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The software that could help Sheffield make sense

The Cynefin Company’s Sensemaker technology – which is designed to foreground “the humans behind the stats” – could be coming to the city through a collaboration with Learn Sheffield. What is it and what might it mean for our decision making?

Stannington panorama
Rachel Rae Photography

Algorithmic software designed to help people and groups ‘sense into complexity’ could be coming to the city through a new collaboration between Learn Sheffield and Welsh action research organisation The Cynefin Company.

The schools company – which is co-owned by more than 180 schools and colleges, as well as by the Council – is interested in how Sensemaker could help it improve educational experiences in Sheffield, but the possible applications go much further.

Sensing and sense making

Pronounced kuh-nev-in and translating as ‘habitat’ or ‘haunt’, Cynefin does work which is rooted in an understanding that when working on societal problems which are intersectional, complex and inter-affecting, a ‘roadmap’ is no use.

We can’t plan for everything ahead of time, and in many cases doing so means that our goals end up restricting how we think about problems and what we can do about them. So instead we have to find the best ways to ‘sense’ what the next best step is at each point of the journey, using real-time networks and systems like Cynefin’s software, Sensemaker.

Designed to foreground “the humans behind the stats,” Sensemaker encourages people to record short reports or ‘micro narratives’ via an app, but most importantly those same people also interpret their stories.

They do this by mapping their story against sets of three variables, where there is no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer and no positive-to-negative scale. This prevents people from ‘gifting’ or ‘gaming’ – either giving an answer that they believe is expected of them, or sending a message by doing the opposite. For example, a participant might be asked if the person in their story was ‘altruistic’, ‘assertive’ or ‘analytical’ – which are all positive qualities.

In this way the software invites people to become ethnographers, instead of the interpretation and analysis of their stories being done by someone outside the group. Through this process, Sensemaker helps people who hold decision-making power to record and act on “street stories” – the kinds of stories that often can’t be found through traditional ‘fact finding’ approaches like focus groups, surveys or questionnaires. It’s a way of working which recognises that power lies not just in the telling of the story, but in who gets to interpret it.

More stories like this and fewer stories like that

The software – which was launched in 2004 and has since been used by universities, governments, community projects and NGOs around the world – offers a top-level view of how the stories recorded could be grouped or understood in relation to each other. Speaking at an event hosted by Learn Sheffield earlier this year, Cynefin co-founder Dave Snowden said that using Sensemaker leads decision makers to ask questions like: “How can we have more stories like this and fewer stories like that?”

So instead of focusing on narrowly defined objectives or abstract qualities like – in the case of the NHS, for example – ‘patient safety’, it looks at human experiences of systems and encourages people with power to take action at a narrative level. At the same time, stories are backed up by plenty of data that supports them and puts them in context.

The ‘wide boundary’ approach of the recently-released Sheffield City Goals is a good example of this understanding of complexity starting to play out at a local level.

Instead of focusing on outputs (e.g. clean air initiatives) or outcomes (e.g. better health as a result of cleaner air), the City Goals process asked people what stories we want to be able to tell about our city in ten years’ time. Using the same example, this became a story of “a green and resilient Sheffield, where we all act urgently on the climate and environmental crisis, prepare for a changing future, and prioritise the health and wellbeing of our city's people and nature.”

On the face of it this sounds simple – or even simplistic – but in fact it challenges the way we ‘box off’ risks and responsibilities into institutions and end up pursuing narrow goals that don’t take account of the whole city, causing all kinds of harmful, unintended consequences.

Sense Maker laptop collector 1040 1

Sensemaker asks people to interpret the story they are recording in the app against sets of three variables, which are placed on triangles.

The Cynefin Institute

What could this mean for Sheffield?

Local education partnership Learn Sheffield has brought the Cynefin Institute to Sheffield twice. The second event in late January attracted a large group of people from education, health, social care and other fields, including some of the city’s key decision makers and service managers.

Learn Sheffield is interested in how the Sensemaker software could revolutionise the way we understand the educational experiences of young people, and also how what is learnt could feed into new projects in the city that are co-produced with young people and families. It could be a tool for getting a deeper understanding of the perspectives of pupils and families that goes beyond satisfaction surveys and becomes a way of spotting where good practice is emerging.

Chief Executive Stephen Betts thinks Sensemaker offers an opportunity to do this “in a way and at a scale that we haven’t been able to before,” and that in the context of the launch of Sheffield City Goals, it “coincides with a point in time for Sheffield when the city is actively seeking better ways to make decisions.”

In his opinion, inviting young people to become ethnographers for their communities and their city could have benefits that go beyond being “a driver for improvement” in education.

[Young people being ethnographers] would make it possible for more decisions to be driven by a more genuine understanding of the experience of those who are affected by them and open up different kinds of decision making.

It would also change the role of young people fundamentally and move beyond the question of how to ‘include’ or ‘consult’ with young people – they would be at the heart of collecting voice and interpreting its meaning.

If we are starting discussions about what we should do next from the position of asking how we get ‘more stories like these’ and ‘less stories like those,’ this feels to me like a much more productive space. If we are capturing these stories regularly then we also have a much more live and continuing ability to see what impact changes have, and an ability to respond and refine new approaches.

New and exciting opportunities could open up for Sheffield once young people become ethnographers for their stories and the stories of Sheffield communities. Given that they are arguably affected most by short-term, narrow-goal decision-making, there is a chance to use Sensemaker and other technologies and approaches to foregrounding lived experience to sense into the complexity of our city's future. This could – and should – go far beyond education.

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