People make change

I’m surrounded by people that want change; my social media feeds are a deluge of things that need changing, from road layouts to entire nations, political leaders to our economic, food, farming, education and transport systems. I’ve even heard that there is something terribly wrong with ginger beer that needs changing (back).

Change is inevitable, difficult and can happen both at a glacial pace and whilst we are asleep. Whilst some of us are demanding it in one direction there are forces moving against it in the other and everyone has ‘facts’ to support their claims.

Just over three years ago I squeezed into a cold room with people I didn’t know and started a journey of change with them to try and transform the mental health services in our area. Only I didn’t know that at the time as I thought I was there to become a more effective cycle campaigner. Our joint work started by enabling unheard voices to be felt in a system that seemed designed to keep them quiet, and I began to see the power in simply speaking about our experiences and listening to other sides of the system.

Back in that cold room in the autumn of 2016, we were all there to participate in Ulab, an online course that promised an introduction to ‘leading profound social, environmental and personal transformation’. The words in the introductory film resonate now more than ever in this Brexit/Trump/Johnson era: “we live in an age of profound disruption, where something is ending and dying and something else is wanting to be born.”

As an election looms in the UK and we wait for something to emerge, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been learning from my seat in the maternity ward:

Nothing changes if we don’t change

“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world, today I’m wise so I’m changing myself”


Transformation. Disruption. Change. They were the words that had enticed me into Ulab. I wanted to create change. I didn’t realise that the biggest change would be in me, and that’s what had to change first. It’s hard learning to listen, being prepared to change not just our positions but ourselves in the process. Reflecting on my privileges and prejudices is still in progress and I’m not done yet. This year of WalkCycleVote work with RNIB Scotland has provided the uncomfortable opportunities I needed to learn about life in different shoes and then help others discover what that means for their own campaigning.

A slightly more contemporary commentator than Rumi, Darren McGarvey, in his brutally brilliant “Poverty Safari” tell us “the new frontier for individuals and movements who want to radically change society is to first recognise the need for radical change within ourselves”. It doesn’t mean we don’t give up the fight against systemic injustice but we have a duty to reflect on our own actions too and assess if they are helping or hindering us.

I’ve seen shouting ‘the truth’ at people on the internet to be as effective as shouting ‘calm down’ at my child. If we stop shouting at each other and ask what the problems really are we might find something out.

Find the joy, create the spark, start a fire

In some of my breathtakingly judgemental sessions on cycle campaigning I talk about the need to change traditional cycle campaigning with its whiff of beards, blokes, sandals and grey haired grumpiness. In reality I’m profoundly grumpy, as well as supremely angry, so I can hardly suggest that being a beacon of delightful positivity is the only way to progress. But there is something about the notion of joy that attracts and motivates, bringing people together to create change and turn from apathy or acceptance. We can often band together in a crisis, but it’s building with a positive purpose that is sustainable. Creative campaigning, highlighting what works and the occasional thank you for something good keep us motivated, finding some eye catching fun in otherwise dreary conversations about road widths, kerb heights or correcting everyone about road tax.

Innovative spaces like the Firestarter Festival can enable conversations that create sparks, opening a door to transformation and an opportunity to try our new approaches without commitment.

Between the bots and fake news, social media can help us present another world; our #FiveGoMad in Amsterdam ’roundabout film’ produced a burst of positivity that kept Claire’s notifications buzzing for weeks, creating conversations that another rant about the shocking conditions for cycling in the UK doesn’t. In these despondent times some hope in the dark goes along way and can open doors you don’t know exist.

Comrades and camaraderie

Like the solitary change-makers that went before her, Greta has shown us the individual action can have a profound impact. Showing up and speaking out are fundamental in creating change, particularly if you speak out for those that are silenced and enable others to find their voice.

But to stay the distance, and find the joy, most us will need comrades, friends, collaborators, partners or co-conspirators to plot and plan (and pedal) with. We create energy and ambition when we dream together, but it’s sharing the workload with people we don’t want to strangle when we’re under pressure that ensures we’re able to simply carry on. I’m blessed with several sets of collaborators in my life, bringing the light and lightening the load. They sustain me and our shared purpose ensures we keep responding to the likes of Strategic Transport Projects Review 2, organising events and reaching out to policy makers with our new comrades in disability organisations.

Do what you can, not everything that can be done

Advocating for change is hard, and some activist self care is critical if we’re in the long haul. What is wrong in the world can seem overwhelming and the desire to correct can be strong, particularly when lies and deceit seem to start from the places where we should be able to put our trust. In the face of the rising, global tide of hatred and the impact of austerity fighting for protected cycling space seems irrelevant sometimes. But we all have to choose our fight, for what we want to put our time and energy towards, and I’ve chosen the thread that brings me joy.


“We live in a time of massive institutional failure, collectively creating results that nobody wants” Ulab co-founder Otto Scharmer tells participants early on in the Theory U journey; he’s talking about global economics, politics, climate change, poverty and terrorism – the ingredient list for a planetary disaster recipe. As someone that regularly uses a bike it’s not hard to see urban street design in the failure cake we’re baking. All our policies talk about sustainable transport but our walk makes it clear where the power and investment has been.

We all want safer streets, reduced congestion, better air quality and communities where our children can play and roam freely yet we keep inviting more cars into our urban realm and expecting the results to be different from the ones we’ve seen before.

Its easy to feel despondent, just as it’s easy to blame the Council, the Government, developers, car drivers and sometimes the people that think 99% the same as you but not quite that last 1%. What’s hard is to engage openly, to act, to listen, to empathise with different view points and to change our minds when given new evidence. Sometimes its hard just to find the energy to have the conversation at all. We’ve seen that shouting ‘look at the Netherlands’ at politicians on Twitter is not having much of an impact, presenting evidence against bikelash agitators can produce a ‘fake facts’ standoff and powerful stories of change get dismissed as anecdotes. Short of taking everyone in Scotland on a weekend break to Utrecht, how can we give people a taste of what a people centred city might look and feel like?

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it: re-imaging the city

Officially, the Fire Starter Festival “is a two-week festival of collaborative learning events, illuminating creative, disruptive and innovative ways in which we can all transform ourselves, our organisations and the wider system” but it was sold to me when I heard it was all about “doing unusual things in unusual places and getting away with it”. I interpreted this as doing something naughty and not getting told off because the First Minister said we could do it.

Inspired by the Enrique Peñalosa quote “If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone” we started thinking about road closures, play streets, street design competitions, film-making workshops with schools and forcing a ciclovia on Princes Street through the judicious use of toilet plungers and soft toys. Ultimately, our combined time and resources (close to nothing) meant that we settled for creating a pop-up park right outside one of Edinburgh’s most iconic Scottish Government buildings, St Andrews House.

Originally conceived as a legal method for reclaiming part of the street, and making a comment about how street space is utilised, pop-parks (or parklets) give a sense of how we could use our city streets if they were not consumed by the storage of cars. One of its originators has called it a gateway drug for urban transformation, which would explain why some Local Authorities have tried to prevent them.

Outside St Andrews Day, on a bright but bitterly cold February afternoon, we had a programme to tempt people into our park. Musicians played, Dr Bike got out his spanner, people skipped, poetry was chalked across the walls and there was **not a Council entertainment license in sight** (yes, that’s the extent of guerrilla action that this former Head Girl can really take).

Six organisations, all part of the We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote collaboration, spent the very cold afternoon day dreaming with people about how our cities could be different. We didn’t change the world but we had conversations with passers by about not using our capital city streets as a parking lot, we chatted to the St Andrews House inhabitants about placemaking and punctures and we talked to each other about how we could work more together, sparking a few more fires that we hope will turn into a convincing blaze that people will see, feel and want for themselves and their communities.