Al Mathers, former RSA Director of Research and Learning, explores the importance of introducing reciprocity into the work of social change organisations like the RSA. In her last blog for us, Al reflects on how our work has benefitted from an approach rich in reciprocity and looks forward to how it will continue to do so in the future.
I write this in my last week as Director of Research and Learning at the RSA. As a member of staff, my tenure at the organisation has been a single heartbeat in the RSA’s long and varied life. The RSA’s social change journey is one that none of us owns, but as staff and Fellows, it shapes us as connected collaborators and stewards for a while. Focusing on this brief moment that we inhabit can still the world outside and give us pause to reflect on what is meaningful and essential, but often hidden.
So, what can we learn in a heartbeat that will shape what we do for a lifetime?
While at the RSA, reciprocity has emerged as my lasting lesson, and how critical this is for the change I personally want to support, and the resilient, rebalanced and regenerative future we look to through Design for Life.
Reciprocity is not a social construct; it has always been inherent within living systems. For me, this was most beautifully captured in Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, where we see reciprocity from a very different vantage point. Immersed in a vast and yet microscopic world, Sheldrake maps the hidden, complex connections that emanate from fungi and the relationships that flow between and around them. We are only just starting to relearn the importance of this. But it can be seen within the field of biomimicry, where we learn from nature and design for the health of all life, as championed by Janine Benyus winner of the RSA’s Bicentenary Medal in 2022, and through the work of 2021 RSA Bicentenary Medal winner Dr Daniel Christian Wahl and regenerative practitioners such as Josie Warden who seek to embed regenerative thinking that mirrors this ‘mutuality and reciprocity’.
Reciprocity: intangible yet invaluable
Reciprocity is not the output of theory or policy, it is about how we choose to act and interact and how this creates long-term mutual benefits for people, place and planet. In practice, reciprocity is visible through the work of individuals and organisations who focus on co-production, co-design, collaboration, deliberation, and participation. We should celebrate the progress that has been made in the mainstream to recognise the value of these principles, evidenced through their increased uptake in the formal design of approaches to partnership development, programmes and policy, not least by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Emerging Futures programme which centres on a strategic commitment to collective visioning. However, alongside more prominent approaches, there are the hyper-local such as in evidence through the work of RSA Fellow Clare Gage when she set up Create Change Chesterfield.
Driven by an individual understanding of local context, Clare’s commitment to her community remains one of reciprocity and the building of shared value. While at different scales, it is the collective contribution of these different approaches that are necessary to really rebalance the impact of previous extractive and exclusionary interventions. When this thinking is systemically embedded, beyond the lifecycle of projects, funding, and individual policies, it has the ability to rebuild confidence, capabilities, and connections, and create co-ownership and shared stewardship across organisations and systems. Centring how we work reciprocally can be truly transformative and humbling, moving us away from seeking attribution to meaningful contribution. Opening us up to the need to listen to different perspectives, and the wide range of lived experiences that shape us, in order to collectively create change.
A rich seam of reciprocity at the RSA
As I started to write this blog and explore where reciprocity shows up in the work of RSA Fellows and staff, I uncovered a rich diversity of examples. This included the reciprocal spaces created by Fellows through the wonderful multitude of Fellow-led networks that wrap around and across our planet - nurtured and facilitated with RSA support - whose connections grow from context, place and shared visions for change. Through each of these network branches an ecosystem of individuals and organisations provides support to one another, to advance social action for the benefit of the many and not the few.
Reciprocity is also apparent through the personal work of many Fellows, such as Shakara Tyler, who wrote about how commitment to reciprocity is helping grow the collective power of initiatives when building a Black food sovereignty movement in the US:
This is the youthful mandate of our times, to ensure there is a liveable planet for us and future generations. In this ‘critical decade’, we have no more time to waste. We build our collective power through the construction of deep accountable and trusting relationships with one another. We do it through working in reciprocity to sustain authentic democratic structures. We do it through reviving kinships with Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.
Reciprocity was advocated for by Mark Swift and Ian Burbidge, in helping us reimagine and build a systems-led approach to a stronger third sector, one which would value lived experience and participation as critical assets for lasting change. And reciprocity is central to the work of Teach for India as described by Shaheen Mistri, Manasi Jain and Muskan Tanwani, where relationships and hierarchies are rebalanced to focus mutual benefit:
… treat children and educators as partners. In this model, students have the ability to look at the traditional schooling system through a new lens and purpose, allowing them to question and work to change it. They develop a belief in their voice and understand the importance of every voice around them. They also operate with a deep sense of commitment, respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility.
Reciprocity as part of a living change
Alongside these Fellow-led examples, the 2022 Living Change Coffeehouse events created an annual programme of reciprocal learning through the sharing of interdisciplinary practice, sparked by work led by Joanna Choukeir and myself to map the constellation of practices which sat at the heart of the RSA’s approach to change. Reconnecting with RSA roots and the first Fellow’s meetings at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, the Living Change events brought to the fore collective practice by RSA staff and Fellows working at the interdisciplinary edges.
Across the year, each monthly event not only made visible the case for change but shared in the open how cross-disciplinary and cross-sector partnerships were coming together collectively to realise better futures. This included:
- The journey taken to support the development of area-based collaboratives who could reshape education systems to ones that nurtured and included all children.
- Work with place-based partners to embed co-designed and co-delivered approaches to lifelong learning, which recognised the value this infrastructure played in supporting the development of skills.
- The bringing together participatory futures approaches and regenerative design practice to evidence the long value of listening to, and working with, community-led perspectives to help shape Scotland’s just transition.
Reciprocity as a thread through the new RSA mission
The 2023 Coffeehouse events will build on these reciprocal practice foundations, as they draw on project learnings that bring together the six Design for Life perspectives - systemic, collective, imaginative, long-term, adaptive, and local to global – to the fore. Through the continuation of this series, there is an ongoing commitment by the RSA to making emergent regenerative practice resources an open asset, and the catalyst for connection and exchange.
Thinking about the Living Change event series - which ran in parallel to the birth and development of our Design for Life mission - gave me pause for thought. In the lifetime of every organisation when we start a new chapter, we often seek to present it as a blank page. Through Design for Life, we have committed to thinking long-term, learning from our history, working with complexity and rebuilding our connection as part of lifesystems, not alongside. As such the RSA is working to move forward with how it continues to open up and ensure reciprocity, not least through the development of the new Fellowship digital ecosystem, Circle. My hope would be that as the RSA’s life course continues, there is a true focus on inclusion and nurturing of the less visible, less immediately accessible, and often less vocal or powerful perspectives. These are to be equally valued. If we only reflect on ourselves and our experiences and hold knowledge too tightly, our ability to adapt and the process of innovation will falter. If we open up and listen to what others are doing, with a focus on reciprocal learning, then we move and grow together. If organisations are to be truly regenerative, it is this focus on building mutually beneficial relationships that will sustain momentum long term.
What are your experiences working with reciprocity in through your projects? How has your work benefitted? What tips would you offer other practitioners looking to bring reciprocity into their work? Let us know in the comments section below.
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