By WiT, Feb 7 2018 03:42PM


A little under two years ago we were working with a couple of people leading organisations in Nottingham - one in the public sector, and the other in the voluntary sector - that in different ways were trying to support their communities and improve their neighbourhoods. Both were grappling with the challenges of diminishing resources and increasing needs, and the necessity to rethink how we work with and engage our communities.

We brought these people together, and conversations and developing trust led to a study tour to seek out wider experiences and share and learn from people in different places.

This in turn led to new ideas being explored and to previously unimagined collaborative working, underpinned by deepening trust and relationships.

We were then asked to imagine, shape and bring into being something that could help to continue these conversations, connections and fresh thinking – and extend and grow this across Nottingham. Our Neighbourhood Learning Ground was born.


Stuart Kauffman is a theoretical biologist who studies the origin of life and the origins of molecular organisation – and one of the concepts he has introduced and explored to try to understand and make sense of how simple organisms have evolved into complex adaptive systems is the ‘adjacent possible’. This is the space where small and incremental changes can happen, and each move into the adjacent possible opens up more adjacent possibles and increases the diversity of what can happen next.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From has taken this idea and explored how it might also apply to the complex adaptive social systems of human society. Through telling the stories of many new inventions and ideas, he shows that change usually happens in small steps as we embrace ideas or try out new things in the adjacent possible – but each small step creates many new and more diverse opportunities – new adjacent possibles that were previously unthinkable or undoable.

'The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.'

One way of looking at Our Neighbourhood Learning Ground, and how we have approached its early and first steps, is through the lens of the adjacent possible.

In this light, our role can be seen as helping people to explore existing, and then co-create new adjacent possibles. We are hoping to do this by:

o Bringing together people, growing relationships and trust, and creating the climate for exploring new ideas - creating a space and a culture that is open to fresh ideas and challenge

o Sharing ideas and practice from diverse perspectives and places – sparking the curiosity that might enable people to see potential adjacent possibles that were previously hidden

o Giving the support and encouragement that might make it possible for people and organisations to venture into the adjacent possible

o Sparking collaborations that might co-create new adjacent possibles

o Helping to nurture a wider ecology of adjacent possibles across the city

Our work with Our Neighbourhood Learning Ground is grounded in our understanding of complex adaptive living systems, and the processes that support and nurture their healthy growth. The first steps are exploring the current adjacent possible – who knows what new opportunities might emerge through this process in the future?

By WiT, Jan 2 2015 03:33PM

We first began working with actors decades ago using Forum theatre with young people - taking issues that are difficult to talk about and exploring them in a very real and potent way. Actors were able to say the words that had had been silent but needed to be voiced; situations could be examined in ways that named the issue safely, allowing them to be looked at from different perspectives, and opening up possibilities for change. Over the years we have continued to use Forum theatre with adults and young people in all sorts of situations to facilitate new insights and learning towards positive change.

We have worked many times with poets – they have the ability to observe and then distil what they have heard and experienced into something succinct, thought provoking, beautiful and often disturbing. We have often asked poets to summarise events with a performance at the closing of the event.

We work with graphic recorders who observe events and listen to conversations, using pictures to tell the story of the event, the learning and what might happen next. We work with photographers to capture important moments that will later be meaningful when we reflect upon an event or process – seeing people in conversation or sitting thinking can be so helpful in taking us back to important times and figuring out what was important and what we have learned.

We work with musicians who help us work together, discover our shared energies and find our capacity to really listen and communicate with one another through rhythms and sounds - so often leading to better thinking when people leave their drums and shakers and come together to talk.

We have worked as creative practitioners in schools,workplaces and communities in collaboration with other creative practitioners – actors, video artists, performers, makers, poets, dancers, storytellers….

The difference creative practitioners make to any learning situation is huge - almost always memorable, enjoyable and engaging, but this isn’t entertainment. We work with our creative friends to design events and interventions that will stimulate learning, disturb old ways of thinking and allow new perspectives to form. New thinking and new insights are needed more than ever before - and artists of all kinds can be wonderful springboards into new thinking and doing.

In 2014 we were focused on gathering together a group of talented artists, musicians and poets to challenge our thinking, help us develop our own practice and deepen our learning. We were not sure quite where this would lead nor how the creative work would find expression but we knew it was important. Gathering a diversity of people together is always exciting and often rather scary – we didn’t know what would emerge from our collaboration but we knew something would - and it did!


the Travelling Playground
the Travelling Playground

We were asked by Nottingham CityCare to work on increasing parent and community participation in their Small Steps Big Changes project. We needed to work with a wide range of communities, parents and children and find out about their experiences of bringing up children in four wards within Nottingham. The hope was that this would not only help us to find out what was important but also encourage parents to become a core part of shaping and ultimately delivering the programme.

The challenge was to locate and involve parents and children in a way that was exciting, respectful, fun and informative for everyone. It needed to help to create different relationships between parents and people delivering the various services they used, as well starting to shape and create the services parents and children needed.

This was a great opportunity to do something differently and really put children at the heart of the programme with parents leading the way. Enter the Travelling Playground.

We collaborated with a group of artists and different people and organisations in each of the areas to design and create events that had meaning for the diverse participants who came for a day of fun, creative activities, idea sharing and conversations that matter.

Parents, children and grandparents came and thoroughly enjoyed themselves – but these were not just family fun days. The events were carefully designed to be highly purposeful, with all the activities providing opportunities for:

o Sharing and gathering stories and an understanding of our diverse and different lives

o Connecting with new people and having important conversations about what really matters

o Having fun and sharing experiences and activities across the generations

o Taking time to reflect on our experiences and share our hopes for the future

Each Travelling Playground closed with a performance by poet, performer and musician David Stickman Higgins – reflecting on and summarising conversations, thoughts, hopes and dreams emerging from the event’s activities.

We plan to build on our work with artists and creative practitioners over the coming year to help us create learning events and opportunities that really enable participants of all ages to use their whole selves - their full creativity and all parts of their brain - to learn and gain new insights, and discover new possibilities for change and development.

By WiT, Jun 5 2014 10:57AM

Working with organisations on various projects around complex change, we have found the concept of Three Horizons, developed by the International Futures Forum, to be a really useful framework, and one that helps people make sense of the complexity of change, and how we can think about the future.

Put simply, the three horizons are:

Horizon 1 is business as usual, using the same thinking we have always used, thinking that is no longer adequate to help us adapt to the changing world around us.

Horizon 2 is a zone of experimentation, exploring new possibilities in response to the limits of the first horizon, and the potential of the third.

Horizon 3 is the future pattern. As Bill Sharpe writes in Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope - 'exploring the third horizon is a skill in working creatively with the unknown, the partially known and the uncertain'. We need to use systems thinking here, and part of this process is learning to see everything as patterns - exploring processes rather than structures:

'Three horizons thinking is based on consciously making this shift to bring processes into the foreground and explore how they are shaping the structures of life around us, making a sort of figure-ground reversal in our awareness. Instead of seeing a world of stability to which change and uncertainty 'happen', we instead become aware that everything that seems fixed and stable is just part of a slow process of change, embedded in other processes that extend out as far as we want to explore.'

This got me thinking about the idea of figure-ground reversal.

By WiT, Apr 10 2014 04:58PM

‘If... our premise is that the community already has the answers, the task becomes one of facilitating self discovery. Seemingly slow starts acquire astonishing velocity once a community takes ownership of its own problem and discovers its own proven remedy.’

Positive deviance (PD) is an approach that ‘upends conventional wisdom’, suggesting that we don’t need to look to external experts to solve apparently intractable problems, but to identify individuals in the community – positive deviants – who have already found their own locally appropriate solution.

The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, by Richard Pascale, Jerry and Monique Sternin (see website for more information) tells the fascinating story of how this approach has been used on projects as diverse as childhood malnutrition in Vietnam to reducing MRSA in American hospitals.

We have recently been working alongside a third sector health organisation supporting their bid for funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s A Better Start programme which ‘aims to deliver a step change in preventative approaches in pregnancy and the first three years of life to improve the life chances of babies and young children’.

As we worked on this we became interested in how the learning from positive deviance projects might help shape new community based approaches to improving outcomes for the 0-3s.

Positive Deviance is an approach, not a replicable programme: it is intimately rooted in its context. It is not an approach to use where there is the possibility of a technical fix – it is for helping to resolve adaptive problems, characterised by social complexity and requiring behavioural change.

The positive deviance story is told as one of learning and discovery – learning from reflection on the successes and failures of real life projects. Much of this learning seems, to us, to be particularly pertinent to the A Better Start programme.

PD projects are bottom up, not top down – ‘tapping the distributed intelligence of the community to discover its own latent wisdom’. They require that the community defines its own problems and identifies its own solutions. Only through this will the community take ownership and develop its own strategies for change.

PD projects work on the principle of ‘acting into a new way of thinking’, they rely on the social learning of people coming together to discover and share new approaches and solutions through active engagement – through living out new ways of doing things, with families, friends and neighbours,.

They are rooted in their local context, or ecology - no two solutions will be the same: we can learn from the principles of how something has been done, but can’t simply replicate the solution. This has real importance for the concept of ‘scaling’ or ‘best practice roll out’. With PD you can scale ‘broad’ – communities can use their new found collective learning skills to solve other problems – but not ‘wide’ - the solutions cannot be simply applied in other communities. This is a major challenge to much current thinking around ‘evidence based’ programmes delivered with ‘fidelity’.

PD solutions are often characterised by apparently small changes – ‘incremental in a moment of time’ – which become much more profound – ‘radical over time’. This is described in the book as nature’s way – looking at system change as analogous to evolutionary adaptation over time.

All of this has major implications for the role of professionals, practitioners and leaders in initiating, shaping and developing projects in the community, and how communities are engaged with this process – shifting

‘...our emphasis from teaching people what to do, to engaging them as pioneers in discovering how to do it.’

Much to think about – and much to be inspired and excited by.

By WiT, Feb 27 2014 04:01PM

First posted April 2013 - John Mitchell

For many years now we have used big picture storytelling to help individuals, teams and organisations share and make sense of their learning journeys, and used learning histories to explore and understand organisations and change processes through the personal stories of participants across the process. We have recently started combining these two approaches to form a learning and evaluation process that is quick, engaging and highly interactive, and which produces rich and complex, but still very clear and practical learning outcomes.

By WiT, Feb 27 2014 03:53PM

First posted September 2012 - Lesley Cramman

2012 has been a really interesting and creative year for us so far. We have worked with a national charity, a community regeneration trust and a local authority, helping them to transform into the organisations they need to be to serve their communities better. All have embarked on difficult and deeply challenging journeys in the most difficult of times, which have demanded that they rethink what they do and how they do it whilst developing more open, honest and ongoing relationships with the people who work for them and with their communities. Complicated and very difficult work that is almost impossible to pull off without the ability and means to learn and adjust their paths as they go through profound change.

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