Embracing the U

Last weekend I found myself clutching someone I’ve recently met in a tight embrace, whilst pretending to have a conversation with the Transport Minister, in an effort to become a more effective cycle campaigner.

Yes, dear readers, I’ve gone through ULab…

I’ve spent Thursday nights for the last two months cloistered in a small room in Dunbar with seven others, participating in ULab: leading from the emerging future, a massive online open course (MOOC) devised by Otto Scharmer and colleagues at MIT. This involved watching the slowly spoken Otto take our ‘Dunbar Hub’, and thousands like us around the world, through the tools and techniques of Theory U slightly faster than he expected his recorded online learning materials to be played. Alongside the proscribed materials on listening, presencing, crystallising and prototyping, we’ve held weekly case clinics, gone on empathy walks, conducted dialogue interviews and monitored our empathic listening.

Sounds like a lot of hippy twaddle wrapped in management speak, doesn’t it? For the first two weeks I was convinced I’d stumbled across the Emperor’s new clothes but as the weeks went on and we became more comfortable with each other, and the material, my ‘voice of judgement’ shut up and I could feel the emerging future tantalisingly close at hand. If you’re completely lost at this point, there is a glossary available..

ULab has taken us through a journey of self-reflection and realisation about how we connect to those around us, not just our colleagues and organisations but our friends, family and communities too. As a Hub we’ve wrestled with global issues, local challenges, the nature of society, economic realities and ourselves. At the heart of the journey is how we approach the world at every level we encounter, and it feels like this is particularly crucial at the moment in our tumultuous times. As Otto says in one of the short introductory videos, we are living in an age of profound disruption, where something is ending and dying and something else is waiting to be born.


I went along initially hoping to find out if there was some magic that I could learn to convince the Scottish Government to hand over 10% of the transport budget to active travel infrastructure. What I’ve learnt instead is that I need to connect with the people that don’t see the world as I do, and work on understanding why they don’t; to stop ‘downloading’ – trying to get my view across in any situation – and concentrate on listening and questioning opposing views that contain different information so I can find out why those views are so different to mine and where they come from*

It feels to me like we’re at a significant point in cycle campaigning, where traditional methods of engagement have got us grudging acknowledgement but nowhere near enthusiastic embracement; we need to understand how we can hold the space so that our emerging future can be born. An emerging future that talks about equity, inclusion, liveable cities that provide high quality environments for families, and rural communities that don’t trap people at at home if they don’t have access to a car. We need more conversations with our neighbours about place making and people-centred development and less conversations starting with demands for cycling and cyclists.

The Invisible Visible Man nailed it last month in a blog post that referenced conversations with people who just saw cycling as crazy and cyclists as a nuisance to ordinary people. This point was made clearly over and over again to me as my ULab colleagues, though absolutely supportive of me, gave weekly examples of why people see cyclists as rude, selfish and smug – the red light jumper, pavement terroriser, peloton road hoggers and hair-shirt cyclists. Each time I tried to defend ‘us’, whilst maintaining the position that there is no ‘us’, and preparing my answers without examining these different views of the world. It’s finally occurred to me that unless I’m prepared to unpack the problem and understand why riding a bicycle for transport seems to make usually rational people furious, I’m never going to help deliver that 10% of investment to the transport system that makes so much sense to me.

The ULab experience has been uniquely challenging and rewarding because of the people that went through it with me. It’s particularly been a privilege to meet several inspirational people working with those that are struggling at the margins and have dedicated their working lives to supporting and speaking out for people with no voices.

ULab hasn’t changed my world, but it has changed the way I see it. If anyone would like to explore the ULab materials in a cycling context please let me know as ULab will undoubtedly be back for 2017 and I need alot more empathic listening practice…

*A challenge indeed when women are habitually silenced in meetings and some mansplainers leave me wanting to staple heads to desks; my empathic listening is a work in progress..


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