Sugar Gliders and Flying Squirrels

The Sugar Glider and the Flying Squirrel evolved separately, in Australia and in North America but they have some very similar features. They both glide from tree to tree using flaps of skins, they both have large eyes and white bellies. They are both incredibly cute.

Public Policy Lab (PPL), based in New York City and TACSI are, like the Sugar Glider and the Flying Squirrel, are examples of convergent evolution. Entities that have evolved in different environments but have ended up with similar defining features. So what would happen if a Sugar Glider and a Flying Squirrel met, and what would they talk about?

PPL and TACSI actually have met quite often. In London, in Singapore and most recently in Hong Kong. As part of an international network of social innovation labs, fostered by Social Innovation Exchange, we see each other at retreats and conferences and we follow each others’ work from afar. But we’ve never spent time in each others’ offices. That’s until now. That’s until the PPL / TACSI learning exchange.

The idea was to swap staff, to get into the weeds, to see each others’ work in context. 

Earlier this month Chris Vanstone, TACSI’s Chief Innovation Officer, spent two weeks in PPL’s offices in the Dumbo neighbourhood of New York City. As part of the next leg Shanti Mathew, PPL’s Deputy Director, will spend two weeks in Australia between Adelaide and Sydney. So after 10 days of learning exchange, working in NYC homeless shelters, taking part in PPLs ‘reading hour’, BBQ, competitive storytelling and one ‘Public Policy Blab’ what did we learn?

It turns out PPL and TACSI have some curious similarities.

  • We’re both concerned first and foremost with impact
  • We both run design-based processes
  • We both have deep respect and empathy for public servants and the challenges they face
  • We’re both see the value and the limits of working to address the problems systems face right now
  • We both sit with histories of Indigenous colonisation and exploiting communities of colour
  • We both find it hard to hire men

But there are some fundamental differences.

  • TACSI’s work in government, with a few notable exceptions, is nearly always funded by government whereas PPLs work with government is nearly always funded by philanthropy.
  • PPL have deliberately chosen to keep their work and language conservative and focussed as a strategy to build trust with government, whereas TACSI has developed a broad portfolio of work with voice that ranges from conservative to provocative.
  • PPL work hard to sell in human centred design approaches to the NYC government, whilst in Australia it’s becoming increasingly common for governments to ask for design-based approaches.
  • PPL have built their reputation steadily by doing one type of work, human centred design in public services, really well. Whereas TACSI’s portfolio of work is broader and crosses into different kinds of design and broader systems work.

Over the next few months we’ll be bringing the two teams together on video to explore key topics that interest us both:

  • What it takes set up participatory work well
  • Checklists and defaults for project design
  • Working in ways to further self determination
  • Writing punchy reports and writing as thinking
  • The time and the place for ‘considered conservatism’ and the time and place for ‘magic’
  • How to foster aligned action across multiple organisations
  • How to evaluate our own impacts
  • And how to increase public participation in social innovation labs.

We also learnt about learning.

Design based processes champion contextual learning – turns out there’s something to that. When you learn in context you learn all the little things that don’t make more formal learning exchanges: how to collect demographics on a consent form, how to talk to a funder, how collect receipts, how to onboard a new team member, how to structure report writing. All the useful stuff that doesn’t get to go to conferences.

But there are some things about learning exchange that are not about learning.

Sometimes working in Australia can feel a little like you’re the other side of the planet from the dominant (English language) social innovation conversations. Because we are. But writing this on the plane home, heading West over Springfield, Illinois, it’s just comforting to know that there is a team in Dumbo facing many of the same challenges, fighting the same battles, and thinking about the next steps in their evolution too.

– Chris Vanstone