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EiPL - The art of disruptive thinking

Philippa Venables, Director of Regeneration and Economy at Walsall Council, talks about the first session of the 2022 Excellence in Place Leadership (EiPL) programme, which focused on ‘The art of disruptive thinking’.

The first session of our EiPL programme focused on the power of disruptive thinking, which has radically changed our lives, by driving innovation and creativity in many industries. For example, recent innovations classed as disruptive include Deliveroo, Hello Fresh and Netflix – all these companies share features such as better connectivity, include time-saving features and gather data to improve performance.

Increasingly, local authorities will also need to find creative solutions to enable them to deliver and enhance public services. Disruptive thinking is a key tool that can be applied by place leaders to help boost the creativity and innovation required, helping to address some of the most critical issues facing local authorities.

The opening session, led by James Allen from Creative Huddle, looked at theories of disruptive thinking and we were introduced to techniques and models around the concept – we also looked at ‘blocks’ in the public sector to disruptive thinking and looked at how these can be addressed.

This was a fantastic learning experience and allowed us to get to know each other better, not having met before today. It acted as a useful ice breaker and each person, all from different local authorities, was able to score themselves on how good they are at disruptive thinking – quite a range of approaches and mindsets were in the room.

The day’s overarching theme was around the levelling up agenda, looking at how as place leaders, we can tackle the tensions in productivity and prosperity across the UK. At the time of the session, we were waiting for the government’s Levelling Up white paper to be published - so we focused on the core levelling up outcomes for place leaders and their communities, looking at how success can be measured, and whether our current approaches will deliver the outcomes we need.

Our aim for the day was to apply disruptive thinking techniques to the levelling up agenda, to better understand how it can be used as an effective tool for local authority place leaders. This was the takeaway and the challenge for us, to think about and apply disruptive thinking within our work environments.

We then listened to three different thought leaders: Tom Walker from the Cabinet Office, Marcus Richards from EY and Chris Beck from the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Tom Walker spoke about the government’s Levelling Up white paper, while Marcus Richards set out initial proposals for the impact assessment framework and metrics conversation which would be the basis of the next EiPL session.

Chris Beck spoke about the experiences from the Tees Valley Combined Authority – for the last five years, they have been working to level-up the economic and social opportunities in their area. A key focus was to shift the narrative, so that Tees Valley was perceived as being more than just an industrial area. To do this, they had to secure investment and confidence from new sectors, in order to encourage growth and diversification. The case study really brought the issues to life and helped us to focus on the challenges we face and the partners with whom it’s essential to work.

Following this, we split into smaller workshop groups, to look at two key areas in greater detail. The first looked at what levelling up means, where we considered what fundamental problems levelling up is trying to solve and the likely impacts. In workshop two, we looked at levelling up strategies in our individual local authority areas and focused on what we need as place leaders to drive the agenda.

Throughout the day, it became abundantly clear that the public sector cannot achieve levelling up in isolation – it translates into everything we do, and we need to apply it to our work with all our networks, businesses, organisations and communities. We all agreed that longer term funding agreements and better collaboration, closer working with businesses and the private sector is vital, as is a whole-system approach.

There was also strong agreement on the importance of measurement and analysis. Data is a commodity, and we need to harness this to both measure our success and also plan interventions where something is not succeeding. For example, sustainable transport is dependent upon data to understand how people move about which will in turn allow us to innovate and to build opportunities through smart city solutions.

I welcomed the opportunity to see everything with different eyes. Sharing stories and experiences with other place leaders was enlightening and we are already beginning to form a strong network. It was a fantastic session, with a great mix of people, interesting speakers and valuable content.

However, we all acknowledged that applying disruptive thinking can be difficult. Although Covid-19 boosted innovation, as organisations had to adapt quickly to survive, the instinct to return to everyday living is hard-wired in us all. Within local authorities, there are also barriers to innovation such as political decision making, procurement constraints, funding and the need for behaviour change.

It is therefore vital that we continue to challenge and disrupt our thinking, embedding it into our processes and systems so that we continue to innovate and develop for our places and our communities, continuing to develop and commit to the levelling up agenda. Spending this time with peers in a creative and challenging environment really helped to develop this thinking.

The Excellence in Place Leadership Session 1 summary document is available here.

The ADEPT Excellence in Place Leadership programme is sponsored by Amey, who pioneered this approach within the highways sector in 2018. ADEPT and Amey continue to collaborate and are currently delivering the third programme during 2022.

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