Our thoughts

This is a space for our thoughts, our personal reflections and opinions on the things which are affecting us at the moment. We're sharing, with the hope that we ask questions of ourselves and others and ultimately with the aim to make physical activity the norm.

Active in the time of corona- A blog looking at enabling physical activity at an unprecedented moment in history

"It was a lone voice in the middle of the ocean, but it was heard at great depth and great distance."
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

As part of my reflective practice I thought I'd share some of my thoughts in a blog. I don't have a very clear idea of where they will go, except to say that I've been doing a lot of thinking around system change, so at some point I'll be visiting that.

The 'not knowing where things are going' may be a good place to start. Perhaps there has never been a time when it has been so hard to predict how life will unfold; globally, nationally, in our communities and, for me anyway, individually. For us as an organisation, the outbreak of a virus has jolted our progress and I'm not sure any of us know how big a jolt this will prove to be, or how we should respond.

I've spent hundreds of hours in the last decade studying and practising Eastern philosophies and ways of thinking. In the East, not knowing, is considered a place of power and possibility. This contrasts with the instinct of the West where 'not knowing' is generally considered a weakness, a lack of power. Imagine during a political election debate where candidates, when asked about their priorities, answered 'I don't know'. The likelihood is that they would be ridiculed and lose a significant percentage of the vote.

Eastern thinkers however teach us that to take a position that 'we know' is limiting. Once you have cemented yourself to a belief, you lose flexibility and even the ability to look at things differently. Knowing implies a certainty that is beyond challenge and that will channel all future thought in a limiting way.

Better, the oriental sages would tell us, be like the wise owl who can turn its head 360' and see the whole picture. It is from saying 'I don't know', that we give birth to a willingness to search, investigate and learn. 'I don't know' contains a potent energy of infinite potential.

I think we're pretty good at this at Active Notts and Active Derbyshire. We champion the idea that there is not necessarily a right answer, we underline the individuality of place and importance of relationship.

This has relevance to system change. System change is based around understanding systems as living things; adapting and with emergent features that could never have been predicted empirically. Systems are always moving, evolving and therefore, in some sense, unknowable.

But not to know, does not mean, not to act, or not to think. Quite the reverse. It is the not knowing that feeds thought and activity. So, at this time, when none of us know what is going to happen, how might we think and act?

I've been thinking short, medium and longer term about our response to Corona.

By short term I mean the next 12 weeks; a timespan given to us by our Prime Minister. This is the period that he suggests people like me should self-isolate for. What might we, as an organisation, do in this period?

The winds of change are blowing a gale and like grass in the wind we need to follow the eastern approach and bend with the wind, not resist it. Now is not the time to stand firm and refuse to see the landscape in a different way. We need to observe, spot the new patterns that will undeniably emerge, and adapt to them. We are already taking on a new language with phrases like self-isolation and we probably need to create more new terms to describe what we see. For instance, I'm seeing a split between the 'Corona Confident' and the 'Corona Cautious'. We want both groups to be active, but will each need a different approach? I'm seeing new community and neighbourhood networks emerge, informally and often using What's App and Facebook to connect.

On my own street, a fairly sophisticated group has established to get resources to the isolated. Within 24 hours mechanisms are in place to exchange money, collect and deliver orders and to include those without technology. In the time of Corona, we need to think about how we fit alongside these new networks, what we can offer and how we can reach them.

I'll define the medium term as the next year. It's a guess at how long the time of Corona will last. (but I don't know). We'll need to have gathered our thoughts from the short term, and be putting together some new, flexible ways of working. What these are – I don't know. They may be designed on our new understanding of the psyche of our counties' inhabitants; a need to replace established mechanisms that may be defunct. In a year where we may lose the inspiration of the Olympics, we may have to appeal on a more local scale than ever before for those who will inspire. We may be searching for unlikely heroes in unlikely places. We will want to make the case that good health is one of the best defences against Corona and all her offspring, mentally and physically.

Again, on my road there is talk of street exercise sessions on our drives. Young and old, or maybe just old, rekindling a wartime spirit of togetherness, but built on activity.

The post Corona era of 2021 and beyond will hold different challenges and opportunities from the ones we may have envisaged at the start of 2020. System change is not about altering the parts of an existing system, but it is about designing a better system. This means looking at the system as a whole, planning and actively working towards a shared design.

Left alone our existing system parts will automatically adapt, but this adaptation will occur in silo, adjusting somewhat to what's around them, but ultimately continuing towards their own agendas.

System change is about getting those parts to see the system itself as a key part of their agenda. To see that we are all in it together, and only by acting together are we going to get the best outcomes.

Corona will rock our systems, but in doing so offer us an opportunity to influence system re-design, since many of our partners, stakeholders and communities will have to reflect, refocus and rebuild simultaneously.

Any living system needs a central processing unit (CPU) if it is going to determine its own development. Without that CPU, it is just a connected number of interdependent parts whose evolution is as much competitive as collaborative. Long term, we need to think about how we can create, influence, or shape a CPU in the physical activity system. To do that we need to understand more about systems theory…starting out on such a journey it may seem like ours is a lone voice in a deep ocean. I'd love to say how this needs to happen. But I don't know.

We'll have to find out together.

Cycling and walking Gear Change is a welcome boost for active travel

Active Notts Panel Member Helen Hemstock, Chief Executive at RideWise, an environmental charity that is dedicated to green forms of transport, shares her thoughts on the new cycling and walking plan for England…

What a few days it has been for national developments in walking and cycling. A new plan for England has been released - called Gear Change. It's one of the biggest active travel attitude overhauls in recent history.

And, a bit like buses, everything has come at once... as the government also released its much-anticipated new cycling infrastructure design guide and a major consultation on the Highway Code.

Changes to the Highway Code will create a hierarchy model, with priority given to pedestrians and cyclists. Whilst roads must have clear, good quality segregated cycle paths and new housing developers must consider walking and cycling to be the first choice options when building new homes. Painted white lines on busy roads will no longer be funded – instead there needs to be segregation and prioritisation for cyclists and pedestrians.

What we're seeing now is a plan to reset the clock and start a well overdue walking and cycling revolution!

It's like a 'who's who' of active travel wishes... the sort of thing that organisations like ours have been campaigning for, for well over ten years. But, the really important part of this plan is not the £2billion pounds to deliver it, but the attitude shift - and a very public one.

Of course, the £2billion is welcomed - but it's only a fraction less than the £2.5billion that's already allocated to fix potholes or the £27billion already committed to building roads.

What's really important is that this shows the government is taking the need to support active travel seriously. If there's any doubt about the intention to deliver, there's a new organisation to be set up, called Active Travel England, who will act as the OFSTED for Highways Authorities. They'll oversee allocation of funds and they'll monitor their implementation and success.

It's a big, bold plan. But, there are 8,300 deaths each year attributed to poor air quality. The evidence on transport related emissions, environmental damage and compounding inequalities is endless. There's no denying this is needed - and is well overdue. COVID 19 has created a sharp focus on developing travel independence as well as a need to address the nation's health.

But this plan CAN work and every single one of us can be a part of transforming our roads and the way that we travel.

Notts Not Moving

Clifton Bridge in Nottingham is broken – and because of this there is chaos on the roads around Nottingham. What was a 20-minute car journey, became a 3-hour crawl. A key arterial route which carried tens of thousands of East Midlander's each day was closed or at best down to one lane. Tempers were raised and many resorted to becoming a keyboard warrior with a newly acquired expertise in structural engineering – and they were ANGRY!

Comments on the social media frenzy resorted to blame, to incompetence, to exasperation and outrage. Very few of the comments looked at how we have created a situation that we are all complicit in creating – very few have held up the mirror to understand their part in this and what WE need to do about it.

What this situation has inadvertently highlighted is that Notts is Not Moving – we're simply all getting in our cars. This has not happened overnight, but as a result of many cultural and societal norms over time, it has become "the way it is" and now we respond with indignation when the wheels fall off.

I am not advocating that we all turn into car-haters overnight, just take the opportunity to stop and think how our inherent behavior of automatic entitlement has created this situation, not the crack in the bridge. What part can we play in this, in a not too dissimilar way that switching from plastic to paper straws is a small change we could make.

Hayley Lever in her recent blog articulated the following:

We have created and spread a story that we collectively believe to be true; that individual car ownership and use is a measure of our status in the world and being able to drive from A to B when we want, in our own private space is a human right. Public transport is for 'lesser' people with less money and control over their lives. Walking and cycling is too difficult, dangerous and takes too long.

  • It is normal to expect houses with car parking right outside, for two cars plus space for visitors
  • Jobs come with parking spaces, and our employers pay mileage for us to drive around from one meeting to another.
  • We construct our work culture around times and schedules that mean we have to drive our kids to school.
  • It is normal and culturally acceptable to apply for jobs that might take us an hour to drive to, without options to utilise more sustainable forms of transport.
  • We are expected to work in the office, when we could work more effectively where we are, for at least part of the week.
  • We design our transport infrastructure around cars not people, making it the easy option.
  • We measure traffic flow as a KPI, not people flow.
  • We have cities full of car parks instead of parks and open spaces.
  • We have schools with rows of idling cars churning out fumes, instead of families walking and riding to school together.

It got me thinking, how can we change the conversation from blame and outrage at the system to think about how we can change it? How can we make moving the easy option and design moving back into life? How can we get Notts Moving again, with sustainable journeys that are (partially) active? What's the small part we can play – our version of the plastic straw swap? I don't mean it in a preachy kind of way and expect everyone to lay down in the middle of the road in an outrageous protest style, or even lambast people in cars with a passive aggressive cold, hard stare – that's just not kind, helpful or my style. It starts with me looking in that rear view mirror at myself, what can I practically do and who can I have a conversation with to do similar?

Maybe the closure of the bridge will force this issue to be discussed for the benefit of our physical and mental health, our children's health and the environment? Or maybe we will continue to sit in our cars for hours on end, not moving and moaning at the broken bridge, the lack of workmen, Government Agencies, the Council, the police, the weather, a lack of funding, Brexit….(actual social media rants).

It's just something I have been thinking about (whilst sitting in traffic), and now I have written this it is a call to action for myself, starting with me and working out how can I change to me to we?

Reflections on Working in a Complex System in Challenging Times

We are in a time of rapid change and flux, unchartered territory. It's not exactly an ideal time to start a discussion around population health, prevention, collaborative working and distributed leadership across multiple systems and sectors. Heads are down, busy with the task in hand, the here and now and it's all hands to the pump.

We need to be kind and considerate – it's a tough time, for everyone, and we're all doing our best. Resources and capacities are stretched.

But now is also the time to jump in and try.

At the heart of this challenge is the way we are – our ability to work collaboratively in complexity. In the business of getting things done and our "day jobs" a command and control style makes things happen, but invariably this leads us to "do to". This way of working provides clarity and stability, something that everybody feels comfortable with. Ironically, this work is neither clear nor straightforward, which makes it difficult in a time that is already challenging.

We can "deliver" and "land" a campaign, event or programme and see, touch and feel the fruits of our labour. Our logos would be seen, the reaction positive, but what is the lasting change that has been created? Would we be guilty of hitting the target but missing the point? Is this what we are about? Is this sustainable and an effective use of our precious resource and capacity? Granted, it would be easier and much more straightforward.

We recognize that activity levels; which contribute to improved public health, rehabilitation, economic and environmental benefits, improved education and social care, reduced social isolation, improved physical and mental wellbeing and bringing communities together, are the result of a complex local system and no single intervention, or organisation, can achieve real and lasting change alone.

We have challenges to face. Times of crisis require leadership, empathy and vision, which collectively we have in spades. By aligning the benefits of being physically active with local priorities we can show how it can be an effective means of helping the recovery. We need to see ourselves and our work as part of the local ecosystem, working with communities to achieve better outcomes, working with organisations to advocate and enable everyone to move more for better health.

Back to the "how" and the challenge. We need to lift our heads and truly work together, this requires an absolute commitment from the whole partnership, which has to be led from the front by the decision-makers. Making the difference requires ownership and advocacy at all levels, it cannot be passed on. We must be honest with each other to enable this way of working to flourish. An incredibly tough ask, in an incredibly tough time, but that is what it will take.

We must learn from the past and reset the future. Recognising it is a challenging time for everybody, but, if not now, when?

Social distancing and activity- our thoughts

Working from home is something that many people are used to. Here at Active Notts we are encouraged to work as flexibly as possible, hot desking between offices, working from home when needed, and using technology such as video conferencing to help us all work effectively and efficiently. Our culture, as you would expect, also encourages us all to work actively, whether that be walking or cycling to work, holding walking meetings and active lunch breaks, or just taking time at the end of the day to get out there and enjoy physical activity to stay fit, healthy and de-stress.

Now everyone is being asked to work from home if at all possible to do so and, even for those of us used to creating a makeshift office at the kitchen table - or getting comfy on the sofa with a laptop, this may mean an extended period at home working in isolation for longer than we have previously experienced.

So how can we make the best of this time, and ensure that despite some challenging circumstances we continue to stay active and keep a healthy body and mind? At Active Notts we are giving genuine thought to this to ensure the continued wellbeing of our staff, and perhaps give inspiration to our partners and the wider workforce. We are also keen to know what others are doing, so that we can share this too, and keep the momentum going in our quest to make physical activity, including sport, the norm for people who live, study and work in our communities.

As a team and a wider community, we're trying to build activity into our day as much as possible, and supporting those around us to be active in a way that suits them.

For now the commute to the office is out, but that doesn't have to mean physical activity has to be too. We are using the time we'd usually spend travelling to meetings as an opportunity to take a short walk or volunteer with local community groups to support those who are vulnerable or self-isolating – there are many ways in which we can help.

If you're fit and well you could also spend that journey time out in the fresh air going for a walk or jog (at a safe distance from others) or power-walking laps in the garden. Dust off that piece of gym equipment sitting in the spare room and schedule in some active breaks. Search YouTube and try a Joe Wicks 15-minute workout during lunch, or relax after a hard day at home with a spot of yoga.

If team sports are your thing, swap your usual team for Microsoft Teams – it's great for virtual meetings and sharing files, but it could also be used for sharing a workout, encouraging colleagues to be active together and keeping up with much-needed social interaction.

Whilst writing this, Sport England has also published a guide on 'How to stay active while you're at home', which as the name suggests includes a variety of tips on staying active at home, whatever your age or situation. It is also encouraging people to share some of the best ideas using the hashtag #StayInWorkOut

The BBC has also published 'Five ways to work well from home' which not only looks at how to maintain physical health, but also mental health by maintaining social contact through simple things like picking up the phone.

We think it's really important to take care of our own and others' mental health too so are taking the time to speak to colleagues during the day, whether this be a work-related or informal conversation, and would encourage others to do the same. As the old BT advert used to say (for those of us old enough to remember!) 'It's good to talk', and whilst e-mails and Messenger have their place, while we may need to put ourselves under social isolation, we still need to make time for social interaction.

So whilst our physical ways of working and daily routine may have changed for now, our vision is still the same – let's continue to work to make physical activity the norm, and let's continue to collaborate and share learning – we'd love to hear from you.