As 2016 dawns can the RSA pioneer a new way of thinking about progressive change?
2015 was an interesting year for the RSA. We had good outputs in the form of research reports covering a diverse set of issues ranging from social networks in deprived areas, public service volunteering and the case for a basic income to recycling furniture and makers’ spaces to supplementary schools and creative teaching. The reports were accompanied by a steady stream of blogs and other on line content, helping to give the RSA a growing global social media profile. Our events programme and Journal were as strong as ever. We also achieved unprecedented levels of Fellowship activity and recruitment.
But this was also the year of implementing our strategic review. The goals we had set in 2014 were to be more mission driven, collegiate and impactful. This led to new ways of working, in particular cross cutting panels in our three key areas of focus: public service and communities; economy, enterprise and manufacturing; creative learning and development.
The aim of these panels was to bring together the RSA’s unique range of methods and tools behind a rigorous model of change. There has been a lot of organisational learning, both through success and failure, but when colleagues get together the enthusiasm for this more aligned and impactful way of working is tangible.
There was until a few weeks ago one big fly in the ointment. The Society relies on external funding for our research programme and just as our model of change and operation seemed to be coming together we had a bad run of funding rejections. Fortunately, just as disappointment was turning to dismay, our luck changed and we have received support for some fascinating programmes of work in the New Year. Most gratifying of all, one bid explicitly involved support for engaging and mobilising RSA Fellows. Persuading a third party of what we in the RSA have long believed – that Fellows can be a powerful force for change - is a key moment.
Indeed it was the prompt for us to make explicit a new way of thinking about change; what we are calling ‘emerging impact’. This is in part an alternative to the emphasis on social impact. On the one hand, social impact assessment has often failed to provide the consistent, reliable, useful metrics its advocates promised, while, on the other hand, a focus on measurable cause and effect tends to favour narrow, linear interventions over more emergent system level change.
The breadth of the RSA’s interests and mission can make us hard to describe and risks a lack of focus. But being able to look at problems from many angles and to combine different areas of expertise can also be a major advantage. Whether we think that the problem to address is one of policy, research, practical innovation, public discourse or civic mobilisation, we have the tools ready to act.
For example a current project with the Heritage Lottery Fund began with the question: why is heritage only occasionally seen as a strategic asset when local political leaders think about the future of their place? An initial inquiry, which benefited from the input of Fellows who are local leaders and heritage enthusiasts, suggested that the problem lay in an ambivalence about the very idea of distinctive local identity.
Seeing the need to widen the debate, the team mashed together nearly a hundred data sets to develop a national heritage assets and participation index. This generated national coverage and local controversy. On the back of this interest we hosted well attended heritage question time events in major cities. Most encouragingly, we are now seeing local groups developing – often with Fellows at their heart – wanting to strengthen the role and voice of heritage in place shaping. As the project develops into its next phases, we hope to identify place leaders who will work with us, the sector and the community to use heritage as a strategic asset in their future planning and to run the index again, informed by what we now know about its value as a tool for engagement and activism.
What emerged almost accidentally in this project is now becoming the Society’s modus operandi.
‘Emergent impact’ involves setting out with a clear mission and set of goals but then being able to shift focus and method as the project develops. If a research report generates interest, we can develop on line content to deepen that engagement. If an idea mobilises people in one place, we can push it out into other places through our network of Fellows. If we feel close to persuading a minister or official of the need for a shift in policy, we can swiftly scan our networks and pull together an expert round table to refine the idea and cement support. If an idea needs to be proven practically, we can develop collaborations to test on the ground innovations.
Emergent impact isn’t easy. It requires continuous inquiry and dialogue and an ability to shift focus and method quickly. It keeps RSA staff on their toes, encouraging them to appreciate all the skills and tools at our disposal and to keep the focus always on what we are trying to achieve. Our existing and potential funding partners share our commitment to change and are attracted to our ideas, but emergent impact challenges them to work in a more flexible, engaged and adaptive way.
The world is changing faster and becoming ever more complex. In such a world impact is a moving target. Combining ambitious long term goals with diverse and flexible methods seems the right way to go but it’s a demanding approach. Whether the RSA can prove the value of emergent impact remains to be seen, but right now it feels like we are onto something.