From Gothenburg With Love

March 20, 2019

I’m here in Gothenburg, Sweden attending an Action Research conference hosted by the Action Research Plus Foundation in partnership with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Transformation Forum, a global co-design team of action researchers and Chalmers University to explore large scale systemic challenges (climate change, health care, education, social inequality, etc.) through the lens of Action Research.


It took five days of travel via Singapore, Dubai and Copenhagen to get here. The weather is rainy-steel but I am surprisingly warm, thanks to my Australian compatriots who lent the down coat, leather gloves and woollen socks. As they say in Norway, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes!”

I’m renting a charming 6th floor, “room of her own,” apartment with rooftop views. My days comprise of city walks, contemplative reflection, learning, action and writing. I am grateful for this dedicated time in a Metamodern European city (see our beloved “Hanzi” at METAMODERNA) to apply knowledge in service to my own development and to that of my clients.


 Love you Copenhagen Airport!


My purpose for attending the conference is two-fold: (i) I am currently doing research as part of my masters degree on surprise seeking, adventurous, creative and transformational learning experiences for educational leaders and (ii) I am responding to a series of client projects that integrate Design Thinking with Participatory Action Research within educational contexts.


What is Action Research? Leading scholar-practitioner, Hilary Bradbury, defines it as follows:


“Action research is a democratic and participative orientation to knowledge creation. It brings together action and reflection, theory and practice, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern”(Bradbury, 2016, Sage Handbook of Action Research, p. 1).


Like Human Centred Design, action research holds a learn-by-doing perspective with an emphasis on researching with, rather than on, for or about people.


I come with two questions that inform my research and professional practice:


  • How might the best of Design and the best of Action Research combine to help prepare humanity for skilful navigation of complex adaptive systems?

  • How might improvisational music making prepare learners with the skills they need to thrive amidst volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions?


One of my first encounters was with transformational systems thinkers, Anthony Hodgson and Bill Sharp. Some of you may know them as the co-developers of the, Three Horizons, model. Needless to say, they are modern day elder-heroes. Here is Kate Raworth, author of, Doughnut Economics, eloquently describing the model in action:

Three Horizons Video by Kate Raworth


I also spent brief amounts of time in humble conversation with Karen O’Brien and Colleen Vogel, both members of the IPPC team that won the Nobel Peace Prize for their contributions to the 4th assessment report together with Al Gore and many others.


I would like to add that I might have quite possibly broken bread with Costa Rica’s future president! BTW, did you know that Costa Ricans source 98.5% of their energy from a combination of renewable sources and have done so since the 1930s?



Oh, and in answer to my first inquiry, I've been spending quite a bit of time differentiating Design from Action Research (AR) in order to then synthesise the two approaches. Here's what I've discovered thus far...


Both share the same epistemological origins in the late 19th century American philosophy of Pragmatism, which (sorry to be reductionist here) focuses on a learning-by-doing approach. So, you could say these two disciplines are actually metaphorical siblings! 


Action Researchers see their approach as: (i) an ongoing way of being that integrates a curious mindset with (ii) participatory values grounded in the principles of mutuality (ii) following a spiral of inquiry process that pivots between divergent inquiry and convergent action (iv) whilst enacting 3 core behaviours - probing, sensing and responding (did anyone catch the Integral breakdown I've provided here?)

 Human Centred Designers (HCD) might actually make the same claims about their own approach. The one differentiator, which I gleaned from fellow educationalist, Alfredo Ortiz, Associate Professor at the Dreeben School of Education, is that HCD is often applied on a project-by-project basis, whereas Action Research is in ongoing way of thinking, doing and being that constantly seeks to improve practice. 


My take on this is kind of 'fractal'. That is, you can parachute AR into a Design process and vice versa, depending on where the gaps are. For example, I am currently delivering Design Thinking practices into an Action Research cycle for an education client that is seeking to explore and implement  Innovative Learning Environments across their school system. We are borrowing the divergence/convergence dynamic, plus some brainstorming tools and incorporating into the larger AR transformation journey. However, I've also led Design Thinking workshops where I've used a variation on the World Cafe game to invoke the spirit of genuine curiosity via powerful questions on live design projects led by educators committed to transforming their practice.


Next steps? A deeper dive into the role improvisational music making can play in growing our capacities to navigate complexity. All in the spirit of surprise seeking, adventurous, creative and transformational learning experiences for educational leaders. 



In deep appreciate for the privilege and opportunity to rub shoulders with a cohort of passionate change-leaders-researchers from all over the world (Ethiopia, Costa Rica, The Philippines, Columbia, Turkey, Italy, Norway, Sweden, USA, Hungary, South Africa, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Switzerland, UK, The Netherlands, etc.), I venture forth with open mind, open heart, open will and open hands.


 From Gothenburg with love...













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