‘Beyond U.Lab’ – a Firestarter Festival event

“A day of exploration and discovery around U lab and a conversation about what next.”

I’m writing this from the point of view of a local Hub host, who wondered about follow through and how to help this, locally, then found himself part of a self-organising team tackling one of the main Firestarter Festival events, and then found himself being MC for the afternoon(!).

All good, though a few reflections prompted, along the way, which hopefully it may be useful to share.

At the TribePorty hub in Portobello, we had been thinking about what to do after the course finished; early in December, we had organised an unconference session for collaborative discussion of participants ideas for prototypes. The timing of the Firestarter week felt just right, in terms of picking up again after the festive break.

I had kept in touch with Karen about the Firestarter Festival generally and about a TribePorty contribution. And as part of this we had a chat about ‘prototyping’ – could more be attempted to help people get ahead? We were both keen to involve service-designers in this.

Together we discussed a set of aims for the Wednesday Firestarter event:

  • Share Scotland’s learning journeys that have emerged from U lab
  • Provide opportunities to share prototyping from sparks to wildfire, and tap into a range of expertise from the U.Lab community and beyond.
  • Consider what next? What else is emerging beyond U.lab?
  • Promote contact-making and -development across the Scottish U.Lab community

And in style, the event should ideally be pretty relaxed and collaborative. Of course, such events don’t ‘just happen’ and I volunteered to rough out a plan. What emerged was quite long – but then you can’t just state the title of the activity. It has to be described to a certain extent, and the rationale processed in the mind (and on paper), to explain it to yourself and anyone else involved – they may need to pick up the threads after all.

As indeed it proved. Karen had to exit stage left swiftly, to look after her parents’ predicament, and it fell to Keira to write to the rest of us, asking if we’d be willing to ‘step up’.

And of course we did. Though it did feel a little unfamiliar: all of a sudden we had become a self-organising group, for real, with a deadline to meet and participants to work with.

Luckily, one couldn’t have sought a better bunch. I remember Angie and I looking at the list of those who’d signed up, and both of us feeling encouraged at the prospect of likely participation. I remember thinking “this is like guests at the party who know what to do, and don’t hang about waiting to get on and talk with each other”.

The day itself was so wet – pouring rain on the way there…a wee panic about my workshop bag getting soaked, but thankfully the materials stayed dry. Memo-to-self, remember to wrap everything in plastic bags…

Arrived at the venue…it was unfamiliar… even though I must have walked past it dozens of times en route to other places. Anxiously thinking ‘I really should have visited beforehand’, paced about the room considering acoustics (quite ecclesiastical), table shapes (oblong not round), general layout, was there enough time to prepare – and don’t people tend to begin to arrive colossally early? (better that than late, though).

Eventually , some 35 participants arrived and settled in. Yes, there were a fair number of no-shows (weather, illnesses, others being understandably busy)….But we had a viable event.

So, onwards! We spent the first part of the day considering our (varied) learning journeys. Keira and Angie had edited a video from what they’d surveyed (with background music guaranteed to go round and round in the back of your mind), then Keira summarised some of the main survey findings in a little more detail.

Enough talking from the platform! So we spent as long again in our first small group discussions [images of notes]. For a few years now, I’ve tried to avoid the temptation to try to draw these sorts of things back to some sort of plenary conclusion – it’s so destructive of the energy that emerges when people are having conversations with each other. The energy and ideas which flow thereafter, in individual minds, are much more valuable than some collective communiqué.

Towards the end of the morning Kenneth arrived – still equipped with sticks (a consequence of his own personal contribution to the Year of the Dad – though he may not have realised this at the time of the accident). Since the course and the December get-together last autumn, Kenneth has maintained conversation with Otto and the Presencing Institute, and he gave us the gist of how these had been developing. It seems they appreciate and support our developing intentions. ‘Provided we respect the integrity of the U’, then it looks like we can be imaginative and creative, with their support. This augurs well.

One of the good things I perceived about this part of the day was that people knew they could ask about what was on their minds, and did, and were given a straight answer. Again, I thought, this augurs well generally.

Then we switched to looking forwards, towards what we might seek to develop and undertake together in 2016. A variety of possibilities had already emerged in various local and national conversations, as well as from the Presencing Institute. These candidates were taped to a handy wall surface. Participants could add further options – and again did. Our original intention had been to suggest voting on our preferences, but late in the planning process, the idea had surfaced of ‘subscribing’ to options that interested us individually. As it was, none of us had brought any red dots for anonymous voting anyway, and collectively we were happy to sign post-its and apply them to our priority options. My own perception of what resulted is very encouraging: these open declarations of interest provide us collectively with a first small step towards the sort of self-organising groups that might express the U.Lab ethos. None of this is finished, let alone Wrapped Up. And it is potentially gloriously untidy while underway – the prospect of herding cats is real and intriguing – but it feels culturally Right.

Drawing breath after the flurry of post-its and a gaggle of conversation, we then thought of lunch. We’d suggested a walk, in the plan – but it was still pouring, outside…so the exercise we got was a dash to the local sandwich shops and back.

We had planned to spend the afternoon considering Prototyping, based upon having previously acquired a sense of this being an aspect of the U where participants/learners generally could do with some help. Again, this appreciation isn’t at all a ‘finished’ thing, but the sense of it seemed strong enough for the offer of a conversational framework to be potentially useful.

So we had recruited some conversation hosts – no one was to give a presentation – with the idea of seeing where these interchanges would lead to. Of course, hosting a genuine conversation, over a relatively extended period of time, is for many of us more difficult than giving a simple combined presentation plus Q&A – so, special thanks to all who enabled such lively discussions.

Here’s what we covered:

  • Jenni Inglis on how to make, enact, and tell stories – and not just sitting down around a table;
  • Judy Wilkinson on the marvellous social networks that begin to emerge when people connect about potatoes (growing and eating them) and allotments;
  • Katy McNeil (SG’s ‘Leading Improvement’ Team) on small-scale testing and learning using the PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) cycle;
  • Keira Anderson (with social enterprise Snook): an opportunity for people to ask anything they’d ever wanted to about service-design;
  • Marie-Chantale Hervault on her own prototype service for helping people find work they love;
  • Ninian Stuart on his own prototype on next-generation potential for working on the land.

(my apologies to any of the above for whom I’ve not adequately summarised their topic! Please let me know.).

In addition, and more or less on-the-fly – this is what happens when an enterprising group of people get together – Lorna Jackson and Chris Bruce helped a fairly sizeable group of us have a standing conversation while shifting the post-it-ed posters on the potential activities for 2016, into a number of possible patterns.

I took the role of peripatetic time-keeper, and via this gained a sense that we would prefer to keep going with the conversations we were involved with – though some took the intended opportunity to move between tables a bit (sensibly applying the ‘law of two feet’) – rather than push people into another activity.

We had intended to encourage some individual planning, but with table conversations going well, and with grouped 2016 potential activities emerging quite nicely [more to come generally, on this], an opportunity to look over the whole (but without squashing things too much into an artificial conclusion) came into vision.

So, we grouped around the wall display for some collective thoughts, to bring the day to an end, before dispersing into a still-sodden Edinburgh twilight.

Did we achieve our aims? Some tentative reflections:

  • Share Scotland’s learning journeys that have emerged from U lab – some sharing (both one-to-many and many-to-many) did take place;
  • Provide opportunities to share prototyping from sparks to wildfire, and tap into a range of expertise from the U.Lab community and beyond? Not so sure about this (perhaps complex) one – lively conversations notwithstanding;
  • Consider what next? What else is emerging beyond U.lab? – it seemed so, especially with the welcome added-value of ‘declarations of interest’ rather than voting pure & simple;
  • Promote contact-making and -development across the Scottish U.Lab community? Certainly hope so – of course this one is in the eye of the beholding individual – but it seemed a small-enough, and well-lively-enough, group for some good contact development to have occurred. Self-organising groups, here we come, hopefully…!

Next steps:

  • Further thought to be given to the prototyping aspect;
  • More to come (happening already, in a preliminary way) on possible self-organised activities for 2016.

2 thoughts on “‘Beyond U.Lab’ – a Firestarter Festival event

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