The winter of our discontent

As the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the UK heads well past 100,000, it is sometimes hard to recall the spirit of togetherness and even optimism that was present in the Spring of the first lockdown.

It was, of course, also a very difficult time and, for too many, a time of great loss. But there was space, even in the midst of the rapid changes taking place in all of our lives, to see glimmers of hope in some of these changes. People got to know their neighbours and offered each other help, streets were reclaimed for walking and play, the weekly clap brought people together, and key workers were celebrated.

Those of us working in the field of social change could also see positive changes taking place in local organisations and public services. There was greater collaboration across different sectors, with a light shone on the importance of the voluntary sector and mutual aid. Frontline workers gained new permissions to do whatever it took to achieve one shared and binding aim: protecting the most vulnerable people in our communities. One local authority Chief Executive we spoke to at the time described culture change taking place in a matter of weeks that would normally take a decade. Indeed, sentiments like this were commonly expressed. There was still plenty to criticise, especially in decisions made at the national level. But the closer you got to people and communities, the closer you got to reasons for hope.

At Collaborate we focused a lot of our time in those months on understanding and documenting those changes, and exploring how they could be used to sustain longer term transitions in thinking, culture and practice. We published tools and frameworks to help people learn from the changes they were making, and began new work with partners who were already looking forward.

And then as summer became autumn, it felt like a moment had been lost. COVID-19 cases again started to rise, and the reality of a second wave during winter began to crowd out the space for hope and optimism about what could follow the pandemic.

Cycles of change

The idea that change is not linear will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with common models of change.¹ They remind us that change involves loss as well as gain; that it involves transitions through different emotional states; and that there is often a period of time between the old and the new when things are in flux, and therefore feel confusing and difficult. The Emotional Cycle of Change², for example, describes a movement from an early stage of ‘uninformed optimism’ through to the ‘Valley of Despair’, where you are feeling all the costs of the change you are experiencing but none of the benefits. This sounds like a pretty good description of where we have been, and where we are now. But there are then other stages, as the change process continues towards ‘informed optimism’ and finally ‘success and fulfilment’.

Adapted from Don Kelley and Daryl Connor’s Emotional Cycle of Change, first introduced in “1979 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators” and based on the Kubler-Ross grief cycle

The wheel’s still in spin

Models like this are helpful in providing reassurance that the Valley of Despair is not the end of the journey; that there are other steps. But they tell us much less about where those steps will take us. What is the destination? The good and the bad news is that, when talking about the fallout from a global pandemic, no one knows. The wheel is still in spin.

One paradox of the pandemic is that it has both highlighted and obscured fault-lines in our way of life. The truth is that inequalities in health outcomes, educational attainment, housing provision, income security and digital access which have been highlighted over the past year are not a consequence of COVID-19: they existed long before. The ways our welfare state and public services worked to try to help people through these challenges were already outdated. And the climate crisis remains as the bigger challenge looming behind the immediate pandemic. As Mark Carney put it in his recent Reith lecture series linking the triple crises in capitalism, COVID and the climate, climate change is the “challenge from which no one can self-isolate”. Equally, the other great disruptive force of the last year, the Black Lives Matter movement, was surfacing issues of structural racism which are decades old.

Change might be a process, but if we are to meet the challenges we face as a society and as a planet, it also needs a direction³. Not just back to where we were before, but forwards to something that looks and feels very different.

Shaping the future: the Manifesto for the Collaborative Society

Around this time last year, before we had heard of COVID-19 or could even locate Wuhan on a map, we published our Manifesto for a Collaborative Society. This was our case for why we believed collaboration was an idea whose time has come, what a Collaborative Society could look like, and where we saw it already emerging. We set out what we saw as six key domains where change was needed:

  • A collaborative mindset, which starts from the belief that we are part of a bigger whole, and it asks us to acknowledge the interconnectedness of people and planet, that we are part of a living system
  • Collaborative leadership, which mobilises collective responses, engages with complexity and valuing the insights that come with greater diversity
  • Collaborative organisations and forms of organising, which prioritise networks, collaboration, learning and adaptation over hierarchy and control
  • Collaborative communities, where people take action for the greater good and value relationships and connections
  • Collaborative public services and servants, that put the human back at the heart of everything, act through relationships and work with people’s capabilities
  • A collaborative economy, which is understood in terms of how well it enables people, society and the planet to thrive.

Looking back at the Manifesto, just one year on but from a vantage point where so much has changed, the vision set out in the Manifesto feels as relevant as ever.

In the best of the response, we have seen mindsets, leadership, forms of organising, responses from communities and public services which closely reflect the vision we set out. While the measures introduced by the Treasury can only ever be a temporary response to a crisis situation and not a sustainable way forward, it has at least shifted the terms of the debate. It has reminded us that the economy exists for people, not people for the economy. We have seen the value of moral responsibility and mutual obligation, as well as individual responsibility. The time of isolated individualism is over: facing complex, interconnected 21st century problems, our interdependence is clear.

These glimpses of a different future have reinforced to us the need for the kinds of change the Manifesto describes, and no doubt deepened our understanding of them too. The challenge is to embed the new approaches we have seen in sustainable ways, not just as temporary adaptations to a situation of crisis. The qualities which were so apparent in the Spring — of solidarity, sacrifice, shared responsibility and kindness — are qualities we will need to value and nurture for the future.

Building a collaborative future

At Collaborate we are always curious. It was curiosity that led us to explore more deeply the currents that run through our work with our partners and fellow travellers which resulted in the Manifesto. Now we want to understand how we can take the best of what we have observed through the COVID response, to shape the processes of change we are observing in the direction of a Collaborative Society.

We see lessons embedded in the pandemic experience that can help show us what is possible and what is needed when we focus on recovery, not crisis. So, our focus now is on how we can learn these lessons and work purposefully towards a future which doesn’t just paper over the cracks that existed before, and are wider and deeper now. We want to understand what we have observed over the past year about how change happens; how can we help our partners to look ahead and find hope and optimism again; and how important collaboration can be in what comes next.

The Hope Inquiry

So we are starting this year with a new resolution: to look forward with hope; to explore the signs that positive and sustainable change is possible; to create spaces to make sense of what’s happening and look forwards; and to identify steps we can take towards a more positive future. We will do this through a new inquiry for 2021, The Hope Inquiry, through which we will explore these questions — as a team, through our project work, with our partners, and with any one who wants to join us. This is what our Inquiry will explore. The questions that will guide us are:

How do we create sustainable, system-wide change that helps move us towards a Collaborative Society?

  • Taking the six key domains of the Collaborative Society manifesto, what changes are we and others noticing?
  • How has COVID-19 influenced these changes? What does this suggest about the process of change?
  • How do we best support people and places to move towards a more Collaborative Society — a process that takes time and requires new mindsets and ways of working?

We will be exploring these as a team, together and through all of our work, and we invite you to consider them with us. We will be planning some formal ways of doing this over the next few weeks, including events, discussions and blogs. As before, we will share our learning here throughout the year. In the meantime, if you’d like to be involved in any way, please get in touch.

We’d love to hear from you!

(The title for this blog is inspired by Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem)


¹See for example the Transition Model, William Bridges; Transition Design, Drift & Carnegie MellonSee for example the Transition Model, William Bridges; Transition Design, Drift & Carnegie Mellon

²See for example

³Economist Mariana Mazzucato makes a similar point about directing markets and growth;