Article about U.Lab Scotland

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In Scotland’s capital Edinburgh we met Nick Wilding, who’s been working for the Scottish government nearly three years now. He is working in a team that facilitates the transformation of the relationship between the Scottish citizens and the state. The team is called ‘Ingage’, with an ‘i’, which is a bit strange, but it’s an old Scottish word that has an additional meaning, which is more or less translatable as ‘integrity’ and refers to an authentic relationship. The team is part of the direction of local governments of communities. Wilding and his colleagues are working on a cultural shift, a culture change across public services based on several different elements. One of it is a report of 2011 called the Christie Commission, which was a cross-parliamentary report. It basically asked what the future would be for public services in Scotland, given the demography, given the credit crash.


“Wilding came up with a set of proposals about how to change public services in Scotland.”


There was a referendum first, and all kinds of social movements had been growing. Wilding came up with a set of proposals about how to change public services in Scotland. For ten years, the whole government has been working towards so-called outcomes, rather than on segments of them in specific periods of time, following a national performance framework that defines the wanted outcomes. These outcomes are things like healthier people or sustainable and resilient communities. Thus, part of Nick’s job is to work across governments, to join departments together, to make connections and support networking to better connect with civil society. Before this job, Nick was involved in NGOs, in academia and in organisational change. The first time he came into contact with the U theory was about fifteen to twenty years ago, through a group called ‘Pioneers For Change’.


“Hubs are gatherings in small areas and have the goal to talk about life and the organisation of it, following the principles of theory U.”


Our second interviewee, Steven Harrold, is involved  in the Portobello hub right from the start. Hubs are gatherings in small areas and have the goal to talk about life and the organisation of it, following the principles of theory U. They started a first hub in Portobello, just next to Edinburgh at the seaside.


“U.Lab opens ways to create the agility to move between the level of the state, of the city and of the neighbourhoods, and helps developing an answer [to the drastic cuts in the public sector].”


Lesley Sheperd, or third interviewee, works in public health (NHS) for the Health Care Improvement Scotland. She says the Christie commission started the need for this experiment, as well as the drastic cuts in the public sector. U.Lab opens ways to create the agility to move between the level of the state, of the city and of the neighbourhoods, and helps developing an answer. The Christie commission shows what people want is trust in relationships, feeling in touch and equality of treatment and action. The report of the commission hasn’t clearly articulated enough what the actual behaviours, approaches and patterns of working are. That’s important in the type of work that Wilding is involved in. Recently, in the last two years, health and social care have merged in Scotland and has moved into new localities. This new locality gives us an opportunity to look at the meaning of things. There doesn’t seem to be a real living and understanding, not inside and outside the home, nor in the digital habitat (a Christie advice is to use the digital habitat to move forward). The locality emphasises place and community. So, it is about the person and the people and the need of feeling in touch with other people, something that is clearly missing now.


“We were looking for something that might sustain that energy, something that might be supportive of that spirit of hope.”


Within the government (there are many voices inside it), U.Lab is picked up by some people, a few individuals actually. Kenneth Hogg, a person who happens to be a director in the government, has the authority to decide by what means a goal is purchased. He, with others, was pursuing personal development stuff, came across U.Lab and signed up for it. It was four years ago, and it really worked for him. At that same moment, the referendum on independence just took place. The involvement in democracy took off exponentially that year. There was a mood in Scotland about self-organising, about the possibility of divers citizens having a voice, expressing themselves in many different ways. There was a lot of hope in it. We were looking for something that might sustain that energy, something that might be supportive of that spirit of hope. In January 2015, the first U.Lab hub started. U.Lab offers one way, it’s not the only way, but it’s one way of opening up a space for people to explore community, society and change. It’s a way into patterns of government and dynamics of control, previously quite sealed and locked away. It’s a free and accessible tool. Because the moment the government sponsors something, it screws what it creates. So it is mainly because it’s cheap the reach is potentially very wide. This way, U.Lab offers an autonomous space, which isn’t controlled by the government, but can be supported by it. Ingage is willing to invest in it for two or three years to see what difference it might be making. So the model is helpful, the content is helpful and there was chemistry, because there’s a lively community of practice and U.Lab is rooted in practice. U.Lab is one way of describing a set of understandings and practices that draws on a wider tradition of social change.


“Hope springs from trust in a relationship. […] There’s a sense that we’re going to shift the culture radically to trust in relationships everywhere and on every level.”


So there’s a space that has been created in this institution over the last decades. It has been nurtured in a whole number of ways. An adapted program with inquiry and action learning finished several years ago. Some senior program managers joined in. There is a strong youth digital design movement that is changing servers’ designs. Also, the strong recovery movement in Scotland (recovery from addictions) – a self-help movement – and a community development movement help to see things in another perspective. There’s been a convergence of different things that create a space. This helps to create that opening. U.Lab is one of many ways how Ingage is
trying to shift that control dynamic and open it up.


Reports are not showing that something changed in the public sector, six years after Christie. A frustration about the situation exists indeed. Questions like why these patterns have not been changing and why is it so hard, leads to alternatives like U.Lab.


Keith Brown told that the emphasis on relationships is important, relationship and trust as the paradigm shift. That’s the foundation: hope springs from trust in a relationship. So three or four years ago, before working in Ingage, Wilding was looking for examples of practices where people in public service were putting trust at the forefront of certain moments of practice. These moments of practice were not driven by outputs or bureaucratic targets, but driven by this given mandate to people who work in public services to make the right choice. They build trust in relationships. Ingage aims to shift the culture radically to trust in relationships everywhere and on every level.


“These things are all converging, it’s very messy, but the paradigm shift is on the way.”


And albeit this is happening within organisations, it is more likely that people’s connections with those institutions will be meaningful. In that way, people become aware that they have a voice and it will be heard. And of the back of that, there are innovations in participatory budgeting approvals, where people get to vote on how money is spent in projects. It’s quite strong in Scotland, there is a national policy around promoting participation budgeting. Ingage supports this.


These things are all converging, it’s very messy, but the paradigm shift is on the way. Organisations are reinventing themselves, some of the pioneers are. The Frederic Laloux book on reinventing organisations tells about how nurses walked out on care for neighbourhoods. Like in the Netherlands, there’s the Buurtzorg project. So Wilding thinks that’s how you organise healthcare based on human relationships. The implementation of that principle has started in six areas.


So in almost every sector and every place, there’s an awareness that the current system isn’t working, it can’t sustain itself. There’s still a huge amount of public money that is spent on sustaining the current system, because electoral cycles are short-term. The elections are driven by the kind of politics that tend to reinforce aggressive narratives. However, underneath that there is a growing awareness of the need to have more mature conversations about how working together and understanding what public service can do. Also there is a need for resilience. Top leadership understands that, and Christie shows that Ingage has to continue. And the reason why U.Lab fits so nicely, is the way it’s mapping this messy convergence. It makes understanding possible. And there are other people who have parallel maps. U.Lab can connect the ways of understanding and make sense of this journey all along.


“Structural injustice and inequality are part of a narrative and U.Lab shows you a different way to go.”


Harrold says that the method of the U theory allows you to turn the camera back on yourself, it allows you to be sensitive to these strives coming to you and see a kind of relational opportunities that are actually there. It is about taking a step back and looking at how the relationship with the other team members works and where you aim to get.


Wilding tells U.lab is about the individual and of course also the structural. Structural injustice and inequality is part of a narrative and U.Lab shows you a different way to go. It aims at personal transformation of the self, the society and business. So there are ways in at each of those levels. In the early stages of people’s journey into it, it contents a personal invitation to reflect. It’s powerful because it strengthens the voice of people. What U.Lab is inviting to is to understand the personal, social and business related transformation are part of a whole that makes sense.


“We’re all in recovery. […] ‘Recovery’ has the potential to frame a lot, it also connects the personal level to the institutional work.”


Wilding sees the participation of people who suffer most from inequality and social injustice as one of the real challenges of the process. U.Lab was developed in a university in the United States and it’s an intensive program. It has a lot of expectations and the language is quite inaccessible sometimes. There’s a whole translation job. So could it connect, could it be a bridge across social-economic classes?


He works parallel with an organisation called Poverty Alliance, a social community development centre. And the Scottish Recovery Consortium, a self-help community that supports people with addictions in recovery, has been growing for the last five to eight years. At the heart of that recovery movement are some poor understandings about reclaiming it’s own story, reclaiming it’s own identity, voice, feelings and opinion. Wilding sees when those communities grow strong enough to start asking questions about how to change society, U.Lab can help to connect them. Therefore, Curt Wheeny, who works in the recovery consortium and is a Buddhist practitioner, sees in U.Lab a way to translate support messages in a way to support that movement. They are able to feel that the way housing is, the way the environment nurtures and helps them to be more stable, where they’ve been more vulnerable.


Wilding says we’re all in recovery from all kinds of addictions, such as screens, oil, etcetera. ‘Recovery’ has the potential to frame a lot, it also connects the personal level to the institutional work. Thinking in terms of hope: it is a great connector. Wanting to change the world is also toxic. Every one has behaviours that are formed by the system. People on the recovery ran a whole educational day on the topic ‘Are we all in recovery?’. Who ran that day is the important thing, it were the people themselves, questioning people of the government. It’s the beginning. And that kind of thing is happening a lot. So it’s that sense of turning things on their heads. Glasgow Homelessness Network did an event recently. For three or four years, homeless people were supported in inquiry and experience around the question ‘how are we going to organise ourselves for our rights? How are we going to get off the street? How are we going to run our organisation, to change policy?’. So for Wilding, U.Lab comes along and it closes frames in actual research, frames in that tradition. It is always a point of connection with things that are really routed in practice and in people’s lives, experience. And the temptation will always be to search how to balance and to make sure that people from Glasgow Homelessness Network are also in the U.Lab process.


“Even though voters in Scotland might elect a government that is more on the social democratic left-wing, automatically Westminster gets to decide on many Scottish policies, […] including social facilities.”


We live in a time of neo-liberal economics. Scotland is social democratically founded, different from what David Cameron is preaching. Scotland refused to cut benefits in a way that has happened in England, because people won’t have it. People think it’s wrong that we pick on the poorest of society, it’s a different country. Even though voters in Scotland might elect a government that is more on the social democratic left-wing, automatically Westminster gets to decide on many Scottish policies – though the Scottish government is left oriented – including social facilities. London changed rules of housing for example, through which people with disabilities weren’t able to stay in their houses. The Scottish government didn’t agree with them. Scotland tries to invest, to offset the impact, but there’s not enough money to offset all the impact for every one. So that’s part of the Scottish policy landscape. Through U.Lab Scot, Scotland tries to change the system, but at the same time Scotland tries to stop the worst excesses of the right wing policy, even though the income is going down.


The neo-liberal narrative is not the narrative Scottish government starts from with the U.Lab process. Wilding used to be involved in ecologic themes like climate change, species extinctions are already beyond the point of measurable recovery in many places. They have a long way of toxic capitalist system that is rather killing then regenerating life. Everything is within this system and is influenced by this paradigm. But Wilding believes there’s integrity. So one of his questions is ‘where are the folks who are coming, who are sustaining and developing this work, where are they routed in? Do they have a faith in it and do I believe in it?’


“Questions now are ‘how do we shake up the understanding of what policy making is?’ and ‘how do we run a meeting?'”


The ‘U’ of  the U.Lab theory is significant: it contains four levels. It is about listening in different ways and about connecting. The other magnificent thing about U.Lab is that it is a potentially shared reference point. That helps too. A shared space, a shared language, a shared understanding of what is appropriate, and how we can connect the personal with the professional and with the system. Harrold says that in this way, people who do not participate much in the system, are approached in a different way. We’re in a very early stage of questioning the way policy is developed. There is a narrative now, a shared understanding. It has all kinds of consequences like addressing equality and justice. Questions now are ‘how do we shake up the understanding of what policy making is?’ and ‘how do we run a meeting?’ You start with listening. “Rather then meeting the same people like me every four weeks, we try to match different people around the table, depending on the agenda, and to use more workshop skills,” Sheperd says.


Wilding agrees and finds U.Lab motivating people in doing transformational learning, as he experienced before in human ecology, where people do sensitive learning together for a week. It raises a certain state of consciousness that can cause settling into a different paradigm. There’s something about states of consciousness and how interventions can help create fields of possibility. Practices make a shift of culture. This and motivated people, combined with enough flexibility within public service to work together, can cause innovation.


Harrold gives an example of a process in the construction sector. “The atmosphere in that sector is very conservative, because margins are very tight. To deliver and make money from that small margin, they are really coercive to people who work there. They ‘bully’ to get the work done: extremely long hours and not much reward, with the exception that they get to see a finished product at the end, which is kind of reinforcing to continue. We try to help these people see things differently about how they’ve been operating, so there’s lots of reflection to it. These people are very pragmatically, they want results, they want to do something, they don’t want to sit back and relax. So we start inquiring with them how they converse, how they’re meeting, how they learn together. We confront them with the way they talked about the frustrations and the potential, the gaps in the sector. And with the fact that none of them can formulate responses to their own company and that there are twelve organisations around the table. We’re looking to prototypical collective answers. So that’s like six full days: two days, three weeks break, two days, three weeks break, two days. During those three weeks in between, we dispose kind of disruptive articles and video’s we send, with questions added. Some go pretty extreme, like talking about oil companies in Texas, companies with mostly males, giving each other foot-massages. We send them anything that emphasises integrity and starts leading towards where we’re going next, with adapted questions added. And it’s just a collection of articles, books, chapters or pages from a book. And quiet a lot of people don’t even know there is all this material, such as TED talks, to name the most famous one, but than there’s lots of very recent releases where the people we work with, never knew they existed. And you can just see the growth in how they’re operating change over time. We show how their answers to the questions change over the six or eight weeks, and it’s pretty impressive how it is transforming over that time.”


“U.lab invites people to take whatever journey they would like. […] So the question to begin with is a personal question.”


U.lab invites people to take whatever journey they would like. It’s a way of exploring something. So the question to begin with, is a personal question. Experiences are shaped as responses to the present and based on the past. In a fast changing context, we’re not well enough equipped to sense what is emerging. So part of sensing what’s emerging is to let go, to take a leap of faith and feel like you’re in safe hands, which is the importance of the community around us. To take a leap on faith requires some kind of trust. Not necessarily in the future, but trust in the relationships that are holding the leap. In recovery, the work to release yourself from patterns wether they’re biophysical, psychological or related to our identities, it’s about letting go. Pema Chödrun brings a Buddhist perspective to unpacking hope.


Some of the poverty organisations here were interested in how we might have a kind of truth and reconciliation commission about poverty in Scotland. And as part of that process, there was a reverse mentoring where people with direct experience of poverty were mentoring high decision makers of different public services. This simple move had a profound impact on that work. And then there was an inquiry about what we’ve learned over time. It was called ‘the poverty and truth commission’. It still exists and it’s shaping the on-going work.


“U.Lab can connect all the way through, to the teaching of traditions too, by its art of hosting.”


Wilding’s intention is to be and stay hopeful, that’s how to make it more possible. And to be in another place is to be serving something else, so there is only one place to be for him. Pema Chödrun also says to give up hope, in terms of attachments to the future. Live in the present is to hope. U.Lab can connect all the way through, to the teachings of traditions too, by its art of hosting. The ‘art of hosting’ is a global movement now, about the practice of conversation. Workshops are organised in random cafés about how to invite people into productive generative conversations and what non-violent communication rules are. It just seems to be true that we live in a moment that people are finding roots into a similar set of understandings and framing and offering it in different ways. And there is hope in that. And often people find their past. That past connects to other pasts. And that’s the spiritual aspect of the journey. “With U.Lab we try to foreground as much different voices as possible.”

Interview by Furia, Hart Boven Hard & Victoria Deluxe
Photos by Maria Little