The difference a story makes

Hello there! My name’s Kirsty and I’m the researcher who was working on the project to look at the experiences of people who have been involved in u.lab in Scotland which has resulted in the series of blog posts which have been featuring here over the last few months.  I’m a PhD student at the University of Glasgow and as part of the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science we get the chance to apply to do a 3 month internship with the Scottish Government.  While my PhD topic is looking at young people’s experiences of having a family member in prison, so most of my colleagues tend to carry out internships in Justice and Analytical Services, I applied to do one with Local Government and Analytical Services instead, linking in to my scholarship funding from What Works Scotland.

During my internship, I was exploring ways to gauge the impact of u.lab in Scotland. Before I saw the internship advert I had never heard of u.lab but on finding out I’d been successful with my application I completed the u.lab Introduction course and began to work through the u.lab MOOC.  To be honest, when I started the internship I still didn’t feel like I had much of an idea of what u.lab was.  I’d read a lot about it and watched some of the videos on the MOOC site but still don’t think I really got it.  Although I’ve worked in the public, third and private sectors before starting my PhD, systems theory was totally new to me, as was a lot of the language around u.lab.  I spent my first couple of weeks surrounded by Theory U and u.lab reading feeling slightly confused by it all.  I then started to carry out interviews with people who had taken part in u.lab, speaking to them about their experiences, how they used the tools and what their thoughts around u.lab and Theory U were.  These are the videos that you may have watched which form the rest of this series of blog posts.

This was where it began to fall into place for me. Hearing about the practical applications and hearing it put in simpler terms, it’s about listening in a different way and having different and better conversations with people, bringing in a range of voices and looking at difficult or wicked issues without immediately having to find a “fix” for them.  It’s also very much about the self and how you can’t really make change in other ways until you have first really looked at yourself.  While I loved hearing about everyone’s different experiences and stories the thing that really struck me was the across the board enthusiasm of everyone I spoke to and their real belief that they could change things and work differently to make a change in whatever area they were working in.  Working in academia you can sometimes feel a bit divorced from the “real world” and the three year period of your PhD research means looking ahead to what you might do after it is finished isn’t always easy.  For me, hearing people speak about u.lab and Theory U in such practical terms brought it to life for me and has inspired me to think not only about the research I am currently carrying out and how I could do this differently but also about where I want to be after I finish the PhD.

At the end of the project I produced a series of blog posts and the draft of a report looking at the journey of u.lab in Scotland over the last two years. As well as having these “final” documents, however, it also left me with lots of thoughts and unanswered questions that I’m going to share some of here.

I’d tried to write a summary of “what is u.lab” to include in the report but really struggled. It seems to be so many different things to different people and an approach which must be experienced rather than just read about, but if you can’t describe it to people and explain to them what they might “get” from it then how do you encourage people to be involved?  This was one of the themes that came from the interviews, that if you just started to work differently people would ask about it, there was no need to tell them about it in the first place and try and explain what you were doing.  Following on from this, how do you grow a movement of change-makers?  Charting the journey of the u.lab community in Scotland made me think how this could be supported without taking over the organic bottom-up growth that has already begun, and also how can you reflect and represent this growth so that the community can see itself and its work, encouraging further growth?

I’ve now had time after I finished the project to reflect on these questions further and still don’t think I really have answers to them. Maybe that’s another thing that my work with u.lab has taught me, that you don’t always need to have answers and solutions, that it’s okay to sit with an issue and just reflect for a while.

This blog has been a lovely chance to take some time to reflect on my thoughts around u.lab and my time working with the Scottish Government on this project. Thanks to all the interview participants who gave up their time and shared their experiences with me and also to Keira and Jacqueline at the Scottish Government who made the internship such an enjoyable experience.   I hope watching the videos over the last few months has been as enjoyable and informative for people as carrying out the project was for me.

Catch up on all the ulabscot stories “going around the U” on our YouTube playlist


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