Designing a pedagogy for impact

How an RSA programme blended action research and exploratory design methods to support the development of “impact entrepreneurs.”

Rowan Conway
5 min readOct 31, 2019

At the RSA you meet a lot of people who want to change the world. Some are social entrepreneurs and many spend their lives relentlessly trying to change systems. They work in a variety of fields — from mental health to the circular economy — but what binds them is a burning desire to make an impact.

This passion is something the RSA has always sought to harness and support, and in 2019 the RSA Lab worked in partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and the systems innovation agency Alt/Now to pilot an Economic Security Impact Accelerator as a learning journey for entrepreneurs to support them make a greater impact on the future of work.

Our big and audacious goal was to catalyse a field of social innovators who could take on the growing problem of economic insecurity arising from the rapidly changing world of work. The equally audacious (but more specific) task was to design a learning process for a cohort of 12 social entrepreneurs to help them to grow their individual and collective impact. You can find out about the incredible cohort here, but this blog is about the methods we used.

Working with a “pedagogy of hope”

We wanted to create a pedagogy that both developed the cohort’s knowledge (drawing on Future Work Centre and Mastercard’s research), and used experiential learning methods that blended action research and design thinking. Working with Jennie Winhall and Charlie Leadbeater from Alt/Now, we co-designed the accelerator as a “learning journey”. That might sound a bit “Strictly Come Dancing” to some, but the journey metaphor is important as it conveys the exploratory nature of the programme. While many accelerators operate as a sprint — getting participants fit for purpose as fast as possible using a single (often engineering based) method — the process we designed allowed for both fast and slow thinking. Tackling an emergent challenge like the future of work requires that participants can pause for thought, probe the problem and get creative about solutions.

Action research is — as Paulo Freire puts it — a “pedagogy of hope”. First Person Action Research is a developmental research method that enhances self knowledge through cycles of action and reflection (see simplified learning loop below).[1] For the cohort to conceive of impact-driven businesses, building reflexive capabilities and encouraging humility is important, as many an over-confident entrepreneur has fallen at the first hurdle of hubris.

Action research explicitly asks participants to challenge their own assumptions (such as: “If government just got out of my way I could solve this problem” or “My offer is great — it is the funders that are the problem”) and reframe what they may perceive as ‘failure’ as learning. In practice this means that participants conduct micro experiments (breaking down their actions into key questions or activities to test) and if the feedback isn’t as expected, it is used as data. Failing small (as opposed to fast) gives you real agility — and the opportunity to pivot if you are on the wrong course.

Action Research feedback loop

Exploratory design

With complex challenges, it is wise to sense and respond rather than jump straight to solutions. Designing for an emergent challenge is like navigating through a fog of uncertainty — it requires bravery, perseverance, cooperation and exploratory design skills.

A key difference between trying to solve emergent challenges and tackling known problems is that the former requires a creative approach and the latter can work within existing best practice. Creativity is essential when working in unknown territory. To help the cohort get into the creative mindset to take on a complex problem, we used the below grid as guidance (adapted from methods designed by Ian Prinsloo at Reos partners):

Execution and Creation modes

Over the course of the learning journey we grew and tested the cohort’s creative capacities using a range of methods. These included theory and practice design workshops; systems thinking games; masterclasses on topics such as storytelling and data; “in conversation” sessions with specialists and innovation practitioners. This was augmented with peer mentorship from RSA Fellows and Mastercard internal experts, action learning sets within the cohort, and one to one innovation coaching.

The impact toolbox

For the programme to have tangible takeaways, we created an impact canvas and workbook to capture the learning. Using the canvas below as a guide, participants had a framework within which to capture their growing knowledge, redefine their purpose, track the growth of their networks and develop micro experiments to test in the real world.

The impact canvas

Underneath the canvas was a set of tools, and you can access the Impact Accelerator canvas and workbook in this Googledoc. We supplemented this workbook with additional canvases from invited course speakers such as Ella Saltmarshe. We also provided participants with this Resource bundle — a goodie bag of thematic content from the RSA’s expansive archive of animations, public events and research projects — to help them develop their subject matter expertise at their own pace and interest level.

The great joy of being part of this programme was observing the “magic” that happens when it works: the “aha moment” when a participant realised that what he saw as an embarrassing failure was just feedback to reflect on in his pursuit of impact; the new partnerships and blended ideas that emerged when participants realised they weren’t in competition with each other and could merge their thinking; and the sense of collective endeavour that formed as the group bonded and grew as a “tribe”.

The Economic Security Impact Accelerator aimed to provide its cohort with a robust toolkit, and a careful mix of hosting, knowledge sharing, structured learning and breathing space, to help them develop unlikely allies and learn ways to create the greatest impact in the long term. Hopefully the tools and workbooks I have shared here will be useful to you too — feel free to use and adapt them to suit your own learning journey needs. But a word of warning on canvases. All canvases — no matter how beautifully designed they are — are just that: a blank canvas. For them to translate into learning (and maybe even change), the art will always be in how you do it.

As Ella Fitzgerald put it: “Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…
That’s what gets results.”

[1] Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2001). Handbook of Action Research: Participative inquiry and practice.London : Sage Publications



Rowan Conway

Head of Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL IIPP. Former Director of Innovation at the RSA, on Medium just me.