Progress or Not?

If R:2025 were being externally assessed there would be meetings about Performance or Metrics or Indicators of Progress against Plan. In the previous post I described how Value and Impact of R:2025 could be thought of as operating at Personal, Public and Social levels. Progress can also be thought of at these same three levels. Progress in my personal wellbeing; progress in establishing, maintaining and being useful to a network of intermediaries; and progress in connecting to social issues in ways that open up opportunities for change.

This post tries a different line of thinking: Progress against planned developments in implementing the arrangements that will sustain R:2025 as a thriving, worthwhile set of activities.

For R:2025, as a whole, to move forward it needs to be making progress on six development strands:

  • Having some ‘presence’ – an independent, visible existence
  • Being known by others – recognised as interesting; promoted by them
  • Being content rich – having enough ‘stuff’, of sufficient interest
  • Being referenced by others within their own work – links and collaborations
  • Being managed in ways that are realistic – sustainable, still fun to do
  • Having sufficient resources beyond core – allowing creative activity to happen

If Progress is related to Purpose, there can be difficulties pinning down the progress being made in a situation where the ‘project’ is less precisely defined but is more exploratory – where the sense of purpose is developed as the activities go along. This will be less precise than the type of performance measures usually being demanded. It will be less linear and less reliant on boxes setting out what was being done, by when. It becomes less about tracking progress against fixed milestones and deliverables, and more about managing understandings: creating time and space for understandings to emerge, to be constructed as narrative – and yet be purposeful, deliberate, systematic and considered. There can still be the intention that any process maintains a degree of rigour.

This needs a regular mechanism for reviewing things that is a bit flexible; allows for variance from the preset route; involves ‘plausibility’ of the account being decided upon; which pulls together such evidence as might be available and tries to make sense of that.  This is close to the evaluations of development programmes that were part of my work between 1990 and 2010 – evaluations that themselves developed as the programme unfolded.

The mechanism is better if supported by some framework that enables assessments to be done is a structured way that is developmental rather than rigid. It is probably going to be strong on self-assessment, possibly with the option for some moderation together with others who understand what is being attempted. It is also probably going to be less time-bound than usual. It will be able to take a medium-term view eg over a 3 or 4 year timescale, with ongoing assessment able to be made annually, or every few months, or whenever seems most appropriate.

One possible Thinking Tool that can allow this to happen is to have a set of potential futures linked to the bullet points above. This would allow intended progress to be sketched out as ‘Here is where things will get to on a good day ….’; Here, however, is where things could end up if things don’t progress as hoped…’.

Between these two extremes are a whole variety of potential lines of progress. This set of futures can act as measures for tracking where actual progress is taking things. Following the trajectory of R:2025 against the potential futures will also enable the identification of things to put more emphasis on in order for decisions to be made about how R:2025 should move forward.

The various stages and positions as things progress are more Waymarkers reached than Milestones passed. The whole thinking through of what progress has been made; how that has been done; where things are adrift from original intentions, and the extent to which that matters – all is more akin to stocktaking, documenting, explaining, archiving, storytelling than it is to assessing, measuring and passing/failing.

A diagrammatic representation of this follows:


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Is there any value in it: What is it worth?

This post will explore notions of value, usefulness, gain, worth and impact .. all in relation to the other ideas explored as part of R:2025.

At various times in my career I was asked to undertake a Value for Money assessment on some development activity or other. More often than not I started off by saying that it couldn’t really be done because the organisation had no clear idea of what it meant by Value. The money bit of the equation was clear, but the other side of the balance was sometimes nothing more than volume of activity (whether of any value or not). The Value for Money assessment being looked for could be as simple as ‘Has enough stuff been done to warrant having given over that amount of money?’

Beyond that, some simple queries might have asked:

Does Value mean value to the funding organisation, value to the delivering agent, value to any participants, or value to the wider community?

Does Value mean some notional sense of ‘goodness’; or some improvements in processes; or some added-up numerical outputs; or better outcomes in the lived experiences of those in a particular target group?

Are we talking about absolute views of Value, or relative views of Value? What would have been the deadweight value of doing nothing, or the displacement value of doing something else, or the value of not putting forward any money?

Why is the organisation interested in Value, anyway – and how does that motivation drive views about how Value might be measured?

As part of an early foray into the varying understandings of Value (as part of Value for Money considerations connected to a national skills strategy) I separated out Value to the economy (as employment gains from higher skills base), Value from contributions made to the wider skills agenda (as employer satisfaction, contribution to sector priorities), Value to individuals in terms of qualifications gained (as learner satisfaction, contribution to skills improvements), and Value distributed across the outcomes of various government departments (as contributions to reduced unemployment, improved health, reduced reoffending, increased sense of citizenship, or better public services). These were all Values that might be assessed and set against the Money side of the equation in order to make judgements about better Value for the same Money, or securing the same Value for less Money.

At around the same time, others were developing ideas around Social Return on Investment, looking at:

  • Securing adequate levels of social outcomes from the programmes of government, or city, re health, employability, inclusion, closing poverty gaps, service design and delivery, policy innovation and implementation, culture and artistic endeavour, or development of flexibility, resilience, smartness etc.
  • Securing increased levels of personal achievement, personal meaning, wellbeing etc
  • Securing improved skills, attitudes, behaviours etc
  • Securing improved effectiveness in the ways organisations are operated, with better end-user satisfactions and increased organisational productivities.
  • Securing increased capacity for people and organisations to deal more productively with Difference

Often this was linked to ideas of ‘upstream investment’ or ‘invest to save’. These proposed early, low-cost interventions that could reduce the need for later, more costly interventions that would be required once problems were left to become complex and intractable.

Notions of Social Return, Social Gain and Social Value were, initially, developed more strongly in relation to public bodies. In the UK this was put into legislation in the Social Value Act which came into force in January 2013. This required public bodies to take social and environmental benefits into account when procuring services and awarding contracts. This was welcomed as a principle but was not fully put into practice, particularly once government funding to public bodies started to be reduced.

One reason put forward for not having fully implementing the requirements of the Act was that there was a need to wait until adequate measuring tools had been developed. A number of on-line tools were put forward but sometimes these were too complex, or needed a range of assumptions to be made by those applying the tool, or were too headline to capture the nuances of different contexts. Measuring social or public value certainly needs to be done appropriately, with sensitivity to the social context; needs to be able to take into account the complexities and multifaceted natures of social settings; needs to be able to put a scale against notions such as wellbeing; and needs to have a degree of involvement of those most closely affected.

In a number of cases there has been an almost automatic assumption that offering a public service (directly or via a contract) necessarily produces positive social value. There may, however, be situations where work produces negative social value. Again the plea has been for clearer understandings of what is meant by Value and how it might be recognised.

More recently, clarity around Social Value has also become an issue for the private sector. A significant article in this was the one by Mark Kramer and Michael Porter (Jan 2011, Harvard Business Review) titled ‘Creating Shared Value’.

This notion of Shared Value believes that companies can and should make a contribution to solving large-scale social problems, and that they can do so whilst still returning shareholder value in the form of dividends on profits. Companies are well-placed to come up with new products that address the issues most keenly expressed by those with direct experience of those issues. Addressing social issues is then less about money-donating philanthropy (although that still has a role), and goes well beyond simpler views of Corporate social Responsibility that urge companies to avoid social harm or do some forms of social volunteering in the local community – it sees addressing social issues as a business opportunity. There are others who would argue that social gains shouldn’t be monetised and turned into business products. Some might want clear divisions between the public realm and the world of business. Others may see business having a commanding role in deciding public benefits. Certainly those involved in business education may have interesting work to do sorting all this out with emerging generations of business leaders.

There is a chain, in thinking about Public Value, which goes from overall purposes and motivations, through defining tasks, with a set of implementation phases, through to outcomes and ultimately arriving at assessment of impacts. Is Value therefore intrinsically linked to Purpose, maybe through a linkage of Purposes – Aspirations – Gains?

There may be some insights from my thoughts on my approach as a writer (set out as a series of notes-to-myself, on The motivations for writing and the gains for the writer, from writing, are two sides of the same coin. If a person writes predominantly for money then the value is measured in cash terms. If a person writes for pleasure then the value is measured in terms of satisfaction. If a person writes as catharsis then the value is measured in terms of some sense of relief.

Some writers describe what they do as a compulsion, a vocation, a calling that has to be responded to: Something that cannot be ignored. Maybe, for these, a sense of value is felt as the progress made, the word-count produced, the pages of text edited. For others, writing is a form of work, a financially-aspirational form of self-employment. Value comes as income generated over and above outgoings expended. Value may also be linked to feelings of job-satisfaction, and a sense of balance or control.

Or maybe the motivation is the lure of fame, with value being put on celebrity status, public recognition, Facebook likes and Twitter followers. Or for some, writing may be a way of dealing with personal demons; a righting of wrongs; a satisfying of troubles. Value is seen as resolution, or as retribution.

But this may be straying too far from the prime focus on Value.

Going back to previous posts, R:2025 is seen as operating at three levels – Personal, Public and Social. It is natural therefore to think of value in these same ways:

Personal Value: Gains for myself, contributing to my wellbeing, and creating personal meanings.

Public Value: Gains for the network of others who are likely to have influence in the public domain, contributing to the stock of collective distributed thinking and approaches, collaborative modelling and explorations of ways of being and ways of doing – setting new possibilities – contributing to collective capital, collective culture and collective capabilities.

Social Value: Gains for wider society, contributing to better outcomes from social puzzles, getting closer to people having what they are entitled to and have a right to expect: Better quality of life, less exclusion, more social capital, more civic engagement, more safety and security, better health and education.

There are links across the three interconnecting levels: Specific changes in personal behaviours may result in new sets of public ways of acting, which can lead to broad collective gains for society as a whole.

There is one sense in which R:2025 cannot fail to be of some value. If it considered as a Thought Experiment – a piece of exploratory conceptual creativity – then it becomes more or less useful as a set of ideas for others to use or not. The thoughts only produce Value once they are taken up by others – Use Value – but, since there is always the possibility that someone will find some part of it useful, R:2025 will always have Potential Value.

Then again, if R:2025 is a journey of contemporary exploration, rather than a predefined destination to be arrived at, the value lies within the process. It is a narrative, a storyline with value in its enjoyability and prompting of imaginings and dreamings, not a production-line with outputs, deliverable and products.

This still relies on engagement with a public, an audience. Old-style marketing advice leads organisations to think in terms of their product, their selling points, and the gains that can be sold to others. Newer-style marketing advice encourages identifying the problem people have that your product might solve. Design thinking starts with what people are experiencing and develops potential solutions with people.

So maybe to get a sense of Value we need to think less in terms of ‘I have something that others need; and I will demonstrate its usefulness to them’ and more in terms of ‘What is it that others might value, and how can the things I wish to do link across to that so that others gain (and reciprocally, because others gain, I also gain).

None of this is neutral. Any consideration of personal, public and social value is open to being contested – partly through people holding different ideological perspectives about society and what counts as important; partly from the open nature of notions such as Value, which operates as a composite of a number of variable understandings.

Social Value can cover a range of things: Countering more limited definitions and views about what matters in society; doing this in ways that take account of the contemporary; setting out new possibilities and different ways of doing things; testing out language and ambiguities; crosslinking with other aspects as a way of thinking about the system as a whole and not looking at single issues in isolation; creating new approaches based maybe on serious non-seriousness.

Social Value might also include: Broadening of public debate, across wider cohorts of people who are likely to have impact in the public domain; redefining ideas of usefulness; adding to the collective culture; improving on the sense of place; increase in capabilities necessary for more creative thinking; modelling new ways of being and new ways of doing?

Despite the volatility of notions of Value, precision about measuring it is still often asked for.

In the art world, in addition to setting out the activity and the way an audience might be engaged, there is often a requirement to show quantifiable Value. This might be value-as-producer (degree of originality, linkages, those involved); or value-as-visitor (visitor numbers, feedback, visitor types); or value-as-user (how ideas have been taken further; new considerations emerging).

Maybe here is the place for a diversion into the Usefulness of Art. The debates around Art for Art’s sake and Socially-engaged Art have been well-rehearsed for some time. At one level R:2025 is an indulgence, a set of thinkings that may lead nowhere in particular, that may engage with few others, and which may have no noticeable impact outside of my own head. The intention, however, as set out earlier, is that it becomes of some use, engaging with others – intermediaries who have some leverage on social issues, and through that is able to impact on ways those issues are seen and acted upon.

The aim is that R:2025 counts as Useful Art. This connection was made stronger by a visit to the Office of Useful Art when it was temporarily based at the IKON Gallery in Birmingham. ‘Useful Art’ is not anything new but has been given particular shape by Tania Bruguera, as art immersed directly in society; as art that doesn’t simply signal social issues but which proposes and implements potential solutions. It is art that deals with social consequences. More detail of such activity can be found at This prompted me to look again at what I thought the Value of R:2025 might be in terms of being Useful Art. Certainly it was intended as:

  • Practical – illuminating possible ‘how to’ elements
  • Educational – generating and sharing really-useful knowledge (‘Really-useful’ being a distinction I came across in my adult learning career – adult learning could be intrinsically useful for its own sake, or could be really useful for participants because it engaged with the here and now of their everyday lives)
  • Social – linking to insights and putting forward the potential for social changes
  • Ideological – operating as an activity informed by, and exploring, social values and ideas

R:2025 might explore different ways of being ‘art’ or ‘creative’, maybe challenging ideas of what counts as useful activity. It aims to respond to some of the urgencies of the ‘contemporary’. It explores ideas and ways of thinking based on C21st UK real situations. R:2025 aims to have beneficial, practical outcomes. It hopes to be a way of bringing about useful changes, however modest. All of this puts R:2025 close to what might be seen as Useful Art whilst having some sort of Cultural Value.

One significant recent national input to the debates on the value of art and culture was that of UK Arts Council chief Peter Bazalgette, calling for an approach that starts with the inherent value of culture, continuing through all the social and educational benefits that flow from this, and ending with any economic gains. Assessing the value of art and creativity initially focuses on the linkages and common understandings around human relations – and only then looks for added value to aspects such as the economy. This is the reverse of the approach that jumps in to immediately establish the economic benefits of art (Which takes us back to Value being seen in terms of Money for Money).

At the same time, contradictions exist within the procedures established by bodies such as the Arts Council. Stressing the significant value of art can be undermined when such promotion and support is wrapped around by too much bureaucracy as part of an audit culture. (I have written more on this in the article on Bureaucracy on ). Where this begins to get oppressive then one value of the arts might be to argue against the established notion of Value; to suspend presumptions, explore who determines what counts as Value and assume that any knowledge of Value is always going to be only partial.

Finally, we arrive at the idea of social Impact.

In 1993 the Arts Council produced a discussion document on the social impacts of the arts and later Matarasso produced ‘Use or Ornament: The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts’. The argument of these was that the social impacts of the arts lay in effects beyond any practical artefacts or events. Impacts arose via engagements that had enduring effects in the lives of people directly touched by the artform. The greatest social impacts were most likely to come from direct participation. Such work resulted in lists of things that participation could do for people’s lives. Since there was little chance (or desirability) for ’objectivity’ through control groups or longitudinal studies, what counted was the perspectives of participants.

As with Value, there is a lack of clarity about what Impact looks like and how it might happen. There is an issue here of level ie the differences between personal and social: Feeling better about one’s neighbourhood doesn’t improve the housing stock; the promotion of ‘inclusion’ via a set of diversionary activities will not reduce the structural barriers to getting secure employment. Participant perspectives may not align with social impacts.

A further recurring difficulty is how to separate out the impacts of art from the variety of other external influences, in order to get even a sense of causalities (as opposed to simpler correlations). There are other difficulties. For example, consequences of an activity may not be immediately apparent.

Many of the more interesting social issues are complex ones, requiring cross-agency collaborations, and necessitating structural approaches to social change. In these cases a single-line approach is unlikely to produce any noticeable impact on the situation. What is needed is collective impact on a number of fronts – via various agents and agencies that have shared agendas; where activities can be mutually reinforcing; with commonly understood ways of thinking about the nature of impact and its reporting.

This was certainly the approach taken with the whole-city approach to change (in this case in levels of language, literacy and numeracy across a population of 1 million people) via the Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership, starting in 1996. (Details are on the website). This collaborative, structural approach was relatively unique at the time but there have been a number of other examples since then. The general approach to this kind of collective impact has more recently been gathered together under the term Shared Value (referred to earlier).

Funding bodies, research councils and development organisations, understandably, wish to see Impact from their work. This has required them to come up with their own definitions of Impact – as some demonstrable contribution to society; or as demonstrable differences made to the ways that people think, behave and interact; or as better understandings and reshapings of local or national activities – all as auditable consequences of some activity undertaken.

Within UK Higher Education, much recent emphasis has been on a Research Excellence Framework, with an annual assessment of (and publication of) various aspects of ‘effectiveness’ or ‘excellence’. ‘Impact’ is one such aspect, and is expected to have a higher weighting in future assessment rounds. Much energy has gone into ways of demonstrating Impact and of recording evidence of Impact. This has generated a plethora of toolkits, impact planning, impact-management techniques and so on. Some of the aspects of Impact might include:

  • Citations by others as being of value
  • Content being incorporated into the work of others
  • Products developed that show links back to one’s own work
  • Outcomes used as basis of teaching others
  • Recognised by funding bodies as worthy of further support
  • Invitations to present at high-level conferences and seminars

This aspect of the assessment relates to Academic Impacts – the demonstrable contributions one’s work has had on the thinking of others. There are also the harder-to-demonstrate Economic and Social Impacts – the demonstrable contribution of one’s work to social and economic change. On either scale impacts can range from being quite instrumental and functional, through the building of capabilities and capacities, to making significant contributions to conceptual understandings and the reframing of discussions.

Whatever scales are adopted, once these become linked to prestige or to funding then the pressure is on the demonstrate success (almost at any cost). Attempts at manipulations simply in order to secure adequate scorings in the assessment have led to the process being seen, by some, as being of little value. Alternative ways of thinking about research effectiveness and impact have been proposed.

Particularly when thinking about Social Impacts, within complex networks of influences, there have been calls for more creative approaches, along the lines of design thinking. This would take a problem-solving approach, constantly thinking about the needs of any ‘end-users’ with whom relationships are developed. This allows for curiosity, uncovering new solutions, working with tentative solutions and looking for multiple solutions, rather than so-called Silver Bullets, that can be rapidly prototyped to find the best ways forward. In this context, Impacts may be more difficult to set out linearly but may be more interesting to identify, assess and describe – as well as, potentially, being much more meaningful.

So what does any of this imply for R:2025?

Certainly, since there is an academic or research element, it is worth looking at the six bullet points above (linked to the research assessment process) even if these get adapted to fit the creative exploratory aspects of the activities.

I am confident that there will be Value produced by doing the activities that form part of the overall creative enterprise. Understanding of what is intended by the term ‘Value’ in this context will remain partial and open to further development. It has fragments of meaning that overlap with those of other terms such as ‘Gain’ and ‘Impact’.

At the personal level there will be gains for me associated with each of the five aspects identified in the Foresight Report as useful for sustaining personal wellbeing (see earlier post on the Personal level of R:2025). There will be a degree of Public Value in terms of common value across networks of people linked with as part of the activities. This will be generated less by directly promoting any benefits from what I am doing (although that ‘broadband’ distribution of contact with the work is necessary to build engagement with a wide audience). More emphasis will be put (from 2015 onwards) on the puzzles that the potential audience and intermediaries are themselves working on, and how that might find support from my own work. Since these puzzles and issues are directly connected with social concerns, there is the potential for some Social Value being secured by changing the ways those issues are being worked on.

There will not be any attempt to objectively ‘prove’ the Value or Impacts. At the same time, every opportunity will be taken to collect examples of things that connect with these intentions. This may result in a rather disparate set of indications but it is still possible to try to make sense of these within the parameters of the overall intentions of R:2025, and to see what stories such a collection of indications might be able to narrate.

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Impacting on social issues

The last post, setting out a possible change model, introduced some of the social issues that frustrate me because of their seeming importance in contemporary society yet there being an apparent lack of scale and pace in any progress being made against them. Fixing these ‘social deficits’ represent progress that (in my opinion), would make things better – however that might be determined – for more people and more kinds of people. They include issues such as:

  • Groups of young people are proportionally underemployed and socially marginalised – with a sense that they might form a ‘lost generation’
  • Some poor people are locked in mechanisms that ‘pump’ money away from them, towards the more rich and powerful: and they are then stigmatised for that
  • Many good social intentions fade in their implementation
  • Approaches to the provision of sufficient housing don’t appear to offer robust solutions
  • Fundamentalist cultures can clash, intentionally or otherwise, to the detriment of those involved
  • Some localities appear to be doomed forever not to flourish
  • There are few ways of agreeing about ‘Value’ despite it being seen as important
  • Children are growing up negatively affected by poverty – yet few real, immediate solutions seem to exist
  • Future risks have been highlighted (re food, water, environment etc) – but there are few agreed ways forward for dealing with these
  • Decision-makers are increasingly distanced from the situations about which they are being asked to decide
  • Leaders and managers are expected to operate within contexts that are more flexible and contingent than the situations they have been prepared/trained for: so things don’t progress at the scale and pace possible
  • Some ‘wicked’ problems are acknowledged as having complicated, inter-related causes, yet the complexity of solutions is underappreciated
  • Learning models lag behind learning needs and learning potentials – with too many intermediary influences interfering with possible progress
  • Services are conceptualised, organised and delivered on the basis of what has happened in the past rather than what is needed in the future
  • Knowledge of the ‘right ways forward’ is likely to be ambiguous and uncertain – the most that can be hoped for is ‘best yet’ understandings within particular contexts
  • Storytelling is a valid way of planning in response to predicaments
  • Anti-social activities (eg child abuse/neglect) constantly find new forms; but those responsible for countering it are left using outmoded tools to do the job
  • Many things come down to the ‘individualised’ level; but are conceptualised/formulated at the ‘group’ level – whilst solutions may be at the ‘structural’ level
  • Notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ are coalescing and becoming unreliable in their useWithin the change model already described, one way that R:2025 could start to address any of the above may be through connecting with others along lines of thought in which there is an exploration around:
  • Here is where we seem to be ….. Here is what seems to be pinning us here ….. Here are some of the ideas and representations that sustain this position ….. Here are some alternative storylines ….. Here is a potential route-map to help with thinking different ways forward ….. Here are alternative ideas and representations, linked to some of the practicalities if things are to change for people and places.

In addition to exploring the content of the issues, there is the puzzle of understanding why rapid, planned progress is rarely being made.

Each of the above issues can be viewed as being made up of a number of contributing fragments: various sets of shifting understandings or different ways of seeing things. These are not precise things, but generalisations. Some may appear to contradict other ones – that is all part of trying to capture the ambiguities.They are more shifting kaleidoscopes than fixed notions. They might be thought of as propositions that can be tested in order to get clearer lines of thought when such things are being worked on in practice. Some sets of fragments can be specific to a single issue; others are more generic, underpinning several of the issues. Working on these fragments may produce insights that can then be reconfigured in several different ways in order to shed light on the broad social issues.

Whilst it has all been described as ‘puzzles’ … to ‘be thought about’ … gaining ‘understandings’ … the ultimate aim is to leverage these thinkings and understandings so that they begin to have real-life real-time impacts (however marginal) on the social impacts that the puzzles represent. This is, admittedly, in the ‘Thinking can change the world’ mould, but in the change model way that was set out in the last posting.

Here is a whole host of fragments of understanding that the social issues might be thought about in relation to: Continue reading

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Can writing and thinking and putting stuff on a website change the world?

Maybe that is oversimplifying things a bit. Putting it another way: Can the mix of activities that make up R:2025 engage with people who can exert some leverage on a small number of social issues? That sounds more possible. It is still a hope, an ambition: It still needs a setting out of the mechanisms by which this might happen. Somewhat grand-sounding, it needs a theory of change.

The previous posts in this series set out that R:2025 is being thought of as three interacting layers: the Personal, the Public and the Social. I have outlined how (at the Personal level) there is me, operating alone, writing and thinking, putting things on a website and doing seminars, and so on. At the Public level, these personally-driven activities connect with others who are thinking about the same issues, having their own conferences and seminars, doing their own writing, and so on. There is mutual engagement across those two layers and this stands some chance of creating leverage on the thinking and acting at each level.

It is time now to focus on the third layer of activity: the Social. Seeing the whole project from this perspective implies that (within our shifting social, political and economic context) there are some things that are issues for substantial numbers of people; that are contemporary concerns. The issues, at this Social level, that interest me most include: What might be done to increase the employabilities of young people; identifying those policies and processes that sustain financial inequalities in society; sustaining the capacities of localities to flourish; clarifying issues of public/private; understanding why planned progress is rarely made at the scale and pace required; and so on.

These are things that need to change, that keep recurring to me as issue that people are puzzling over but which do not yet seem to have simple easily-implemented answers. The finer details of these will be dealt with more fully in the next posting.

So we are left with that overarching idea: That me (Personally) doing creative activities, engaging with a broad (Public) audience, can change how a set of (Social) puzzles get thought about and acted upon – allowing the possibility that some small changes can be brought about at that broad social level. If this is to happen, what is the set of interacting processes by which this might work? What is the theory of change?

What follows is not envisaged at a set of machine parts, a set of boxes that fixedly connect seamlessly with each other. It is seen more fluidly – as sets of flows, sets of potentials, sets of leverages, and sets of shifting emphases. At any time, various bits may be working well and other bits working less well.

A possible change model

Clearly, those people already working on these problems, more adequately that I might, will continue to make progress whatever I do. At the same time, me acting relatively alone – taking the ideas of others and reshaping them – will have a chance of bringing about some marginal impacts. The aims that I have set out for R:2025 are far more likely to be attained if I do the activities with, and through, others within the target audience: if there is an active engagement with them. This is one of the difficulties of the change model. It is also one of the excitements.

There is a deliberate bit of SteamPunk feeling to the model: a wheezing, clanking thing with steam hissing out here and there from parts that don’t fully link up – but with activity purposefully going on amidst all of that and, importantly, things being changed; and changed for the better – but that brings in a whole other set of considerations about ‘better’, or ‘impact’, or ‘value’: Things that will be dealt with in a future posting.


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Engaging or not?

So I am pretty clear that, somewhere out there, there is an audience – my public. There are people who would be interested in the general ideas, the contents and the approaches that I am involving myself with. If the activity is to move beyond me doing things for my own interest and to produce some gains for this wider audience, then the puzzle is how to engage with them.

What might this generalised audience want? What, if anything, are they looking for? How might such interests and needs be used to generate engagement?

There are, I think, various reasons why people might want to engage:

Some will be attracted by particular bits of content: an article on poverty or on employability. Some may respond to the mention of a particular place (New York, Vancouver, Birmingham …). Some may be intrigued by the vagueness (A hesitant approach to this, or a tentative exploration of that…). Some will be interested in the overall approach: a fifteen year project, redesigning a life, linking personal and social. Some may have a single point of common interest, some may have many potential overlaps of connection.

There are widespread interests and motivations across the various fragments of any assumed audience. Does this imply that the means of engagement are likely to be similarly widespread? I think so. Various tools are already being used for engagement.

Conversations with people from the target audience have already started to shape what is being worked on, what the website should look like, and the scale and pace of what is being hoped for. This has involved around a couple of dozen people. A similar number have shown more of a passing interest in what I am up to. These come from a broader group – public sector workers, artists, students, even bankers and financiers.

In addition to these personal contacts and small-group conversations, email links are maintained with others. Some people are contacted as part of seminars or conferences. Some are connected with via Twitter – following their thoughts and tweets in order to get a feel for points of engagement but also tweeting them the links to my latest article or activity.

R:2025 is a multifaceted set of developments. Within it, there are several platforms pointing towards the audience. The major one is the website. There is also the blog that explores my approaches to writing at , and there are the ebooks available via Amazon at . There are seminars and talks to audiences that are interested in the topics I focus on – eg input in Canada on Poverty and its effects. There are other activities where I am highly likely to meet people in the target audience. One recent proposal was that I act as Researcher in Residence attached to an exhibition at a local gallery. This will allow me to create more ideas and content but will allow me to do so in conjunction with others. I am also a member of certain organisations, and a subscriber to newsletter from other organisations that are focused on the topics in my framework – so are packed full of people who might be considered as being well within my target audience.

It seems clear that there is an audience and there are sufficient potential points of contact for engagements to be possible. What forms of engagement do I envisage taking place?

In some cases, what seems to be engagement can begin to look more like marketing or promotion. Engagement goes well beyond these. There are already signs of collaborative activities, sharing of ideas, and mutual support. Other possibilities might include:

  • Continuing the small group discussions with key intermediaries to help think through the direction of travel; to check that balance is being maintained across the various strands of activity; to suggest new lines of enquiry; and so on.
  • Using various website articles more actively as Think Pieces – Packaging them out to a network of contacts, prompting discussions of the issues.
  • Having some sort of ‘Subscribers’ Club’ where those wanting more engagement can get involved in extra things.
  • Collaborating with some of the audience (those working on similar issues); joint working.
  • Contributing to other people’s conferences, seminars, exhibitions etc…

The whole undertaking of working with others who are similarly puzzling at the same topics is made easier by the fact that the overall approach of R:2025 is premised upon puzzling things out. This leads to the hope that there might be leverages on the way people think about those puzzles and, ultimately, to changes in the way things are done in the world. These for the bases of the next two postings.

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Is there an audience? Who is my public?

For there to be an audience, or a public, there has to be a production, an event, an exhibition, a thing – or at least a process, a work in progress. So what is my ‘thing’?

I describe what I am doing as a long-term creative enterprise and – at a stretch – an artistic undertaking. As a reminder, the bones of this are set out as the description of R:2025 at

If this were a straightforward arts project then an immediate activity might be a need to apply for grants or other financial support. There would be application forms, eligibility criteria, assessment processes, monitoring requirements, and so on. There would be bureaucracy.

I would be required to supply personal or organisational details. I would be required to supply details of the proposed activities. There would be the need to set out details of the what, where, why, how many and what for. Beyond that, any application for support would want to know about Audience and Engagement. Who were the target audience? How would that audience be engaged with – at the planning stages, the production stages, the presentation stages?

The early stages of R:2025 are covered financially and I am, as part of the activity itself, wanting to explore a whole range of business models for creative activities. My initial focus therefore is not around the usual kind of grant applications. Even so, is there still not some obligation on me to have thought these same issues through and made my approaches quite explicit? In terms of R:2025, who is this public that is going to constitute my audience? How will that audience be engaged?

When I am doing the activities that form part of R:2025 there are various notional people I have in mind. Some may be writers, or thinkers, or academics, or city-hall workers, or educators, or general urbanists, or maybe just a broad section of the public who take an interest in these things.

Are there limitations to my Public, my Audience?

Much of what I do is fairly heavy on text, written in English, and (as I am often reminded by friends and relatives) I can be a bit ‘wordy’. So one constraint is that the audience will be relatively comfortable with that level of literacy.

They don’t need to be experts in any of the topics. What I do is always phrased in terms of being a beginning, for interest, exploratory …. done by a fascinated amateur, puzzling about everyday things. An audience is likely to be similarly exploring things with the same degrees of openness, tolerance and ambiguities.

The range of content that my creative undertaking stretches to cover is not limitless. There is the Framework already described in an earlier post. My audience is more likely to be attuned to these same topics. These include interest in:

  • meanings of things like ‘progress’ or ‘contemporary’ or ‘bureaucracy’
  • writing in a range of styles and for a variety of purposes
  • cities and urban living
  • places, spaces, neighbourhoods and localities
  • constructions of identities (of people and of places)
  • learning, skills, developments
  • wellbeing and flourishing
  • notions of value, impact and usefulness
  • evidence, research, knowledge and understandings
  • art and creativity
  • emergence, contingency, uncertainty and complexity
  • public and private; innovations and policy implementations
  • fairness, inequalities and social change

This is a very loose and open range of interests. Whilst acting as a constraining framework, it is extensive enough to suggest a broad audience of people thinking about the same topics and who may themselves have their own networks they are in contact with or work through. In addition to these intermediary members of the audience, I believe that there are substantial chunks of the general public who can connect with these same interests. Some people will have a passive interest, stumbling across things on the website. Others may have more active roles. However they connect with my activities they are still my public, my audience.

So, having established that there is (in my mind at least) an audience and having some ideas of who this audience might be – the interesting puzzle is around Engagement. If I were applying for a grant, that would be the next box to be completed on the application form.

It will be the focus of the next posting in this series.

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Beyond the fragments: Exploring ways forward

When I am in conversation with others about the approach being taken to develop the range of activities and understandings under the collective banner R:2025, the response from many people is that this is a fairly unique and ambitious undertaking – but that they can clearly see reflections of me in it all. They can understand the twin track of Personal and Social.

The personal aspects (described, in the last post, as ‘fragments’) didn’t just appear. They arose out of, and built upon, previous experiences.

In 2010 I was at the end of a long professional history that had included various elements:  science research; teaching and school management; young people’s development; adult learning and skills; employability; new approaches to literacy, language and numeracy; reducing child poverty and closing inequality gaps; area-based histories and social developments; planning and evaluation; writing; sociological research; travels to various countries to contribute to seminars and conferences – an eclectic mix.

Some of this went relatively unrecorded. Some has been archived as documents (‘Moving the Mountain’ , ‘Approaches to Change’ , ‘History of Castle Vale ‘ – all on ). The rest exists as scattered internet references to conferences, to books published, and so on.

At the end of more than forty years of relatively productive activity I had a planned transition from me as paid employee to me as an independent writer and researcher (which is a term I still use to describe what I get up to).

What was initially seen as a simple, one-step, linear transition became more of a bundling together of various fragments – jiggling and jostling along as a loose framework of interests and activities and aspirations: opening up different possible pathways for further exploration.

Each fragment, taken on its own, had the potential for the production of a set of products; for cross-linking and cross-referencing; for helping to unpick ways of seeing various social issues: So that the whole formed something beyond the fragments – something strung together as a loose and flexible bundle of activity and progress. It became increasingly useful to move beyond considering each fragment in turn, and view them as aspects of a whole (R:2025). This held the possibility of trying to bring lots of things together and, in some way, make an exhibition of them.

My former professional development had been heavily dependent on a particular language and vocabulary: business planning; programme outline; development framework; annual delivery plan; milestones; outputs; deliverables; change; progress; outcomes; leverage; etc. These technicalities were carried over into my new context. The period after 2010 added a new layer of vocabulary from the ‘contemporary exploration’ activities.

At its root this was something that was as much about me as anything else. It was an exercise in redesigning my life – as real change in ways of seeing and ways of being; as being someone ‘fully-occupied otherwise’.

It was evolutionary – drawing on a legacy of interests built up over a number of years:

  • interpretations of ‘contemporary’
  • the pursuit of writing in a range of styles, for a variety of purposes
  • issues associated with cities and urban living
  • thoughts around places, spaces, neighbourhoods and locations
  • the construction of identities (of people; of places)
  • aspects of learning and development
  • concerns with wellbeing, flourishing and sustainability
  • approaches to ‘value’ and ‘impact’(at personal, public and social levels)
  • the nature of evidence, research, knowledge and understandings
  • the characteristics and usefulness of art and creativity
  • aspects of emergence, complexity, uncertainty and contingency
  • innovation and policy implementations


Whilst these were personal interests there was also, because of the nature of what I had been doing for the past forty-plus years, a personal desire that things I produced, researched, wrote about and got involved in should have a tinge of being visibly socially relevant.

Moving forward from the personal, fragmentary aspects to the wider social impact aspect required that I engage with, and work with and through, sets of intermediaries with similar areas of concern. This was my Public – a notion that will be expanded on in the next two postings.

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