Weeknotes 2021
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Weeknotes 2021

Weeknotes 2021 — week 36

This week I’m loving it.

A lot has happened since I last wrote a weeknote. We passed £100m invested to support communities across the country. And if you want to know what impact that’s had, we also transferred six years of research over to the Institute for Community Studies. Also, Nando’s ran out of chicken and McDonald’s announced it is treating the people of Coventry to a new vegan range. It’s as if the world changed overnight.

Mayor McCheese and the Sheriff of Coventry are preparing for an influx of vegans, as their year as City of Culture comes to a climactic end.

How to change the world is the question de jour. In the olden days they even used to talk about “building back better.” And it has been a common theme in several conversations I’ve had recently, including at the Horse Hospital anti-institutional summer school, where I spoke about community ownership. The ensuing discussion with the students there got me thinking about why social change is hard, what stops it, and the importance of imagination.

A comment at a separate event, on approaches to understanding impact, compounded this.

“We don’t measure social change in the same way we experience it.”

Why is this? I wonder if part of the challenge for a lot of ‘social change’ organisations is the way we organise our work. Because this, in turn, affects how we organize our thinking and learning.

At this point it might feel odd to bring in the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs, but bear with me. I refer to him because he argued you can’t understand any bit of a system without understanding the whole system, and the interactions between them. ‘The system’ here can refer to a range of things — the economy or patriarchy for example. But the important thing to note is that ‘the system’ is not a separate entity. It is a set of relations between the minds of people. Systems like ‘the economy’ don’t exist in nature, and if humans went extinct tomorrow, the economy wouldn’t exist at all. Rather, such systems are created in the interactions between us and maintained in our heads. The relevance of this is that it is not how ‘social change’ work is organised.

We often organise our work into discrete projects and programmes, rather than organizing them to reflect the system we’re interacting with or even the social relations that sustain it. But this has the effect of creating knowledge silos, and blinkering us from seeing the entire system. This is both true within individual organisations, but also across them. Funders, charities, social enterprises are all often guilty of this — developing their own fiefdoms that prevent them from seeing the entire system on which they are acting to affect change.

Lukacs refers to this problem as ‘immediacy’. We often feel more comfortable with the immediate and subjective, like managing and delivering our own discrete projects, or even getting our inbox down to zero. Simple rather than complex tasks. But it is even more than this — we are often encouraged to focus on the immediate and subjective. Climate change is a great example — ensuring you’ve removed every last splodge and mark from a plastic pot before you put it in the recycling will not save the planet on its own. We need to focus on the bigger picture and doing more strategic work. The totality of the system is not given in immediacy. We can’t see things like patriarchy, systemic racism or even the effects of climate change if we only focus on the immediate.

I think this has implications for how to measure impact and social change too. If we are only evaluating programmes and interventions as separate entities, or conducting research in isolation from the wider pool of knowledge being generated, this does not help us understand the whole system. This ignorance inhibits effective action on the system, by inhibiting the consciousness raising required to see it. The reason I focus on this is that it often feels like when organisations are talking about facilitating social change, they are focused only on the parts of the system they can influence, but not the total system. They are focused on immediacy.

At the same time, they often fall into the trap of presenting their research or evaluation of their part of the system as objective truth, and something which can be replicated across the system. Not only does this underestimate the effects and internal dynamics of the system, it also assumes it is stable. This might be true for physical sciences, where improving your understanding of a quark can help you generalize about the rest of an atom. But for social systems it is more complex.

Social systems are constructed in the minds of human beings, and therefore prone to change. Furthermore, when individuals and groups become conscious of that system, it has the effect of changing that system by reconfiguring social relations. Because in being lifted out of immediacy and your subjective experience, you’re broken out of ideology. You have the potential for agency and imagining an alternative. And what’s more, once a group can achieve this it can recognise its common interests, then act together to change the system. This is what I witnessed happening at the Horse Hospital, while the Black Lives Matters movement is a good contemporary example of this process in action at scale.

So in terms of understanding impact, this means we’ll need to spend more time and effort assessing impact at the level of the system rather than the service. Obviously how to do this is difficult but not impossible. This is partly what I am hoping we’ll achieve through our new approach to learning, which is about building a culture around a suite of tools (theory of change, learning plan, OKRs) that combine to break down internal knowledge silos and make the whole ‘system’ visible. It is also why we are working with the Institute for Community Studies, to situate our evidence base within the broader context of community research. But we certainly don’t have all the answer, so I’m very interested in hearing from or about others that are already making headway in grappling with this challenge.

Now I’m off to Coventry to enjoy some ‘culture’.

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Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller

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Social researcher and writer. Putting theory into practice, to make the world a better place.