Month: May 2014

Notes on A Dialogue on the Future of Scotland, by Ben Kemp

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Notes and reflections on some of the ideas which emerged from group discussions and facilitated conversations about Scotland’s future. The event was hosted by Collaborative Scotland on 21 May 2014.

• There was a shared sense of both the importance of the decision which the Scottish people are being asked to take, but at the same time a sense of frustration and disappointment at the quality of the public debate which had taken place to date.

• There was a sense of frustration directed at the politicians, but at the same time an understanding of their role in essentially marketing particular causes and positions.

• The sense of frustration had manifested itself in a thirst for knowledge – for information and, perhaps, underlying this need, a search for objectivity; for real insight.

• A sense also however that the quest for knowledge, and information, might only be one part of the answer. Just as important was the right sort of information, in the right quality and quantity (there was a significant risk in information overload and misinformation).

• Moreover, there was potentially a risk in assuming that information of itself would provide insight; the acquisition of information was not a substitute for the exercise of effective judgement and decision making.

• Drawing some of these threads together, it was unclear how people would go about exercising the decision they were being asked to make in the autumn of this year, or indeed how one should go about that decision, responsibly, in a way that did justice to the importance of the question.

• While there was an attractiveness to an evidence-based approach, this could not ultimately remove the inherent uncertainty which surrounded any decision of this sort, or indeed life in general. The important point was in trying to find a mechanism by which, individually and collectively, we could arrive at a decision which would allow us to move forward positively from the current discussion.

• This is where, it was perceived, the role of respectful dialogue would be critical. The emphasis on ‘dialogue’, as opposed to ‘debate’ is deliberate; the latter having a ‘harder’ more adversarial edge which leant itself more to a positional approach and potentially to the exclusion of relevant interests and stakeholders.

• It was important to listen and to seek to understand the perspective and interests of different groups, individuals and stakeholders. There was a power in really trying to put oneself in the shoes of that other individual, group or stakeholder.

• Debate and adversarial process did not naturally lend themselves to this kind of understanding and empathy. The world is not as black and white as this; there will be a range of legitimate and understandable different perspectives, and interests. There is uncertainty. Very little, if anything is actually clear cut.

• Some considerable importance was attached to the roles and interests of those who are in effect disenfranchised by this vote. A number of examples of these people were considered; including children, people living in England, or other parts of Europe or of the World, and those both unable to vote and/or to articulate themselves in a way which might naturally tend to give them a voice in the discussion. Their perspective, interests and voice were nonetheless important. Emphasis was placed in particular on the importance of the insight and interests of children, whose futures will be impacted by the decision we are about to make.

• There was a need for clear leadership, but not necessarily in the traditional sense, in which that term is associated with strength and assertiveness. Modern leadership might come through the clear facilitation of effective dialogue.

• There is a danger in evoking emotive language; the importance of remaining calm and seeking to be ‘measured’ in the course of the discussion.

• A sense, finally, both of the importance of the decision, but also of the way in which it is arrived at; the importance of the process, and of the agreement of process, in establishing parameters within which the discussion will take place. This is important, both in fostering the quality of the discussion, and the quality (and perhaps longevity) of the outcome.

• We must not be complacent about the risk of arriving at a decision in a way – whichever way the vote goes – which causes damage to communities both within and outside Scotland.

Talks about Talks, by Charlie Woods

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On 21st May, Collaborative Scotland held a “Dialogue on the Future of Scotland” at the excellent Edinburgh Training Centre. The event combined an exploration of the processes that can help facilitate a more productive exchange with the opportunity to touch on some of the issues of substance concerning the forthcoming referendum. It also provided participants the opportunity to consider issues from a different perspective by standing in others’ shoes.

A critical starting point of any dialogue is the opportunity to build rapport, not least to allow the people to be separated from the issues and the foundations of trust to be laid. The evening began with each table of five or six people introducing themselves to each other and saying something about their hopes for the discussion and their concerns about the referendum, which a more respectful dialogue might be able to help address. The opportunity to share food also played a part in building rapport and humanising the proceedings.

Many of the emerging worries that participants shared concerned the aftermath of the referendum

– possible schisms in families, friendships and communities, a sense of loss given the emotional investment in the campaign, the impact of an overly triumphal reaction by the ‘winners’ and the need for reconciliation.

Other concerns included: overly simplistic arguments about extremely complex issues, the impact on the rest of the UK and a lack of candour about the difficulty of answering questions which are just unknowable at this stage of the process.

It was felt that the nature of the discussion that precedes the referendum can play a part in addressing these concerns. In part this is down to language and de-personalisation and in part to the structure and processes that frame the discussion. The latter part of the evening focused on this by inviting participants to role play different groups of stakeholders. After a brainstorming and vote, five stakeholder groups were identified – interestingly, each group will not be directly involved in the referendum vote, but all will be influenced by the outcome. The groups chosen were: children in Scotland under voting age, Catalonia, UK-wide charities, the north of England and the EU Commission.

The participants were randomly divided into each group and asked to address a number of questions which centred on; what are your interests in relation to the referendum? what risks do you foresee? what are your concerns? what opportunities might present themselves and what hopes do you have?

The representatives were then brought together for a facilitated discussion. Specific attention was paid to the ground rules (e.g. confidentiality, reporting back, order of speaking etc.) with opportunities to reflect on what worked and what could be improved.

At the end of the evening the group as a whole took the opportunity to highlight key learning points. These included:

• There is a very wide and disparate set of stakeholders that have an interest in the referendum and the way in which the dialogue leading up to it is handled
• The way in which the process is structured and conducted can play a key role in determining the outcome and the nature of the discussion (“calm or hot”)
• Facilitation which helps achieve productive outcomes is a form of leadership
• Process management is hard work for facilitators and for participants, requiring concentration and engagement
• There is a very big difference between dialogue (which explores interests, hopes and fears) and debate (which encourages advocacy for and against positions)
• Dialogue enables conversations that matter and the building of collective wisdom

A lot of ground relating to both content and process was covered in a relatively short period of time. There was much that can be built on in many forums between now and September. We all have opportunities to help facilitate more productive dialogue.

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Great to see the new moderator of the Church of Scotland (and Commitment to Respectful Dialogue signatory), John Chalmers, putting respectful dialogue and reconciliation post-referendum at the top of the agenda for the church. I was in leading a seminar in Hawaii (!) this past week with our good friend, Peter Adler, and we made Collaborative Scotland the topic of discussion. There is world-wide interest….

Sweet harmony or raucous cacophony? A Blog by Charlie Woods

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The music generated by our economic, political and social systems sounds increasingly discordant. Can we collaborate better to live more harmoniously with each other and the planet on which we rely?


The economic growth we have seen over the last three hundred years or so and the associated improvements in living standards for many has been founded on the huge increase in human productivity achieved in large part by combining human ingenuity with the power of energy sources laid down over millions of years. There is a growing body of evidence (drawn together in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th report) that this has significant side effects on the planet.


There is also increasing evidence that the system of patrimonial capitalism that has underpinned this economic growth in most advanced industrial countries tends to produce significant inequality in the distribution of wealth and income (see ‘Capital – in the 21st Century’ by Thomas Piketty). On the face of it these concentrations of capital and associated power appears to place the interests (or at least the positions they adopt) of the relatively few large holders of significant wealth at odds with those of the many.


In theory democratic systems of government (which as argued by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in ‘Why Nations Fail’, have been instrumental in helping sustain economic development by making it more inclusive) should allow the interests of the majority to take precedence. But in practice those who have accumulated wealth can often exert significant influence over the framing of any debate and over the decision makers in pursuit of in their interests.


This state of affairs does not appear to be sustainable. As tension grows and frustrations rise things will begin to snap.There are already signs of people beginning to turn against each other and blame and demonise others, particularly those who are from outwith their group. Populist causes which offer apparently easy solutions are winning increasing support – not for the first time.


But are the interests of the many and the few so different over the longer term? To what extent is equality and environmental sustainability not only fairer for current and future generations, but essential to avoiding unmanageable tension and achieving longer term economic and political sustainability. This was the argument being advanced by Richard Branson at the recent Scottish Business Awards as he described the work of the B Team ( to bring together people, planet and profit.


Our challenge as a species is to develop political and economic systems which allow the interests of all to be better aligned. Ideally this needs to be done on a global scale because one or two places where free riders could prosper would significantly undermine the system. It also has to be achieved in a way which doesn’t cause so much disruption that the transitional costs are greater that the problems we are trying to solve. While it might appear revolutionary, can we achieve it without a revolution?


What hope is there? While the efforts to make progress on a global level seem to become increasingly mired in disputes over short term positions, there are examples, highlighted by Andrew Simms in ‘Cancel the Apocalypse’, of new models being developed all over the world on a smaller scale, which appear to produce more sustainable results – the Mondragon co-operative in Spain, Germany’s more locally based banking system, neighbourhood decision making in Brazil, and Buthan’s system of assessing national progress to name a few. Can these sort of ideas be developed and evaluated more widely and much faster before we are engulfed by a global tragedy of the commons entirely of our own making?