; lying in the grass being warmed by the sun is beautiful.
- Many human beings have been looking for a better world. We are part of that tribe. That tribe has existed for a long time. An ancient tribe of active dreamers. We are the inheritors of all their fruits — not seeing this dishonours our ancient, powerful tribe.
- It is an honour to stand on the shoulders of the ancient tribe of active dreamers. We know we will provide our outputs for those who follow in the tribe in later generations.
Powerful methodologies came up next. Reflecting on anxiety, Victoria described this as a means of understanding we have a powerful question that we are unsure about. The first step to resolving the anxiety is to identify the question, then design a process to explore the question. By doing this we focus on the exploration rather than the problem. This led onto the role of action research as a methodology and why this brings efficient learning — because any result, and mistake, becomes learning. The power of this is useful for communities of practice. Victoria described communities of practice as a cultural revolution — a new way to learn as humans, stretching across geographies and contexts. In this space, uncertainty becomes a fertile ground for innovation.
The need for new economic thinking
Jeevun Sandher, of the New Economics Foundation, helped us to explore new economic thinking, taking us through social, industrial and technological impacts in income and spatial inequality over the past 50 years.
He reflected on the shift of economic centres of gravity to major cities, such as New York and London, making places unequal, with some areas locked out of prosperity. What’s more these inequalities are growing and replicating across generations. Jeevun challenged us to consider: given that technological change means it’s harder for people to get a good living by working in their jobs, what can we do to enable everyone to thrive?
Suzy Glass then shared some concepts from Hilary Cottam’s work on the fifth social revolution. In particular, modelling economics on Sapiens Integra, a female who nourishes and feeds those around her, rather than the current economic anchor of Homo Economicus, the male unit of productivity underpinning current economic theory. This switches the purpose of economy to collective flourishing. Participants were encouraged to share examples of where they are seeing examples of these new models in practice, with Civic Square being one of several that were shared.
Considerations for our Catalyst steering group
Designing for uncertainty
In two breakout sessions during the JRF session, we discussed a range of topics, including the impact of having a risk mindset in designing an organisation versus designing for an uncertainty mindset.
The need for control in risk-led organisations can stifle creativity and teams working with an uncertainty mindset are often more fulfilled. I am confident that the work we are doing through the Catalyst steering group is operating with an uncertainty mindset. It may be useful to explore this further for organisational design, as it could help to reframe expectations and ensure open approaches that encourage organisational and individual learning.
Reflecting, exploring and adapting
Victoria Haro’s words resonated enormously for me — the sense of connecting with a powerful tribe of active dreamers that transcend generations was uplifting. But I was most struck by the powerful wisdom of holding space for reflecting on causes of anxiety. This, Victoria described, was a first step to identifying questions and a suitable process to explore them, rather than fixating on a possible answer.
As the Catalyst steering group has been forming over the past couple of months, I think several of us have struggled with the balance between exploration and delivery. We were focussing on a need for deadlines and clear outputs and were becoming concerned that the exploration was taking more time than we’d anticipated.
In recent weeks, we have collectively recognised the anxiety this is causing, and the jeopardy that could come from not exploring and reflecting adequately, together. Lauren from Noisy Cricket is helping us navigate this, adapting our work plan to include grounding and reflection sessions.
Trusting in the process
In talking through new economic models in the JRF breakout sessions, we were asked to describe:
- what should a collective and equitable economy look like?
- how do we construct it?
- what are we willing to give up to get there?
My instinct was that I shouldn’t answer question one. It is something to be explored, collectively. And having done no exploration, I don’t have the insight or the lived experience on which to frame an answer. To reach an answer, I advocated putting power in the hands of those who are currently excluded from economic prosperity, relinquishing any power I have to shape a future without their involvement.
This goes back to the anxiety relating to the steering group on the tension between exploration and delivery. In the process of writing this post, I’ve realised that the answers will emerge if we trust the process, we just have to let go of our (false) sense of control.