How can we use what we’re learning to shape the future?

8 min readMay 6, 2020

In a previous post, I blogged about how we can make sense of a world transforming around us, with the need to take a step back and reflect as we respond, and value all kinds of data, to understand material but also emotional impacts on people and communities. If we’re going to take time to reflect, we also need to avoid to jumping too fast and far into the future to try and create quick fixes to challenges we’re only scratched the surface of. While we’re in the surreal of the emergency, the future will be a slow burn.

  • How we can challenge our biases about what the future will hold and what role we play in that?
  • How can we use the challenge of a global pandemic to learn from how other societies are tackling the virus and its implications?
  • If the virus had a “butterfly effect” of starting small but having massive effects, what other small practical changes are we seeing that we could scale?

Over this blog post, I’ll explore:

  • How can we learn lessons from the situation to help prioritise how we work in the future?
  • How can we challenge our unconscious biases to imagine ways of tackling the impacts of the crisis?
  • How can we learn from what we’ve built with people to understand how we tackle the future?
  • How can we turn learning into action now?

1. How can we learn lessons from the situation to help prioritise how we work in the future?

Several organisations are thinking about how we can learn about conditions that are helping accelerate, scale or…slow down our responses, or collaborate with people, be more open and vulnerable with people we don’t know. Before, it feels like we would have asked why can’t we collaborate better and why can’t we change and how we could work in a more innovative way?

How have we moved from asking “how might we” to “how did we”?

Nour Sidawi has shared what the Civil Service Directors’ Network is thinking, including the big question: “Why does it take a crisis for us to start to work in new ways that would otherwise have taken months, maybe years to agree / or achieve?”.

To kick start this reflective process, Collaborate CIC started a conversation online through their #5days5questions campaign about how people were experiencing and tackling the crisis. They’ve also very helpfully shared an open source learning framework that anyone can use.

They’ve recommended that to practically start surfacing the learning, you should:

  • Identify someone who can coordinate the learning efforts to make it easy for others to gather and share insights as part of their busy roles
  • Agree what information you want to collect & learn
  • Agree how you will gather information
  • Identify how you will come together to share and act on learning
  • Create an environment where it is OK to talk about uncertainty

Ian B at the RSA has developed a matrix on what practices we’re seeing in communities, institutions & policies

Lankelly Chase is sharing what it is noticing, what patterns it is seeing and what questions are coming up, building on What’s the Pont framework, as are the Children’s Society as Adam Groves shares.

In a next blog post, I will share how we’re capturing the learning from my organisation.

2. How can we challenge our unconscious biases to imagine ways of tackling the impacts of the crisis?

We have never before been in a situation as a society where death has been so close to our doors. With the crisis, all our beliefs and plans need to re-set. But it’s easier to get rid of a plan and to start again than our unconscious biases.

We need to reflect on the representations we construct about our relationship with our economy, our democracy and our society. We need to reflect how these show that we cannot create political, economic or social alternatives without starting with a change in our own behaviours.

3. How can we learn from what we’ve built with people to understand how we tackle the future?

As organisations like councils are responding to the emergency, the situation has forced us to not just to rethink but practically transform:

  • what we know about the world where we challenge our unconscious biases and instead experience how different people live their lives
  • what our role is beyond a service provider to one which is just as much a sense maker, storyteller, facilitator, movement builder or protector
  • how we work in a way where we don’t come with ready-made solutions, but instead test and learn in a way which encourages challenge
  • how we work in the open to develop creative ways to tackle issues and challenge ourselves and others to constantly put our communities first

We might have responded to a very practical emergency, but how can we respond to the potential change in paradigm that we may be experiencing, what the International Futures Forum calls the “conceptual emergency”?

What I’m finding a creative tension is the need to create ways to make sense of what’s happening in a rational way when what we’re experiencing is irrational in every sense? What if the frameworks we create reinforce unconscious biases about what how we think of the world around us.

That’s why it’s refreshing that the Forum for the Future has started a “diary of discontinuity” to make sense of this uncomfortable and surreal situation with online calls to discuss the discontinuities and tensions we’re seeing, and a set of questions to prompt that debate:

  • What am I being called to let go of?
  • What am I noticing about my inner response to the situation we face?
  • What is beginning to emerge now?
  • What is the work that needs doing right now, and am I in the right position to be the one who does it?

I would also recommend Dan Hill Slowdown Papers which are a kind of psychogeographic analysis of the world around us and what signals of change it might reveal.

With those very philosophical questions, there have been some very practical challenges in this situation:

  • How to move beyond feeling the need to tackle so many issues at once?
  • How can we channel the enthusiasm of people wanting to do different things to tackle the problems?
  • How can we embed and scale the change we’re going to be testing?
  • How can we balance the simple quick fixes and the deeper more complex change needed?

Moving forwards from an emergency response to a recovery, how can we build on how we’ve surfaced insights from people to better meet need while remembering the principles and actions we took to discover what matters most to people to help them thrive?

How can we combine big data and thick data to understand people’s needs, motivations and behaviours to create ways for residents to be able to actively protect themselves and others to reduce the spread of the virus through physically distancing while also shaping the design of new activities to tackle the inequalities that the crisis has created or exacerbated? How can we support residents themselves to become citizen scientists and sense makers?

We are Snook have reflected on how they’ve moved from a crisis response state to being a calm supportive partner who’s looking ahead and have come up with a set of principles that bring this to life:

  • Show what’s possible
  • Balance immediate needs with the long term view
  • Listen first, look second, build last
  • Meet immediate needs safely
  • Shape challenges, convene responses
  • Stimulate learning loops

4. How can we turn learning into action now?

As @cassierobinson highlights, we need to dothe learning in ways which develop our support networks and permanently strengthen our communities will also prepare us to cope better with future crises, either societal and exceptional, like the virus, or individual and inevitable.”

It is important to explore how we can create ways to respond to new unmet needs, but also take a strengths-based approach to thinking about the new resources, skills & energy we can work with to develop solutions to the issues we need to tackle. There have been some amazing initiatives which are developing infrastructure which has translated learning into recipes people can use now:

What frameworks are people developing to help not just organisations, but individuals and communities reflect on how this situation has affected them and what lessons they’ve learnt for the future?

What are you learning about you could adapt or reinvent your services and activities?

What have you learnt during Covid 19 about how you could work and collaborate differently?




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese