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Co-opting the guild for good

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  • Employment

This summer the RSA will launch the Good Work Guild bringing together global future of work practitioners into the RSA Fellowship to help accelerate solutions to worker voice, economic inclusion, skills and training, and labor-market transforming technologies. Alexa Clay, Director of RSA US, outlines the process and asks how we can re-imagine and deploy the medieval structure of the guild for modern 21st century change-making?

In a piece in The New Yorker, Nathan Schneider FRSA wrote about the early signals of "The New Guilded Age". He made the case that contrary to historic guilds, which were associations of craftspeople that notably pursued protectionist policies and forged legal monopolies, modern guilds capitalized on a nostalgia for community and a drive for social innovation.

Similarly, John Hagel in his blog piece “From the Gig Economy to the Guild Economy,” argues that “we’re going to begin to see impact groups forming and coming together into broader networks that will help them to learn even faster.”

If in the past, guilds were used as muscle to shore up the status quo and protect incumbent interests, today, guilds can be co-opted as a collective architecture to do the opposite: for sensing into opportunities for shared impact, for incubating emerging policies and practices, and for re-shaping and re-wiring systems in need of change.

Woman in meeting

At the heart of the organizing logic of the re-imagined modern guild is the need to tear down walls between organizations and institutions; to make collaboration easier and to break the barriers that keep us as solo agents of change.

Guilds offer a powerful site for collective sense-making, for peer support and troubleshooting, for shared advocacy and courageous leadership. In guilds, we begin to norm and codify emergent practice. Social change starts to feel more like a common and collective endeavor than playing out the hackneyed archetype of the martyr or lone crusader for change.

I recently spoke with innovator Chris Maclay who is the Director of Youth Employment at Mercy Corps. He was recently a judge on an African Future of Work Accelerator and saw innovation after innovation that was likely going to fail due to the same core challenges; ones that he had previously navigated as the Chief Operating Officer of Lynk, a gig matching platform he started in Kenya. Due to these experiences, Maclay is interested in building out an ecosystem for ‘jobtech’ in Africa, which would help to bring together job and gig matching platforms, micro-work and online outsourcing platforms, credentialing and accreditation schemes, and other innovations that leverage technology to improve the quality of work.

You can call these types of efforts ‘ecosystem building’ or ‘communities of practice’ or ‘guilds’, but what they hold in common is a drive towards new forms of associations and often informal self-organizing that helps to spread learning and insight, and improve the collective craftsmanship or know-how of a field. As a membership-based association, modern guilds can offer:  

  • Opportunities for power building and shared advocacy;
  • A knowledge and learning commons for members to share and swap best practice; and
  • Network effects that build connective tissue between grassroots and grass-tops stakeholders, helping to speed the rate of change adoption.

Within the field of technology, it has long been understood that network effects will largely influence the speed of adoption of a given technology. In the same way, we need to understand the role that guilds can play in effectively spreading the speed of social innovation adoption. Guilds, which were once draconian features of status quo commercial society, are now able to have a more future-friendly identity in being able to fast-track our future, speeding the adoption of necessary systems change.

Part of this adoption curve will depend on the relationships between grassroots innovators or micro stakeholders and ‘grass-tops’ or institutional stakeholders that help to shape the enabling environment for change. Within the future of work field, for example, we have seen the power of these connections.

Alia, for example, is a platform that provides domestic cleaners with portable benefits developed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). Alia was initially piloted on the basis that clients would contribute voluntarily, but now legislation has been introduced in Philadelphia that mandates contributions to paid time off through a portable benefits platform.

According to RSA Senior Researcher Fabian Wallace-Stephens, “Piloting Alia enabled the NDWA to prove demand and demonstrate the viability of their approach but it was the policy connections and relationships at the level of the regulatory environment that enabled them to have lasting impact on people’s working lives."   

GraphThe Good Work Guild will work to amplify connections between grassroots and ‘grass-tops’ stakeholder to enhance the speed of social innovation adoption as depicted in this diagram. This visual depicting the slow pace of institutional change and the relationship gap between grassroots innovators and institutional ‘market makers’ was initially produced by Nate Wong FRSA, Chief Strategy and Social Innovation Office of the Beeck Center at Georgetown University.

Ultimately, within the private sector and field of pure play commercial entrepreneurship there are an incredible number of networks and resources that offer training, support, coaching, and where best management practice is readily codified. But within the social change or impact space more broadly there are sometimes huge disconnected pockets of innovation and networks with very little opportunity for capacity and skills building. Those working on energy transition in Alaska, community engagement in Belfast or food security in New Orleans must cobble together learnings often in a piece-meal approach. There are rarely efficient ways for changemakers to access knowledge, resources and community to create a stronger groundwork for their efforts.   

For me, the RSA has always been a bit of a guild for progressivism. It continues to be a place for inspiration and renewal, for interrogation of some of society’s biggest questions and for connection with changemakers. Our early origins as an informal Society for Fellows who paid dues to advance the public interest and fast-track innovations for the public good is slowly evolving into a distributed network of global practitioners, self-organizing around common challenge areas like automation and the future of work, lifelong learning, regenerative society, and local place-based change.

Join us! If you have a solution to the future of work, we’re building an online directory to support policy-making and social investment. To participate in this innovation mapping effort, we’re asking organisations to complete a short online form. By completing this form, you will also be fast tracked for participation in the Good Work Guild.

The RSA has been at the forefront of societal change for over 250 years – our proven Living Change Approach, and global network of 30,000 problem-solvers enables us to unite people and ideas to understand the challenges of our time and realise lasting change.

Make change happen. Find out more about our approach#RSAchange

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