An interview with Hilary Durman FRSA: Triple BAFTA winning producer

July 31, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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Earlier this year I went to the Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull, West Cork.  Of its many charms, my favourite is that it is (as far as I know) the only film festival held in a town without a cinema.  So for four days this salty, sleepy sailing town is transformed with screens rigged up in venues from old mills and back rooms of cafes and pubs to upstairs at a book shop and (my favourite) someone’s living room, showing short films from across the world.  Even the rare Irish sun made an appearance.

Amongst all this I went to see one feature-length documentary – Donor Unknown.  Donor Unknown is about a young woman who wants to find her sperm donor father, and in the process finds a new, complicated family. It is a charming and funny but melancholic documentary that tells a much wider story about family and personal identity.

Equally as impressive was the interview after the screening with the triple-BAFTA winning producer Hilary Durman, who answered difficult questions on the ethics of both sperm donation and the documentary itself.  Hilary founded and co-runs her independent production company Redbird Productions, and is a trustee of both Artswork, a youth arts development agency and Blast Theory, an interactive media organisation.

As is so often the case, it turned out that Hilary is also an RSA Fellow.  I met with her to carry on the conversation and ask her about her career, life and her new project on Morocco’s first Islamic women leaders – Casablanca Calling.  

Hilary pic

You’ve won three BAFTA’s for your TV production work.  How did it all start?

I actually started my career as a teacher, an English and drama teacher, for fifteen years.  Then I got a job at a television company that wanted an education officer – a job behind the scenes writing books, pamphlets, creating events, that would give extra life to the ideas in television programmes.   At TVS, I set up a festival called Artswork – which gave young people a chance to experience the arts – and we made a film about it.  That was my first taste of production, and I followed it by making documentaries and dramas for schools.

A few years later, I set up independently with my colleagues to focus on educational broadcasting.  We worked for ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC making programmes for children, young people and teachers. That’s where we won the three BAFTAs, for Dream On, about a deaf child, Lion Mountain, about young refugees from Sierra Leone, and one working with the writer John Godber called Oddsquad about three teenage misfits in Hull.

I also spent six years working on programmes with and for deaf people, and then two years bringing new deaf and disabled talent into television through a series of half hour programmes by deaf and disabled new directors, all for Channel 4.


Why move out of educational broadcasting? 

It happened quite naturally. Different opportunities came along. I got to the point where I was ok to earn less and take more time over things.  I’ve also reached a slightly selfish point in my career when I think if I find something interesting, then other people might too.  It is certainly the case with The Time of Their Lives (a documentary about three women around one hundred years old), and Donor Unknown, and now Casablanca Calling.


Tell me about your new project

Casablanca calling is about Morocco’s first Islamic women leaders – the Morchidat.  I had never heard of women being given an official role as religious leaders in the Islamic faith. I was filming in China and the Director Rosa and I read it in our English language newspaper in the hotel!  We decided to investigate it.

It was a slow process as we went through the Ministry of Islamic affairs in Morocco and it was quite sensitive.  It took time for them to understand what we wanted to do – their experience so far had been more Fox News than observational documentary, so they were wary of us, for understandable reasons.


What have you learned?

These female Islamic leaders need to position themselves very carefully. They are government employees, they’re chosen against huge competition and they’re carefully trained, highly intelligent women placed in different communities across Morocco to actually change things.  To work with women, families and young people to open up the true teachings of Islam, to support women’s education and to strip away some of the prejudices, misinterpretations and negative practices that have grown up around their religion in certain pockets. And that is hard – they have to be very tenacious and very strong.

We’re increasingly facing so many strong reactions to Islam in the West, which means it is an interesting documentary to make now.


Are you a feminist?

Yes.  Yes I am.  I don’t think of it in a theoretical sense I’m afraid – obviously I read Gemaine Greer and a bit of Betty Friedman on the way.  But I think that it is just a natural sense of people to be treated equally.  In all the work I’ve done with people whose voices aren’t heard, it is about a search for that.


Who inspires you?

The three women in The Time of their Lives inspired me.  If you are 104 and still politically active, spiritually enquiring, socially connected, caring about what is happening about the work around you and getting out and doing things – I think that is totally inspirational.

I’ve never had a role model – I mean obviously I’d like to be Helen Mirren but I’m not.  But there are people I’ve worked with along the way who’ve have a really big impact on me.

The first person I worked with in TV was fourteen years younger and she had a much more entrepreneurial spirit than me.  I’d just come out of teaching without an entrepreneurial bone in my body and I found her a threat.  Then I thought there’s no point in feeling threatened.  Once I opened up and stopped saying ‘This is where I end and you begin’ we learned from each other.


What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in your career?

To trust your intuition much more than our rational selves say we should.  But at the same time acknowledge when you’ve got it wrong – not all intuition is perfect.  You can’t be too judgemental, don’t polarise things, you have to look at how to weave things together.


Do you have any tips for those starting out in production?

Do some work, even if it is just for yourself.  Do some work that persuades people.  Even just a short film.  Make a really great one.  Now we supposedly have more control over the means of production so you can’t just say ‘do you like me?’ you actually need to have done something.


Is there anything in life that has blown you off course?

The question assumes I have a course!  I think maybe just feeling that I can’t do all the things I want to do in order to have a full life.  I don’t have children – heaven knows how producers and directors manage with three children at home.


Can’t you have a full life without children?

Of course, and I hope I do.  But if you were someone who wanted the whole portfolio then there is something quite critical I missed out on.

One of the things I’ve found a real struggle is self-belief. Which is probably why I’ve found the inspiration of colleagues more important than out of reach role models.  Colleagues feed into you all the time, and they see you doing well.


Do you consider yourself successful?

No – well, maybe modestly successful.  Someone once said to me “you don’t run a business, you have a lifestyle” and I thought – yeah ok.  It is true!  I have had times in the company when we’ve had a lot of employees.  It is a two-person company now.  That’s the way I can work and do the things I really love to do, and have free choice right now.


And finally, you’re an RSA Fellow.  Why did you join?

I thought it would be really interesting to be part of an on-going debate about all sorts of subjects.  I found myself a bit starved of that.  I like the stimulating ideas at the RSA and the actions as a result.  I get to have the kind of conversations and thoughts that I never would have around a dinner table.

In the future I’d like to do more with other Fellows, working on education projects.


If you’re interested in working on a similar project get in touch with Hilary Durman.  Or, if you know a great woman you’d like to nominate for Fellowship go to our nominations page, or contact Mark Hall on 0207 451 6904.   

This is the last blog from Alice Dyke as Regional Programme Manager at the RSA.   You can follow her on Twitter @ImAliceD or connect with her on Linkedin

The Big Idea: The Cathedral Innovation Centre

May 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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The Big Idea: Unleashing religious spaces and communities to create jobs and encourage entrepreneurship.

The Cathedral Innovation Centre is a new type of place. Part innovation centre and hub, part religious and local business partnership and part community share offer – it is a business, a charity and a cause. It also offers a forward thinking model of using established buildings and communities to address pressing social needs.

Samuel Kasumu, Penny Mordaunt and Francis Davis FRSA

Samuel Kasumu, Penny Mordaunt and Francis Davis

It started as a conversation between RSA Fellow Francis Davis and a Canon about some unused office space in Portsmouth Cathedral. Francis was concerned about the lack of social innovation centre in the area and had long argued that the faith communities should act as social labs in response to economic and social challenges of the day. In 2012 fourteen desks in the Cathedral were made available for local start-up businesses, and the Cathedral Innovation Centre began to pilot its idea.

Six months on and it is more than an enterprise hub located in an unusual building – it has quickly evolved into what inventor Francis Davis calls “the front end of a movement”.

Part innovation centre and hub, part religious and local business partnership and part community share offer – it is a business, a charity and a cause.

The project so far

So far there have been a number of significant developments.

  • Launched in April 2013 by Baroness Berridge and Mark Hoban MP (Min of State for Work), the Cathedral Innovation Centre is facilitating a thriving partnership between Portsmouth Business School, the religious communities and local councils.  New volunteers from across the private, public and voluntary sector are coming forward all the time.
  • They’re working with twelve start-up ventures in the Portsmouth area, and looking to replicate the model in Southampton, Havant, Reading and Dagenham.
  • Partners Portsmouth Business School have given two full MBA Cathedral Innovation centre Scholarships focusing on social responsibility and innovation (and are looking for applicants now for October 2013).
  • They’ve launched the first community share offer of its kind. The first shareholders include Mark Hoban MP, Penny Mordant MP, John Denham MP, Baroness Berridge, the CofE Bishop of Portsmouth and folk in the Midlands, Herts, Lancs and London as well as local individuals, parishes, clubs, societies and firms.
  • They’ve created the ‘Faith In Enterprise Awards’. Announced by Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP and endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury these awards offer a £200,000 micro-loan fund (£2.5k to £7k loans) for start-ups led by those aged 18 to 30 and five Chairman’s awards comprising free office space wherever you live, a circle of mentors, a £10,000 interest paid loan, and a small grant.
  • And, as an RSA-Catalyst supported initiative, they’re working with the support of several RSA Fellows across the region to grow their work (so far ten have come forward to mentor businesses including a Chief Executive of a local economic partnership, governors of FE Colleges and local entrepreneurs).

What next?

After a busy pilot phase, they are launching further initiatives including:

  • A leadership programme for rising stars in regional firms, government and social sector.
  • A series of seminars and events nationwide focused on public and social innovation.
  • A parliamentary summit on the role of faith communities in creating jobs and backing those out of work.
  • Bringing 1000 school age children through their programmes in the first development phase.

Francis says “This is the very first Cathedral Innovation Centre. We need to be more innovative about how we use our public space and this is our solution to the problem. We want to encourage local enterprise and we will always meet every person that approaches us to discuss their idea”.

Portsmouth Cathedral Innovation Centre team

Portsmouth Cathedral Innovation Centre team

How you can get involved

If you live nearby:

If you live around one of the key regional areas (the Solent / Reading / Dagenham) then you can help get the idea moving in a number of ways, either by becoming a mentor or by sharing other skills.

If you live elsewhere:

Plans are underway to develop the UK’s first micro finance (low cost) business degree with a strong social responsibility dimension. Get in touch if you’re an academic or business person or thought leader who could contribute some pro-bono help to design deliver and launch it.

A second national initiative is looking to develop fresh models of support for carers of those with severe and long term conditions or illness. Get in touch if you’d like help develop this idea.

You can also help by buying a community share at

For any of the above, or if you’d simply like to know more about it, get in touch with Francis Davis FRSA.


Alice Dyke is Regional Programme Manager at the RSA. Follow @imAliceD on Twitter

An interview with Rosemary Squire FRSA: Britain’s16th most powerful woman

March 21, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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We love a celebratory list in the UK.  From the Sunday Times Rich List and the Courvoisier 500 to Nesta’s New Radicals, every year brings a new hierarchy of brilliant, bright or affluent people for us to admire, envy or challenge.

However this year one list has certainly got everyone talking more than most.  In February Radio 4 Woman’s Hour compiled their inaugural power list – a list of the 100 most powerful women operating in the UK today.  It has not been uncontroversial.  Eyebrows have raised at a number of issues – is the queen really the most powerful woman in Britain?   Is the version of power depicted too traditional and narrow?  Does this list show us how far women have come in equality?  Or does it show us how little progress has been made?

The stats about women’s representation, everywhere from the boards of FTSE 100 companies (17.3%, and going down) to the democratic system (men outnumber women 4-1 in the UK Parliament) make for grim reading.  The RSA Fellowship itself is more than two thirds male, so we’ve got a way to go to reach equality, something we’re working on.  (One fact we are proud of however is that women have been Fellows since we were founded in 1754 – not true of most membership organisations.)

As often is the case with these lists we were happy to recognise several faces as RSA Fellows – one of whom was Rosemary Squire OBE.  Rosemary is the founder, co-owner and joint chief executive of Ambassador Theatre group, the UK’s largest theatre owner/operator with 39 venues UK-wide, a major international producer, and a leader in theatre ticketing services through ATG tickets.

In the spirit of sharing the experiences of RSA Fellows, and (in the month of International Women’s Day) the experiences of strong women, I went to ask Rosemary about the career and life of Britain’s 16th most powerful woman.

Rosemary Squire OBE


You’ve been named as the 16th most powerful woman in the Women’s Hour top 100 in the UK.  How do you feel?
Great!  I’m particularly excited that theatre, the industry I’ve worked all my life in, is up there with all these “proper” businesses.  Theatre is a real business in this country and it is important it is recognised.  I’m also pleased for all the people who have supported me to get here.


What did you think of the list, and how important are lists like this?
I think it makes you think about what is influential.  It is an interesting list.  Many of the other women are in industries, like politics, where they’re still massively under represented.

I know quite a lot of the women on there, and I thought there were a couple of things I saw we all had in common:

The first, boring as it may seem, is education, education, education.  All those years of training and university and post graduates – at the time you might think well why am I doing this?  But actually it provides all kind of skills that everybody uses, whatever they do.  Education gives you the skills to be able to use the opportunities when they come up in life.

The second is role models.  There is nothing more powerful that someone you respect and can identify with to be able to say “you know what, you can really do it.  I’ve done it, if I can do it you can do it.”  I’ve had that in my life and it is really important.


Who were your role models?
My Mother and my Aunt – they were unusual in their generation.  All my family were grammar school kids, my Mum and Dad both went on to university in the war, and my mum was somebody who had studied, come up the hard way with really tough challenges at the end of the war.  They were desperate to get teachers out in classrooms so she went out to teach, aged twenty, sixty kids in the class.  Those skills have stayed with her for life, she’s always been prepared to turn her hand to anything, and that was a great role model for me and my sister.

They were the first generation to go to university.  For my sister and I it was an assumption – yes of course we would.

There are 30-40 million visits to the theatre each year in the UK.  And we sell 10 million tickets.  So that is powerful.


You run ATG with your husband and you have three children.  How do you manage the work/life balance?
I don’t think I get it right all the time.   Although I think my kids are great, so in that regard I may have done a bit of it right!

I’ve been very lucky to have my mother down the road; she has been a huge help to me.  All of my kids have great relationships with her.  It has been a great safety net – a lot of people don’t have that.

I’ve had other support, including great nannies.  I’ve always tried to be fair about looking after people, the support staff who help you.  People undervalue how important it is to look after them – pay them properly, treat them with respect as you would any other employee, and don’t take them for granted. It’s about building that safe and secure network of people around you.  My nanny has worked for me for 12 years.

The thing I think I’ve had to sacrifice is friendships, and a social life.  Particularly in the last three-four years we’ve been so busy, since we acquired our biggest competitor in the UK, I just don’t have time.  It narrows down to what you can do, you have to distil and prioritise, and the family and kids are my priority.  It does all come at a price.


Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Definitely.  I remember the days of women’s groups and selling Spare Rib at university.  Literally reading The Female Eunuch on the beach aged sixteen and thinking my god this has completely changed how I see the world.  Things haven’t changed.  Don’t lets kid ourselves that the glass ceiling isn’t there, it is.

You know, having a child is like having a love affair, you fall in love with that child, and that love stays with you forever.  I have my children in my head at any one time, somehow they’re just there.


How did you deal with it?
I think you have to have confidence in yourself.   And you need a role model.  I’ve known Christina Smith since the early 80s and she was brilliant, I remember her distinctly saying “well if I can buy buildings and do property deals, so can you – it’s easy.”  She gave me that positive confidence to realise things aren’t as complicated as they appear to be.

There’s an awful lot of mythology about lots of things.  Being able to ask questions about something you don’t understand and not feeling an idiot, that’s something I’ve gained with more experience.  I now know its not stupid to ask. Anything can be explained.


Is there anything in your life that has nearly blown you off course?
I think things would have been different for me if I hadn’t had Jenny (Rosemary’s first child Jenny has Down’s Syndrome).

I was in my 20s, and you do think you’ve got a charmed life.  I got a first at university, I went off and did postgraduate scholarship, I got a nice job and a nice boyfriend and then we’re getting married and it’s all lovely.  You assume, you take for granted, that your child is going to be healthy.

In a way it threw me back more into work, because I found it difficult at home.  It wasn’t this experience I imagined.  She used to wake up 8 and 10 times a night until she was 13, it was a nightmare in lots of ways.

So that could have easily thrown me off course.  It made me ill in lots of ways, I had physical symptoms to deal with too.  But then I had another child pretty quickly and I’ve been lucky enough to have another child in my 40s.  It’s been fine long term.  And in a way having a child with special needs does give you a perspective as well.  A lot of the issues that are key are crucial for Jenny like money, housing, how to occupy yourself.  It is very grounding.

You know, having a child is like having a love affair, you fall in love with that child, and that love stays with you forever.  I have my children in my head at any one time, somehow they’re just there.  I’m sure your mother does too.  I’m sure I’m in my mother’s head.

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How to set up a pop-up shop

February 11, 2013 by · 2 Comments
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Kayte Judge FRSA ran ‘We Are Bedford’, a project supported by RSA Catalyst that used empty shops as creative spaces.  In this guest blog she shares her experience of setting up pop-up shops. 

The number of empty shops in our town centres continues to grow year on year.  For many, this slow and steady emptying of our retail spaces is a creeping portend of doom. And while, no doubt, the changes to our high streets and town centres are inarguable, what we cannot say with any certainty is what will happen next. We simply do not know.

Kate Judge (left) and Erica Roffe

What is clear is that retail is changing, and both large and small retailers are leaving town. Those voids offer an opportunity for innovation and playful reinterpretation of our social spaces.  Pop-up shopkeepers have emerged, seeing opportunity in the remains of the retail boom and bust, trying, failing, trying again. They have been leaving tracks. Lessons have been learnt and can be shared.

I have been involved in empty shop work since I was awarded RSA Catalyst support in 2010. I applied in order to explore the use of empty shops as arts venues. I knew exactly which shop I would use and what I would do in it. I imagined hot flasks of tea, blankets and incongruous deckchairs, fingerless gloves, hot breath billowing into the unheated shop air and a cellist playing on the raised lino clad flooring where the till used to be.  It was going to be beautiful.

What I didn’t know was that the shop was owned by an offshore pension fund, an absentee landlord of the most inaccessible kind. It wasn’t to be. Instead, myself and another Bedfordian, Erica Roffe, were offered, in an almost spooky act of serendipity, seven empty shops in a new development. Seven. Seven unfinished, un-floored, un-heated, un-lit, shops in one area of town.  We formed a nebulous ‘thing’ called ‘We Are Bedford’ and 20 cold weeks later the area was brought to life through just £1000 RSA Catalyst funding, an army of volunteers and an almost supernatural amount of willpower. Over 4000 people visited the arts galleries (there were three), audio art installation, burlesque life drawing classes, craft space, live music venues, tours, archaeological sites, buskers, junk modelling workshops and boutique, authors talks, and ticketed performances. It was March 2011. Before the year was out, and via a further Catalyst fund, we would open a Pop Up gallery, a ‘Monster Draw Big Draw’ event, and a six week Pop Up Emporium stocking only locally made or designed goods.  We then decided to spend the money in the best possible way: to offer a bursary to others in grants of up to £500.   By winter 2012 the money was spent, lessons were learnt and my pop up shop keeping days were over.

Throughout my work I had the support of Dan Thompson, the founder of the Empty Shops Network, author of the Empty Shop Toolkit and a leading light of empty shop work on a national scale.  An RSA fellow, Dan, (based in the South East) has since authored Pop Up People, a report which gathers the data and examples of pop up and empty shop work throughout the country, and Pop Up Business for Dummies. Both of these documents feature the work of We Are Bedford as a case study among many and would be a vital first port of call for anyone thinking of treading this path. For me his support was vital and subtle. It wasn’t so much the practical support offered (although that was invaluable) it was the moral support. Pop Up shopkeepers exist in the margins and loopholes of a bureaucracy that is designed to squash innovation and it can be a scary ride at times. They are human, and vulnerable and responsible for everything that happens in those empty shops. Dan listened when I needed to rant about paperwork, or rates bills, or the madness of it all.  He came to visit.

We Are Bedford was a temporary project, powerful, but of its time. It had to end. Others have had more staying power. Reading based RSA Fellow Suzanne Stallard is an artist and founder of Jelly, an energetic charity championing the creative arts. Jelly started in an empty shop space due for demolition under a compulsory purchase order in 1993 with a six month lease and, 20 years on, jelly has grown, emerged and changed shape dependent on it’s location and space, occupying and using over 50 properties. Currently they are using a nightclub (as a sound and performance art space), 3-storey office block (as a creative space and studios) and various empty shop fronts for pop-up shop window exhibitions. Since the beginning jelly has played a strategic role in Reading’s cultural life, enabling art to appear in unexpected places and creating opportunities for people to look on and join in. Much of their work now involves working in partnership with emerging art groups, local communities and they believe in the power of the arts to delight, intrigue, challenge and enrich. Jelly is committed to forming creative alliances and partnerships that encourage art and cultural life to flourish, responding to the opportunities with the changes in the High Street.  This has been a long-term commitment to empty shop work and is undertaken voluntarily.  You can find out more about how they continue to survive on their website.

There is plenty to be done in empty shops. Pop-up shops are a place for playful piloting, quick and dirty prototyping, fast failing, and, sometimes, soaring successes. The town centres of the UK need new ideas. If you have an idea, or have seen an empty shop opportunity there is information available, although beware: while empty shop problems seem universal, the solutions are often hyper-local.

Key points to consider if you want to set up your pop up shop

  1. Research your target property’s landlord
  2. Prepare to persuade your landlord to be amenable to pop up shops
  3. Surround yourself with helpful volunteers
  4. Be creative – and exciting – this will attract supporters
  5. Take advice from others with experience – with a mentor for the tough times
  6. Be flexible, and be resilient

Look for the long term – and remember, fail to plan, plan to fail.

To get you started visit the following sites and take a look at the documents below

Get in touch

For those of you in the South Central region Suzanne and myself are happy to help where we can. We are working women who juggle a number of things, children included, so please allow us up to five days to respond. You can contact us on or

If you are located in the South East region, then Dan Thompson  would be willing to help – again via email

Good luck planning for your own pop up shops!


Kayte Judge and We Are Bedford also feature in the RSA Catalyst video

A day in the life of a cheese slice: Fellows driving ambition

February 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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I often leave Fellowship events with every intention of blogging about them, but time slips by, my inbox beckons and the moment passes.  But last week I went to an event that has inspired me to pull my finger out for three key reasons – it showcased a brilliant and practical FRSA project, is a great example of ideas being shared between different groups of Fellows in true RSA collaboration style, and (most importantly) it taught me something new about how RSA Fellowship enables people to provide unique approaches to today’s problems.

RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children
Sue Child, Headteacher Oakwood School 

Driving Ambition is a project that has been running in Banbury since early 2012.  It brings together RSA Fellows, schools and industry to attempt to raise the ambitions of students in the local area.

Fellows in Surrey, keen to hear good ideas put into practice, invited project lead Peter Jordan FRSA to share his experiences with a room full of forty-odd professionals, including three local head teachers.

I won’t try attempt to précis the entire Driving Ambition project (you can read more about it here), but Peter made some pretty common sense points for anyone wanting to bring together the worlds of industry and education in their area:

  • Work with your local schools.  You need a key point of contact at each of them, and success depends on the quality of these relationships.  Also, be patient and prepared to work around busy school timetables.  In Banbury this paid off – the North Oxfordshire Academy (where the original contact was a brilliantly innovative Head of Catering) has now employed someone to work full time on student career development partly as a result of the Driving Ambition project.
  • It is hard to involve local business.   Do everything you can to attract them – attend local working breakfasts, send letters, pitch to companies – but don’t expect too much from them.   This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
  • Use your RSA network of local Fellows.  In Banbury local MP Tony Banbury spoke at the launch event.  A local vicar is now working closely with the ethics teams in two schools.  National Grid (a Director is a local Fellow) are running one and two-day workshops on energy use with props, including a model town.  A local photojournalist is working with students who find it hard to express themselves verbally, documenting local work life to share across school.  And Peter, with his 15 years at Unilever and 20 years at Kraft Food HQ, knows an awful lot about supply chain – he’s running classes for year 11′s on turning raw materials into consumer goods.  He’s called them ‘a day in the life of a cheese slice’.
  • Only do what you feel comfortable doing.  When starting the group felt under some pressure to do something unique or radical, that their idea wasn’t ‘innovative’ enough.  But their aims were simple – just open the eyes of the students to the industry that already exists in the area, particularly beyond working in retail.

Which brings me to my own learning point.  When asked what Fellows could offer that the many excellent charities and enterprises out there could not, Sue Child, Head Teacher of Oakwood School in Horley in Surrey said what excites her most about the prospect of it in her school “is that RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children”.

Tony Banbury MP speaking at the Driving Ambition launch

We spend a lot of time in the Fellowship team trying to think about how we can standardise our support for Fellows, and ways we can share universal experiences and good models for up-scaling.  Whilst this undoubtedly has value, what Driving Ambition has taught me is the key power of the local nucleus, of forming those key relationships (school/business) before building your model, and of being flexible to the community need where you are.

This is what strikes me about Driving Ambition, why I feel so enthused about it – it is modest but it is working.  It is not a registered company (or even a CIC), it doesn’t have a snazzy website (or even a blog), it isn’t promising global expansion anytime soon.  It is local but scalable, deliverable, and has a clear impact.  Whilst I’m not about to use this blog to contribute to the debate around localism (or even an area-based curriculum), I think there is something to be learned from this project about the value that groups of passionate and flexible Fellows can add to their communities.

This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.

What next?  Well the Driving Ambition team in Banbury have just been awarded Catalyst support to help them reach more schools and more businesses in the area, so they will be (modestly) scaling their project in 2013/14.  And the Surrey Fellows group are in talks with three local Head Teachers looking to replicate and drive ambition in their area.

All this model takes initially is a group of committed RSA Fellows to get it going, so if you want to launch something similar in your area then get in touch.

The iMuse project – using apps to transform accessibility in museums

October 4, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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RSA Catalyst awarded a grant to Fellow Annette Haworth for her project iMuse.  The projects seeks low-cost ways that mobile devices can help museums become more accessible.  In this guest blog Annette sets out her progress so far and how Fellows can help and get involved.  

“The good news is you’ll be working with iPads; the bad news is it’s in a museum”.

This was the message relayed to a 16-year old about his work-experience placement. What is it that makes a flat piece of plastic and metal so intriguing and a whole building-full of 3D objects so unappealing? While that’s too complex a question for my little iMuse project to solve, it seemed safe to take as a given that mobile technology has terrific appeal. Can museums use it to make themselves more engaging, and perhaps more accessible to more people?

Large museums may have the resources to experiment with new technology; the British Museum’s Samsung Digital Centre and the Museum of London with its Street Museum have some intriguing examples. But there are many, more modest, museums, without dedicated IT teams or the resources to commission high-cost apps. Set against that, there seems to be masses of potential in commonly-used systems such as Youtube and Wikipedia, together with the rapid rise in visitor-owned mobile devices. The Jodi Mattes Trust, which awards museums who increase accessibility by using technology, has found some great low-cost examples such as the MShed’s RNIB Penfriend project. I wanted to investigate whether there is potential in pushing these low-cost ideas further.

The good news is you’ll be working with iPads; the bad news is it’s in a museum

The Museum of English Rural Life housed us. RSA’s Fellowship Catalyst fund helped with fees for museum-learning and e-access consultancy. Reading Borough Council, the Vodafone World of Difference scheme and the Foyle Foundation helped fund some IT support. Access-ability Communications Technology, a small volunteer-run charity, provides the project board. Serendipitously, three of us are RSA fellows. The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology and the animator, Steve Simons, wore an iMuse iPad in the Houses of Parliament as part of the Cultural Olympiad, Stories of the World presentation.

All this has been terrific fun, provided work-experience and internships for six young people, four with disabilities, and tried-out different ways of presenting museum information from the Great Reading Cheese Mystery, to an Ancient Olympics trail. The big message has been that young people will become more engaged when they are involved, for example in a trail’s creation. Indeed, our trail-making booklet, ‘Release your inner geek with iMuse’, was partly written by young-people.

The big message has been that young people will become more engaged when they are involved, for example in a trail’s creation.

But it’s still not entirely obvious that this approach is sustainable in practice. Copyright, technical, physical, cultural and support issues will need consideration in individual museum environments. With the RSA’s help, iMuse will be seeking a couple of moderate-sized museums which would like to help investigate the practicalities further to see if there is an evidence-based case to create a national advisory service to help increase museum-accessibility and hence engagement.

I’m looking for small to moderate sizes museums who’d like to help try out some of the ideas.  If you know or work at a museum that might be interested in trialing it then get please get in touch.

Contact Annette Haworth

Running a successful Fellows’ event

July 16, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

David Biggs ran several Fellows’ networks across Kent until May 2012.  He shares his tips and advice on the key to running a successful Fellows’ event.

The Idea
First you need an idea or a subject that will be focal point of the evening. This can be fully formed or just a basic idea to be refined as the available resources and directions become clearer.  The basis of any activity should be realistic and have enough substance to lead to a successful event.

Take the Idea Forward
Approach the RSA Regional Programme Manager or the Regional Committee with your idea.

The Regional Programme Managers are always keen to promote local activity but they have limited resources and time so you should treat them as such. Approaching them with a vague idea that you expect that they will carry forward for you is unrealistic. If you approach them with more definite plans and one or two specific needs (to find a venue or if you need an introduction to a Fellow to speak on the subject in question) you will find them very accommodating.

The Regional committee may offer similar support but will also have a greater level of contact with Fellows in the region and will be able to advise you whether there would be any interest in your event or whether something similar has already been done.

The Fellowship has a lot of experience and enthusiasm which can help take your ideas to the next level.

Finalising the Details
You can always invite local Fellows to meet and discuss the idea prior to finalising the event so they can learn a little more about what you hope to achieve, and suggest possible ways the idea can be refined. If you do, then you must be prepared to have your idea questioned and accept possible new directions from the Fellows. The Fellowship has a lot of experience and enthusiasm which can help take your ideas to the next level.

Taking the Idea and Making it Happen
Once you know what you want to do and how you want to achieve it, next, are the practical steps needed to make it happen. You will need:

  • A Venue
  • A speaker (speakers, or facilitator)
  • Funding
  • Advertisement
  • Refreshments

Venue – If there is already RSA activity in your area then talk to the Regional Programme Manager or the Regional Committee. They should be able to help find a suitable venue, in some cases this may be free of charge. If not local schools are always a good source of cheap spaces for hire.

A speaker – The local Fellows are always a good source for speakers and given the diversity of the Fellowship you are likely to find someone in the organisation who will be able to enhance your event. Personal connections are always more effective.

Funding – Funding to pay for the venue or the refreshments may be available from your Regional Committee. In some cases, the committee may be willing to pay initial room charges etc, on the understanding that a small entrance fee will be charged to the attending Fellows to repay this outlay. RSA events are not to be run for profit and if the Regional Committee are involved any entrance fees will be made payable directly to the committee.

Advertisement – RSA events are open to the general public.  The easiest and most effective method of advertising available is for the Regional Programme Managers to organise email invitations (using your copy) to all of the Fellows on the membership list who live in the area of the event. They will also set up an eventbrite page for Fellows to book their places.  If you wish to advertise this to a wider audience using whatever media is available, you can, although this will be at your own expense.

It is always best to start advertising an event 8 to 6 weeks prior to the event and depending on the response and scale of the event send out further reminders a couple of times to make sure everyone knows about it.

Refreshments – It is always advisable to have some light refreshments available either before or after the event to give Fellows a chance to chat and discuss what is happening. There is no need to provide too much, the focus of the evening should be the event not the food. You should consider the cost of the refreshments before you decide if and how much you are going to charge Fellows to attend.

Holding the Event
A week before, make sure the venue is booked the speaker is still coming along and, if you can, send a reminder to those who have booked places.

On the night, make sure you have a general timescale of when things should happen and try to stick to it. Make sure the Fellows know how to get there. Make sure you have someone to greet the Fellows as they arrive. You can have name badges ready, these can be a good way or knowing who has arrived and who hasn’t. You can ask Fellows to sign in and give their email addresses when they arrive; an easy way of starting more regular activity through a local email group about further events.

The Fellows are usually quite an interactive and involved bunch and as the evening progresses you should allow them some time to ask questions or discuss the idea further. If Fellows try to cut in before this time just politely remind them when the opportunity for them to speak will be.

You should take some time at the end of the event to summarise what has happened, particularly what you would like to happen after the event and who wants to be involved. If you do need help to move things forward this is your best opportunity to find it. Do not press the matter if you don’t get an immediate response you can always ask again when you send your group emails out to everyone. You can also use this as an opportunity to set the next meeting.

For more advice about running a successful event or if you want to find an event near you then get in touch with your RSA Regional Programme Manager.



100 days at the RSA – now you can join our team

June 25, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

Three months ago this week I started in post at the RSA as a Fellowship Network Manager (now renamed as Regional Programme Managers).   I applied for the job as a bit of a gamble, my knowledge about the RSA was primarily through the lecture series and RSA Animate and didn’t extend much further.  However I thought it sounded like an interesting challenge, and I was right.

It has been a whirlwind three months.  In no particular order some highlights so far include: Driving Ambition at an academy in Banbury by bringing businesses, Fellows and students together; meeting new Fellows from locations ranging from Orkney to Norwich to Finland at the RSA’s New Fellows’ Evenings; working cross team in West Kent with Rebecca Daddow to engage Fellows with one of the RSA’s flagship projects, Whole Person Recovery; spending time with the Regional Chairs to plan Fellow-led activity over the coming year; and learning from some of best in the business about what it takes to be a successful social entrepreneur at our monthly Social Entrepreneurs’ breakfasts.


The Fellowship Team is now recruiting for more Regional Programme Managers.  In an attempt to shed some light for anyone applying, here are some things I’ve learned in my time here so far:

  • The role of RPM is unique.  There is no such thing as a standard week, the diverse cultures of Fellowship mean that you could be working with a small group developing a project about enterprise one day and speaking at an event about local community the next.  As a result you need to be organised – disorganisation in this job is a recipe for madness. 

     You get to form close working relationships with people from all walks of life, and help to support them to do things that genuinely help make an impact on society.

  • The autonomy and freedom in the role here is a breath of fresh air.  If you have a particular passion then there is plenty of opportunity to run with it, so bring your ideas with you.  My background includes running youth engagement projects and within weeks of being at the RSA I started asking questions about youth – three months later I am co-writing and leading on a Fellowship youth strategy.
  • The RSA work culture is supportive, and we’re constantly developing.  Wherever you’re based, once a month the whole Fellowship Programme Team gets together for two days in London for an intensive 48 hours of training, meetings, workshops and the occasional extra-curricular activity.
  • The RSA itself is an ambitious, diverse and multidisciplinary organisation, as the briefest look at the website will tell you.  Whether it is through attending the lectures, working collaboratively cross teams or reading the latest blog, providing you have a curiosity for new ideas you’ll never be bored.
  • Last and by no means least, you meet some brilliant people.  For many Fellows in your regions you will be the main face and contact for the RSA; this means you get to form close working relationships with people from all walks of life, and help to support them to do things that genuinely help make an impact on society.  What’s more, these people can remain your contacts long after you leave.

It is a great place to work.  So come and join us.


To apply for this or any other roles check out the  jobs section on the website, or stay tuned to all the opportunities here by following our LinkedIn page.

Alice Dyke is Regional Programme Manager at the RSA.  Follow on Twitter at @ImAliceD

Bringing back the coffee shop atmosphere locally

May 21, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Tony Hoskins FRSA organises the RSA Thames Valley Network. 

Tony Hoskins

Many Fellows tell us that networking is one of the main reasons for joining the RSA, so providing an opportunity to meet seemed like a good idea. In fact, it seemed to us to be almost akin to going back to the roots of the RSA’s original coffee club atmosphere (as well as the basis for many learned societies and clubs). From our experience of running new Fellows events, this is exactly how it turned out.

The RSA Thames Valley network has successfully run a new Fellows evening for a number of years.   Although the RSA hosts New Fellows Evenings and regions often send out welcome packs, we wanted to provide an opportunity to meet and be greeted locally by existing local Fellows.

A view from a new Fellow

Maurizio Fantato attended a new Fellows evening in Henley 2010.

“I wanted to join the RSA because of its vision of contemporary society.   But I didn’t just want to be a number; I wanted to meet other Fellows, to find out whether their aspirations were similar to mine and, above all, see if we could work constructively in our part of the country.

Our experience is that lots of ideas are normally floated around the rooms and in some instance these develop into concrete proposal and even projects.

I had attended the welcome evening at John Adam Street.  However, not living in London, for me it felt remote.  So when the opportunity came to attend an event locally I welcomed it.  Living in West Oxfordshire even the trip across the County to reach Henley isn’t a quick one, but it was a well worth effort, with both the company and the environment being conducive.”

As a result of his attendance at the new Fellows evening, he soon became an integral part of the Thames Valley Events Committee – it stimulated him to be more involved in the RSA.

“For the last two years or so I felt that we have been able to provide something of value to our Fellows by offering a good selection of interesting activities.  For example, local Fellows have been able to visit science laboratories normally not accessible to the general public, as well as art collections that are often hidden away in academic institutions.  Above all, however, I felt that I was able to work towards social improvements in our region.  Thanks also to another new Fellow who also attended an introductory evenings in Henley, we were able to explore opportunities to help social enterprises in our region.  At one new Fellows evening we were able to start up another project,  exploring ways of working with professional organisations in order to leverage on shared interests to support worthy community causes.  Surely this must be the essence of the RSA in 21st century Britain and a proof that combining social with societal interests works to these days.”

Our approach

All Fellows from the area who have joined within the past 12- 18 months are invited to attend.  We did this with the assistance of the Regional Programme Manager.

Typically, we have achieved attendee numbers of 6-10 plus the Thames Valley group members.   To make it easier for as many Fellows as possible to attend we start the proceedings at around 7.00 pm, with tea and coffee available from the start.

The format is variable but we generally start with an introduction on the local network followed by each of the existing Fellows talking about the activities we have organised locally.

Then new Fellows discuss in groups their expectations of joining the RSA, what they want to get out of it, and as importantly, what they want to put into it.  The group conclusions are then fed back in a plenary session with a view to concluding some actions (if possible) on which the existing Thames Valley group members could follow up.

Our experience is that lots of ideas are normally floated around the rooms and in some instance these develop into concrete proposal and even projects.  The event finishes its formal part at around 8.30, but many continue the discussions until later in the Leander bar, overlooking the river Thames!


You can contact Tony Hoskins FRSA if you are interested in finding out more or setting up a new Fellows evening in your area.

Chelmsford wins city status – with help from RSA fellows

April 24, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

There is only one town in England to have been awarded city status as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations – that town is Chelmsford.

Malcolm Noble

The RSA fellow-led Changing Chelmsford project played a key part to make this happen.The application for city status referred to this project as a “ground breaking initiative bringing together local people, academics and key businesses to consider the most appropriate future for the town”. For two years the town has been through a process of conversation, collaboration and (most importantly) community action that has helped create Essex’s first city.

What is Changing Chelmsford?

Achieving city status is only one small part of an on-going story. In 2010 a small number of individuals from Essex County Council, Chelmsford Council, the Academy of Urbanism and the RSA established Changing Chelmsford as a pilot project.

The RSA fellow-led Changing Chelmsford project played a key part to make this happen

The aim was to develop a strategic vision for the town – retaining our links with the past while creating an identity for the future.

Responding to the 2008 Borough Council ‘action plan’ for the town centre, we brought together local individuals, organisations and professionals with others able to share experiences from similar places in England and elsewhere within the EU. Funding was obtained from the local authorities, business sponsorship and the RSA Catalyst budget. A programme manager was appointed to run what was labelled ‘Changing Chelmsford – how bold is your vision?’ Eight workshops led to a ‘town like ours symposium’ and a synthesis called the ‘Town Commons’. The outcomes were 100 plus ideas, 18 self-organising initiatives and one big step.

Statue of Marconi in Chelmsford. Photo by Stephanie Mills

A festival of ideas

In 2011 we launched the ‘Festival of Ideas’ – 9 events involving 116 invited participants from 48 different organisations and many members of the general public. The focus was the concept of the ‘Heritage Triangle’: the desire to transform three unused or under-used buildings representing the town’s heritage and the links between them. They were an 18th century Quaker meeting house, the Marconi factory and the Georgian Shire Hall – all sites now have new activity or are going through periods of reform. 

Chelmsford is still changing – we’re not finished yet. In October our Festival of Ideas will be organised in partnership with Anglia/Ruskin University.

How to make it work

The essential elements to success have been:

  • Recruiting committed individuals – you need to include people from across the local community (the fellowship is a great place to start)
  • Establishing a formal organisation – essential if continuity is to be maintained (Changing Chelmsford is now a Community Interest Company)
  • Rigorous planning – the key to making progress. To quote Abraham Lincoln: ‘given six hours to chop down a tree, I will spend the first four sharpening the axe’.

What’s next?

Chelmsford is still changing – we’re not finished yet. In October our Festival of Ideas will be organised in partnership with Anglia/Ruskin University. Local community groups will play a key role: notably the Young Explorers, with work embedded in the curriculum of local schools and Chelmsford College.

To discuss how you might do something similar in your area please get in touch.

Malcolm Noble FRSA is Chair of Changing Chelmsford CIC. Read the Changing Chelmsford report from 2011.