Where do you want to be in 10 years time? 

The world seems to lurch from one huge, unexpected political upheaval to another on an almost daily basis.  So looking forward to where you want to be even a month from now seems difficult – and 10 years ahead, nigh on impossible.  Yet if you want to think strategically and put in place a plan for change you need to work out where you want to get – a vision for the future, and hopefully a better one.  This is as true for us personally as it is for communities.

Much of our work on food systems development begins with working out what the vision is – where communities want to get.  But what if you don’t really know or aren’t totally sure where you want your food system to get. Maybe it’s too much to ask of yourself.  In fact it almost certainly is.  A better approach is to share your thoughts with other people and at the same time hear what they think. Maybe together your joint vision of the food system of the future will make more sense, be more meaningful and represent not just you but others like you.

Doing this isn’t always that easy. How do you get the right people in the room? The people who care enough about the future of your food system that they want to create a vision of it and perhaps even be involved in making it happen.  And even if you get them there – what then?  How do you make the most of them being together? How do you organise the time to think together in a structured and productive way?

And where do you start?

First things first – get a big enough room!  Last week I found myself in Halifax, the town at the heart of the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire – trying to provide answers to these questions and others. In fact I was in Halifax Rugby Football Club – a last minute change of venue required to accommodate the larger than expected attendance for the Calderdale Food Workshop.  Whilst the change of venue was perhaps a head-ache for the organisers it was seen as really positive in that it reflected the huge level of interest in the event.

The ‘getting the right people in the room’ bit had taken time and patience and a real insight into the local area.  The Calderdale Food for Life co-ordinator and Calderdale Council colleagues have that local knowledge and they had worked hard to encourage as many people as possible to be there: food activists; growers and producers; people from schools, hospitals and businesses; and people representing local authorities including commissioners and managers of local services.  It was a broad spread and a good turn-out.

My job was to do the ‘make the most of them being there’ and the ‘organise the time … in a structured and productive way’ bits – the design and facilitation of the workshop.

Facilitation of a workshop like this is really important.  It helps to structure thinking, encourage what I call a cross-fertilisation of ideas, and culminate in a focus on action – who needs to do what.  The participants need to know what’s happening and why and most important – to feel that their opinion is validated, being heard and being taken into consideration.

The Halifax workshop was structured and paced to mix up individual thinking, large group discussions, inspirational presentations, mixed small-group analysis and participatory analysis.  A number of different exercises were used but throughout the day the focus was not on ‘what are the problems or issues’ but rather ‘what is the vision – what are the outcomes we want to see’.   It was a purposefully positive approach.  The exercises included:

  • mapping current food action in Calderdale;
  • a continuum exercise to surface opinions on joined-up work (and the lack of it);
  • consideration of specific outcomes under 6 themes using a rich picture and clustering approach;
  • determination of current and suggested action and roles under each theme using a gallery-style display of action grids around the room
  • as well as a chart to record ‘who’s missing’ and a ‘pillar of useful stuff’ – a chart on a pillar in the middle of the room on which to record…useful stuff.

The response from participants (other than the room being a bit cold) was that the workshop succeeded in getting people thinking together, hearing each others’ perspectives, and working together to determine where they want to get, what needs to happen and who needs to be involved.  Specifically a framework for strategic action has been established and momentum has been built up towards the development of a food partnership for Calderdale around an emerging food strategy.  The workshop also helped identify which individuals and organisations have a key role in making this happen.

So now it is over to them to continue the process, build momentum and work towards the vision – where Calderdale’s food system will be in 10 years time.

Calderdale Food Workshop

Read more on our facilitation work and my top tips!