I was RSA elected Chair of the West Region for the past couple of years (Oct 2014 - Oct 16) - so as we wind this era up, and look to the future, I'm keen to give people a chance to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can learn from.
Our mandate was to develop a team that: delivers a programme of activities etc, ensuring the RSA's value for Fellows and the wider local community and nation. We wanted to generate a better Fellowship experience than had been the case previously, largely by ensuring that Fellowship in the region became more connected and more influential.
In the draft Fellowship Survey 2016 the West was one of only a couple of regions where significantly more people said that they would recommend becoming a Fellow (Net Promoter Score) compared to 2014. This from a low of activity following the re-organisations of 2011-2 when there was very little Fellow led activity in much of the region outside Bristol.
Better than a "Parsons Egg" - we have been very good in parts: we are achieving a lively, inclusive network with powerful reach and impact, one that people have been proud to be part of
It's been a tremendous privilege to work with so many really interesting and hard working people as we make tangible the values and ambitions of the RSA: to work to enrich society locally, nationally and sometimes internationally. We've seen a lot of innovative ideas come into the Fellowship getting support, promotion and feedback. We've also seen innovative thinking generating influential relationships during conversations within the Fellowship (such as on heritage, data, cross generational learning, and creative ecology) and beyond (such as homes and communities across political divides).
Some of this work is in the nursery, some are reaching maturity: 5x5x5 in Bath, of which more later; Town digital Hub: a catalyst project testing a model of better connected and more accessible local services; "Seeing the Woods for the Trees" (developing a nature mindset through regular community access to the woods); Making our Futures (which is developing big conversations around investing in and building resilient urban and rural communities: homes, energy and assets); the local Heritage team who are developing a strategic relationship between the RSA heritage index and the Heritage Forum for the Bristol area; and "Bristol and Bath Regional Capital", which came out of previous Fellowship conversations on linking people, place and investment announced its first investment packages in September.
As well as new events, themes and formats of activity we also devised a new approach to greater inclusion and impact in the Fellowship, by broadening and enabling our invite list and setting up a bursary so a broader range of potential fellows could become actively engaged.
Some headline illustrations
Almost every time I meet with people in the Bath area for some serious conversation, the need for a substantial visual arts centre available to the wider community and reflecting the power of the arts in the city and the creative potential of young people is bought up. It's been inspiring to see how the work of the 5x5x5 partnership led by Penny Hay (in Bristol as well as in the Bath area) is feeding that thinking in a very practical, typically RSA way with two significant events and more, broader engagement. Bath Fellows are also actively engaged in developing a stronger scientific community through creative cross-generational learning with the Bath Royal Scientific and Literary Society and we have started discussing ways in which this work can be developed.
Similarly our events on Heritage, organised by the RSA staff team, in Swindon, Bristol and Frome (which was Fellow-led) have given people a platform to move forward a pragmatic approach to making sure our local assets are valued for what they can bring us, not just cherished for their status. Fiona Matthews has made fantastic use of the value of RSA connectivity in developing her "Earth Champions" leaders and mentors network. More activity is in "generation" in Hereford, Forest of Dean and on the borders with our Welsh Fellows. Richard Buckley has led the RSA in the Severn Valley as we bring a wide range of Fellows together. Alan Bec and Rebecca Cork pulled together a very different event in the heart of the (almost) "re-wild-ened" Arboretum at Tortworth aiming at evolving a nature mindset. With all these examples and more we are establishing a platform for the Fellowship to develop our presence and relevance in our localities and in more specialised and innovative fields.
In Bristol our regular and special events have meant that the RSA Fellowship is now considered "where to go to" for a broad range of active citizens across networks, professional and political differences. Earlier this year we co-organised and energised a widely inclusive event on data and health (with about 50 attendees from personal health, public institutions and tech worlds). Our Homes and Communities event brought together the people who are setting the practical agenda for from grass roots to investors and policy. We look forward to developing the conversations, for instance on energy and the asset wealth base of the city.
The Fellow volunteer team have been supported and our efforts amplified by the targeted work of our Regional Manager (shared with 2 other regions and national work), e.g. the seven highly successful Engage and Connect events run by the RSA staff team (7 in the region with about 250 attendees). These have made a huge difference to the Fellowship experience especially in those areas where Fellow led activity is still developing.
Perhaps the crowning Fellowship experience was the annual conference held in Bristol in February. This uniquely energising event was Fellow led and enthused by inspiring contributions from Fellows bringing their experiences, ambitions and proposals for action (see below).
Our primary goal in the development plan for the West was developing networks so that Fellows can engage with each other and the RSA Fellowship, but also so we can start playing a bigger, more influential role in the various centres of the region. This has meant that we experimented with broadening attendance at our sessions and broadening the range of conversation opportunities. The monthly networking in Bristol has been demonstrably successful in this respect: the organising team and the hosts made sure that these have been high quality and very hospitable events with great conversations, we often get more than 30 people attending and it's not just for the chunky chips and olives! We worked hard to ensure an interesting mix of invitees and to retain the interest of non-fellows. We now have a far broader range of Fellows, which has been enhanced somewhat by our introduction of a practical and determined approach to diversity. Informal feedback is very encouraging: some would like to see developments such as key note addresses and information sharing slots, and are interested in providing more opportunities for Fellows (and others?) to present projects for input and support.
A lunch time round table on "Re-wilding the West" which was followed by more than 100 people on "Facebook Live" piloted an interesting new way of working and connecting for the Fellowship. RSA staff have run 3 RSA "live" sessions over the past year, allowing Fellows and visitors the opportunity to watch and discuss interesting speakers at the RSA House series of events, in a way this supplements the relationship we are building up with the Festival of Ideas, enabling Fellows to attend the "Festival of the Future City" in Bristol.
The "Making our Futures" events that we kicked off this April was aimed at supporting viable new thinking, leadership and investment: firstly in terms of city growth and communities, and soon as we confront our energy futures and look how to better obtain public value out of our commonly held and public assets. A format is being developed for Fellows to test and adapt - our first session was well attended (70 +), rigorously informed, energetic and practical, so no wonder its legacy continues to influence blog from the event here.
Some patterns are emerging, depending on where you are looking of course! Much more work on making public services work in a "mixed economy" whether it be adoption or place management; a range of people interested in developing the "wilding" agenda; health, both in the sense of well-being and as a policy area; the need to re-harness, and possibly re-shape the energy and institutions involved in cultural production. There is a hunger to take forward and incubate social/public innovation - and perhaps a development of practitioners working more closely with investors on a sustainable basis (something universities undertake within their communities but not easily available more widely).
The shape of the previous region was maddening for many involved, and many Fellows look to neighbouring centres of population beyond our boundaries for connections. The team recognised that and supported events in Wales, Somerset, Wiltshire the West Midlands and Oxfordshire (with varying degrees of success - some very good). We've had some hiccups, but we have been relentless in our focus to serve the whole region and have been helped tremendously by the new engagement programmes, largely run by staff, which have been increasingly empowering local people to develop in their localities with the budget, policies and experience developed by the West team. In particular the RSA Engage events have brought forward great ideas and a broader understanding of just what amazing things that fellows do.
Much of this was brought nicely together by the RSA West annual conference (attended by about 45 Fellows) held earlier this year in Bristol. To me this was the best event of this nature I've seen in my time at the RSA. Alan Bec and Lou Matter created an event that was exciting and illuminating and clearly valued by a really wide range of Fellows: storify from the event here
All this is aimed at Fellows: it's difficult to get a tangible evidence of influence but I can report that Fellowship has gone up in the West by more than 50, I know I've had a lot of conversations and correspondence with people that have led to new FRSAs - there will be many others given our NPS mentioned above!
I hope that you will feel free to post comments and engage in the debate about how the Fellowship can most productively (and enjoyably) operate in the future. We all have a big stake in how that shapes up.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank people who have helped me and the Regional Fellowship Team, some are part of the Team but have gone above and beyond the call of RSA duty! In particular Lou Matter our Regional Manager who has been working alongside and guiding us and Alan Bec, recently nominated as Fellowship Councillor and for a long time a fully engaged fellow in the West Team, taking on and developing a lot of initiatives. Delia Slucutt and David Richmond, Martin Newman, Laura Pictor, Richard Buckley, Perry Walker (one day I hope to meet you Perry!), Cecile Gillard, Rob Gillies, Penny Hay, Paul Thomas, Andrew Kelly, David Punter, Toby Proctor and Richard Guise, all of whom have taken on substantial roles supporting our work and the Fellowship generally (I'm sure I will have missed some people, so please do remind me of them so I can thank them personally).
Best wishes for the future - Ted Fowler 07544 764 204