Blog posts have been few and far between over the past months, mostly because most of my time has been spent on two hugely interesting and rewarding projects. So, rather than write about some technique or approach I've tried, I thought I'd write about the projects instead. Warning: some time travel *might* be involved...
Looking forwards: getting ready to go green
The climate emergency and climate justice are the biggest long-term challenges facing the planet, and governments and organisations around the world see skills development as one of the critical factors to support a just green recovery. Within this context, my year started with a commission from a client in Scotland to explore how the skills needs of communities and businesses might change in response to the green recovery. By examining the policy context and relevant skills development plans, and by interviewing local businesses and other organisations related to skills in Scotland, I was able to create an evidence base to inform future decisions.
The work identified a number of challenges to green skills development. The policy landscape is incredibly complex, drawing in national priorities - across a range of areas from housing to good food to land use - and informed by skills plans developed at Scottish, UK and global levels. Within this landscape, there is a concentration on traditional models and types of employment rather than a focus on the expertise we will need to create a greener economy, and this is echoed by a limited understanding across both the workforce and employment advisors about the type of knowledge and skills that will be needed. In many parts of Scotland, rural poverty and lack of transport play a significant role in the ability to access opportunities. And, in most cases, businesses are merely trying to survive, with very little time or space available to consider how to become more sustainable.
Looking backwards: the legacy of fossil fuels
From that project, I moved immediately to one that was heavily influenced by the legacy of the coal mines in the east of County Durham. The research was funded by Durham County Council’s department of Culture, Sport and Tourism, and supported by County Durham Sport, and set out to deepen understanding about what encourages the residents of East Durham to participate in physical and wellbeing activities - and what stops them. This is important because the East Coast has some of the highest levels of deprivation and inactivity in the County. By talking to residents, community groups and organisations across East Durham, I started to build a clearer picture about what works and what doesn't (and why), and to identify potential opportunities for the future.
This project was grounded in a 'whole systems approach' from a local perspective, which meant looking at the challenge of inactivity from the different elements that make up the system in East Durham: individual attitudes, beliefs and behaviours; the social and cultural landscape, shaping shared beliefs; organisations in the area, from schools and healthcare to businesses and community groups; the built and natural environment; and the policy landscape, reflecting national and local policy and regulations. The whole systems approach is used by both Public Health England and Sport England to help understand and untangle particularly complex issues.
Using this approach, I was able to create a systems map showing the connections between different issues and challenges, which I used to identify key themes and illustrate how they are manifested across the system. Many of the barriers to participation are linked to the poverty and deprivation in East Durham, with nearly everyone identifying with a feeling of being forgotten or ignored by wider authorities. Since the closure of the pits in the 1980s and 90s, there has a been a lack of appropriate investment in the area, few jobs, high levels of unemployment and widely reported apathy. Transport - or the lack of it - is another key feature, with villages disconnected from each other and residents unable to access the opportunities that are on offer. Organisations that do provide opportunities face a constant competition for funding, meaning that - like the businesses we spoke to about green skills development - they, too, are more focused on the here and now rather than being able to plan for the future.
While these two projects were not connected in any way, I've been reflecting on the number of shared features they had:
Both are situated in complex policy landscapes, influenced by the priorities of different portfolios that don't always align. For example, to understand the need for green skills and how they can develop in particular geographies and sectors, we need to understand the climate emergency and climate justice, as well as all the policies that affect those areas or industries. And the same is true for inactivity. We need to understand the policies that affect the development of infrastructure, be that leisure centres or transport systems, those that support organisations to offer activities, and the ones that encourage individuals to take part. It's therefore essential to take the time to understand the policy landscapes and to identify the connections within them.
Both projects were also reliant on accurate data to inform the findings and - in both cases - that data was missing or incomplete. We live in a world of big data, but often don't have access to the information we need in order to make an evidence-based decision. We need to find ways to collect, access and analyse useful and meaningful data.
For both areas, I found a gap between policy incentives and what was actually happening on the ground. In East Durham, the belief from a central perspective was that money was being spent on useful projects. In reality, residents and community groups saw short-term injections of resource that didn't address the fundamental issues and weren't sustainable. In the green skills arena, government directives are focusing on skills for the future, but businesses are merely trying to survive. These gaps needs to be understood and addressed if we are to make any progress.
Overall, I think both projects demonstrate the need for a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of these complex and challenging issues before resources are committed and action taken. That's not to say that we don't need action - and fast - but what we do should better reflect what's actually needed, not just what people think is a good idea. For both these projects and across many different areas, the most important thing is to find new ways to address the inherent and growing inequalities in our society. And this calls for a just transition to a greener future. Without that, we'll just continue to tinker at the edges rather than achieve the fundamental change we need.
A short summary of the East Durham research is available to download below. Please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like more information about either of these projects, or if you're struggling with a complex issue. I'd love to hear from you.