1. Introduction: Setting the scene
  2. Tools of emancipation, or tools of alienation?
  3. My research approach
  4. Learning from our failures: Lessons from FairCoop
  5. Introducing the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF)
  6. The Diversity & Decolonising Circle
  7. The Research Team
  8. The DAF Landscape: Cultivating relationality
  9. Considering DAF from a decolonial perspective
  10. Radical collective change

DAF: the Research Team

(a summary)

As I mentioned previously, during this project, three distinct research streams unfolded simultaneously in the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF):
- The Diversity and Decolonising Circle (D&D)
- The Research Team
- DAF as a landscape of practice

Each of these research streams was an evaluation of the social learning processes that Wendy and I documented within DAF, using the Wenger-Trayner methodology. To read more about communities of practice and social learning spaces, see this post.

In this post, I summarise the results of the social learning that took place within (and thanks to) the Research Team, composed of Wendy Freeman and myself - see here for an introduction to our research in DAF. As in the previous post, I will introduce the social learning space, say more about our intentions, and then present these findings using the metaphor of Seeds, Soil, and Sowers.

For reasons of space, this research stream didn't make it into the main body of my thesis. You can read more details about it in Annex 5.5 and 5.6.


  • We, in the Research Team, were the main co-initiators of the participatory action research project which took part in DAF.
  • In doing so, we took on a role of conveners of social learning space - by inviting other DAF participants to discuss their experience with us, and by organising online group discussions and webinars; and the role of open learning assets generated through our research - such as reports, blog posts, videos, etc.
  • Our main intentions, through our research, were to amplify and spread learning and changes that may be relevant to radical social change in DAF; facilitate additional and improved functionality and interactions in the network; and foster learning citizenship.
  • Learning citizenship refers to the ethical dimension of social learning, which comes to the fore when someone feels accountable for the quality of learning taking place around them.
  • Thanks to our activities, other DAF participants said they had particularly benefited from spaces and practices we initiated, that highlighted and celebrated collective learning in the network, as a means of mutual inspiration. This helped people feel better informed about the network, and more deeply connected with one another; brought about non-generative discomfort in one or two occasions; and some activities may even have had a transformative impact on one person, who found a renewed motivation to take generative action in their lives.
  • These activities were enabled by several important features: social contexts providing a sense of psychological safety and community; occasions to reflect on one's learning; a culture of placing relationships first; attention to stories as vehicles of personal and collective learning; and mutual encouragements to remain curious and open to exploring the unknown.
  • As a result of these activities, several participants took on a role of learning citizens by acting as brokers between DAF and other landscapes of practice. A repository of useful learning assets also started to take shape on the Conscious Learning Blog, but these resources have not been integrated within an online course yet.

1. Introducing the social learning space

Wendy and I were among the six co-initiators of the DAF Decolonising and Diversity Circle (D&D), which was launched in August 2020. Prior to that, Wendy had been involved as a volunteer in DAF, for instance as a moderator on the DA Facebook group. But we had not had many occasions to interact prior to our collaboration within D&D.

Shortly after the launch of the circle, Wendy contacted me privately to inform me of her strong interest in questions of learning. A few year earlier, she had written a dissertation on transformative learning within a permaculture design course, as part of her MSc degree in Education for Sustainability. So we decided to collaborate as co-researchers within this participatory research project on social learning and radical collective change, which I had begun in DAF earlier that year. Read more about my methodology here.

What social learning took place as a result of our activities as a research team, and as people trying to bring about changes in ourselves and in DAF?

First, a few words about how our team formed a social learning space. This relational space (composed of the two of us!) was created and maintained through regular calls, and through asynchronous conversations over email and a secure instant messaging platform. In our conversations, we mainly reflected on our learning and the various initiatives we started, shared useful resources with each other, and planned next steps in our collaboration.

Beyond our collaborative social learning space, my understanding is that we took on a twin role of conveners of social learning spaces and of creators of open learning assets, in collaboration with a number of DAF volunteers.

As social learning space conveners, we mainly...

  • invited DAF participants to discuss their experience of the network with us; and
  • organised online group discussions and webinars in DAF, including two Conscious Learning Festivals (in 2021 and 2022).

These conversations aimed to collect data and explore, together with others, our research questions (which we explained here). Importantly, we strived to keep these spaces flexible and open-ended, to engage in them from a place of uncertainty, and to trouble the borders that may exist between interviewer and interviewee.

The two editions of the Conscious Learning Festival had the objective, through webinars and other activities, of publicly surfacing more of the social learning taking place in DAF, in the hope of fostering more social learning inside and outside the network; and encouraging DAF participants to become more self-aware of their own learning, in the hope of facilitating deeper personal transformations. Another important goal of the Festival was to call attention to and celebrate the contributions of volunteers, groups, and various people in DAF to the collective learning taking place in the network. We co-created these events with other DAF participants, who could convene their own calls as part of the Festival. Many call recordings can be viewed here.

We also created learning assets made freely available to people online, including...

These resources aimed at encouraging more personal and collective change in DAF. The 2021 Conscious Learning Festival was accompanied by the launch of the Deep Adaptation Conscious Learning Blog, hosted on the DAF webserver. This website aimed to offer the visitor insights into the social learning taking place in the various DAF groups, platforms, and events, in the hope of fostering even more social learning inside and outside the network. An important assumption in doing so was that this information might encourage more self-awareness in DAF participants – and thereby facilitate deeper personal transformations.

The blog enabled anyone to create an account and post content onto it, or comment on existing posts. New content could also be published by first being sent over to Wendy or myself over email, or to me via the website’s contact form. As part of the rules of engagement, users were asked to agree that this content be analysed and quoted from for the purpose of our research project.

The learning journeys are perhaps the most important type of content published on the Blog. They are stories of social (un)learning that Wendy and I co-created with our research participants, on the basis of what they shared with us in interviews and in group settings. When it felt like a story had taken shape, we asked the person who shared it with us whether they agreed to have it published on the Blog, and if so, whether they preferred to do so anonymously. These "value-creation stories" were very important to us in order to make sense of the personal and collective changes taking place within DAF - thanks to everyone who accepted to share them openly!

Another interesting resource is the recording and transcript of an interview I carried out in person with Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner in Portugal, in August 2021, on the topic of the social learning theory they developed and which plays an important role in this research.

2. Our intentions

What intentions guided our work, within the research team, as we convened these social learning spaces and created these learning assets?

As we reflected on this, we came to the conclusion that our main objectives, through this research project, were to:

  • amplify and spread learning/changes, in individuals and groups within DAF, that may be relevant to radical social change;
  • facilitate additional/improved functionality and interactions within DAF, relevant to people facing collapse, so that people choose to participate more in the forum;
  • foster learning citizenship in DAF, and invite people to join a "learning citizens" group (creating interest in the potential for learning as citizens).

What did we mean by "learning citizenship"? This refers to the ethical dimension of social learning. As B. and E. Wenger-Trayner explained to me, the more participants in social learning spaces become aware of the social and political effects of their involvement (both for the group, but also potentially for society as a whole), the more they become "learning citizens" who feel accountable for the quality of the learning that is taking place in these spaces. They may also view their own identity as a lever for learning and change elsewhere.

For example, those of us who participated the D&D Circle felt a responsibility to reflect together on how we could better learn from our involvement (for example, by introducing new processes into our regular calls) - and to encourage discussions on D&D topics to emerge when it felt necessary, in other spaces within DAF and beyond. In doing so, we were embodying learning citizenship, which can be seen as a kind of leadership for learning and social change.

So encouraging this kind of learning citizenship to emerge in DAF was an important intention for the research team. I believe that in pursuing this goal, and the other ones listed above, we acted as systems conveners - that is, people who “spot opportunities for creating new learning spaces and partnerships that will bring different and often unlikely people together to engage in learning across boundaries” and thus “forge new learning partnerships in complex landscapes” as described by E. and B. Wenger-Trayner (2015, p.99). System conveners, basically, are a kind of learning citizens who try to bring strange bedfellows together, to help form new synergies and relationships that will benefit the social learning taking place throughout an entire landscape of practice (read more about this in the next summary). Wendy and I were trying to do so in DAF through our research.

3. Seeds of change

What were the main “seeds of change” that we tried to cultivate in the research team, with regards to the intentions above? And to what extent have we been successful in doing so? As an analogy, seeds refer to forms of social learning that appear most relevant to DAF participants, in view of the global predicament.

Among the elements of social learning fostered by the research team, the ones that our fellow DAF participants seem to have found most relevant were the spaces and practices highlighting and celebrating personal and collective learning in the network, as a means of mutual inspiration.

The Conscious Learning Festival calls, and other group calls - such as the monthly D&D learning circles - enabled us to pursue our first objective, that of "amplifying and spreading learning/changes, in individuals and groups within DAF, that may be relevant to radical social change."

Here are some of the benefits (or forms of value) that people said they found, thanks to these spaces and practices.

Feeling better informed and more deeply connected

First of all, several participants in the Conscious Learning Festival webinars mentioned feeling better informed thanks to their involvement. In particular, several found that the Festival enabled them to gain a deeper understanding of DAF as a community, including its history, and the lives of its participants.

“I learned more about the history of Deep Adaptation through - how did this, how did the Facebook group happen? And, and what does it mean for J. to be a moderator? And what is her life? What were the life choices that brought her to this moment? It feels like, like a picture that was maybe 85 pixels, went up to 200 pixels or something like that.”

Hearing other participants share their stories during the webinars also led certain participants to position themselves by reflecting on the differences between what they heard, and their own lives, contexts, and perspectives on the community.

“It just was very rich, to hear more about how these people who were played important roles, just hear how they formulated things, which is different than how I formulate them. And I wouldn't have ... been able, from the place I'm in to guess how they would have formulated things. So and there was something about this setting that was very free of judgment. So their story was just their story. And it's not my story. And a lot of their choices are not my choices, but I didn't feel any sense of needing to make their choices, my choices. So that was a very enriching experience as well.”

In most of these calls, participants celebrated the contributions that others – particularly long-term volunteers, and other influential participants – had made to the network as a whole, voiced gratitude, and mentioned feeling inspired by their achievements. This happened both in the presence on the call of said contributors, and in their absence.

“I'm more and more seeing N.’s influence through the network. And I think it comes from Nenad, this thing around, ‘We do relationships first, and the work arises after that.’ It's very much the center of this meeting that he has on a weekly basis with K. and S. And then the open space has come out of that.”

These conversations also led several participants to reflect on the importance of the social learning spaces in DAF that benefited from the presence of these “key enablers,” be it in their own life or in that of others.

“I've been reflecting on when I did come into Deep Adaptation, which was fairly early on after the paper, I also was in that place of like, like deep anguish and feeling that I couldn't talk to anybody or even people who maybe agreed with me really didn't want to talk about it. And finding the events like, like Deep Listening, and Death Cafe was amazing. For me, I just was able to move through so many layers of grief, that not only has it helped me with the whole concept of Deep Adaptation it’s just helped me feel like more at home, in my skin. And in my life.”

Perhaps as a result, several participants mentioned a sense of renewed sense of being part of DAF as a community, and the desire to become more deeply involved.

“I... shared a sense of warmth and community, even though I was never in a live Zoom, in not only knowing there are others around the globe who are looking into this abyss and finding life, but in being able to feel them more in hearing their stories and hearing them interact.”

For two participants, the Conscious Learning Festival appears to have provided them with a renewed clarity as to how to better integrate the difficult topic of collapse within their lives, while remaining “sane” (see also Annex 5.2, Story #7).

Non-generative discomfort

Importantly, our interventions aiming at amplifying and spreading social learning have also, on occasion, been a source of discomfort which may have been counter-productive and deterred individuals from wishing to further engage in DAF social learning spaces.
The first such instance of negative value-creation happened during the Festival webinar which explored the very rich life journey of Jane, a veteran moderator in the DA Facebook group. One participant, during the feedback round at the end of the call, voiced feelings of shame and unworthiness.

Thankfully, another call participant (a mental health professional) promptly answered that he, too, often had similar experiences when comparing himself with people who apparently were more successful at living in accordance with their values. His intervention, which included practical advice he had found helpful in engaging with such feelings and appreciation of the first speaker’s self-awareness, appeared to be well received by the latter. Nonetheless, this example shows that the process of self-orientation and self-reflection mentioned above, which was a source of positive value-creation for others, appears to have led to a feeling of alienation in this particular instance.

Another example of negative value-creation took place as a result of another webinar. Having watched the recording of that event, one DAF participant who had initially accepted to be featured on another Q&A in the Festival decided to cancel the event immediately, after finding fault with several statements they had heard in the webinar recording that they watched. They expressed a loss of trust in the process they had been invited to take part in, and opined that a portion of the webinar recording should be deleted. After consulting the speaker featured in that webinar, as well as several DAF Core Team members and volunteers, Wendy and I decided not to do so. For a few weeks, this episode led to difficult tensions between this person and us.

This was a reminder to me that due care should be exercised when convening and facilitating public-facing events, particularly when such conversations are being recorded and shared online. While conveners and participants may feel secure in their good intentions, it is always possible that careless statements will be voiced that may be unintentionally harmful to persons or groups beyond the temporary social learning space that is being convened – particularly in the context of an increasingly fraught, polarised, and oppressive political landscape worldwide.

Notwithstanding these two instances of negative impact we are aware of, overall, the feedback we have received seems to show that through the Conscious Learning Festival, we in the research team at least partially met our first aspiration.

A transformative effect?

It appears that the 2021 Festival had an especially generative impact on one person (see Annex 5.2, Story #7), who was among the more actively involved participants. At the end of this series of events, they shared with us how their experience of the Festival had been helpful to them:

“[Thanks to the Festival] I was able to experience a sense of deep connection and fellowship with other participants, who were all complete strangers. I found regular spaces in which to acknowledge my painful feelings related to our predicament, and feel understood. Being in these spaces also made me realise that in spite of the dire situation, I was alive! For example, I was very inspired by Jane Dwinell’s Q&A, during which she described building tiny houses on her land, and helping refugees in Lesbos. This pulled me out of my sense of helplessness and hopelessness, and prompted me to reflect deeply on what kind of generative action I might do with my own life.”

As a result of this impact, several interesting developments happened for this person: they wrote an article on Deep Adaptation for a mainstream news outlet; added a module on Deep Adaptation to the university syllabus they are teaching; decided to convene climate cafés for the students taking the new module; started working on an online course touching on these topics; and have begun writing a book chapter incorporating the themes of Deep Adaptation into their area of academic specialisation.

They concluded their testimony with these words:

“I feel quite keen to crack on with these endeavours. Knowing that I am not alone in this mindset and intention helps me to keep going. I’m done with leaving emotions like terror, guilt, or shame, are in my driving seat. It’s fine for them to be in the car, but I’d rather they be passengers. I think cautious optimism may now be in the driving seat – optimism about the beautiful aspects of humanity, and the desire to embody these qualities and fight for them.”

It therefore appears that for at least one person, the Conscious Learning Festival was an important occasion to come to terms with their painful emotions, and finding a renewed motivation to take generative action without obliterating these affects . As mentioned in this testimony, a sense of deep connection and fellowship with other people experiencing similar feelings, as well as occasions to learn about inspirational role models in the network, seem to have played an important role in facilitating this personal change.

4. The enabling soil

What were some important conditions (or the enabling soil) that helped us to nurture these seeds of change?

Over the time of this research, several conversations took place (in the research team, and in group settings) to reflect on the factors that best support social learning in DAF spaces - and especially in those convened by the research team (e.g. in Conscious Learning Festival calls). They helped us identify several important enabling conditions.

A recurring theme was the need for social learning spaces to provide a measure of psychological safety, which makes it easier for people to dare to make mistakes (and thus learn from their mistake). A sense of community was also mentioned as being helpful to strengthen that sense of safety.

“It's useful to... be in such a safe space where everybody is doing their very best to meet every point of view with love. That allows us to make mistakes, because somebody else will come in and make mistakes, and when you make a mistake, and somebody else will come in and kind of back you up and fill in what needs to get filled in and has a different idea. … We learn so much more in safe spaces because we're not geared up to be frightened… An awful lot of [the learning] is just being in the presence. It takes longer sometimes, but... But yeah, it allows you to practice again, in a community where you know that if you make a mistake, and, you know, step on somebody's toes accidentally, people will forgive you, and you will learn how not to step on people's toes and when the right time to do things is and just by example.”

Several participants also commented on how the presence of mentors or elders, within DAF as a community, had benefited their learning and was an important factor in their deciding to engage in DAF.

“There were some people who whether consciously or not then functioned as models and mentors... Actually, probably most people here [on this call]. And... I think that my, for me, that's one of the values in [DAF] is it attracts people that that I admire. There's something about this topic [of Deep Adaptation] that attracts people that have qualities that I really admire. And and then we we get to share those so maybe some people learn from me, but then I learned from them things that I might not have known how to do myself.”

Being prompted to reflect on one’s own learning, as the Festival invited participants to do, was also regarded as a rare and useful occasion to develop more awareness and clarity on one’s learning journey. Several comments also stressed the usefulness of being able to do so in a dialogical format, by explicitly considering any participant as both a teacher and a learner able to share their experience and choices with others.

“I could never have imagined what my journey would have been like. And I suspect that had you not invited ... this extended period of reflection, I never would have considered that journey, I would have just kept cutting the trees, to put the shoes on the children and the food on the table. And so that extended period of pause is really powerful to invite people to bring their attention to just what their personal learning, learning journeys have been.”

Placing relationships above the need to be "right" was also seen as critical to maintaining useful social learning spaces. Unfortunately, it is a challenging exercise, particularly in an online context shaped by the polarising influences of social media like Facebook or Twitter, which constitute obstacles to social learning.

“What we are trying to implement [with the new DAF platform] … goes against the trends of social media, which is to... just enable those sound bytes of information and to polarize people so that they keep, you know, being placed in this camp or placing themselves in this camp or that or that camp, not hearing the other side, and and drifting further and further apart. And I think this is how we are being trained, all of us users of social media.”

The theme that reoccurred in nearly every reflective conversation during the Festival was that of stories as powerful vehicles for personal and collective learning. This was not so surprising, considering that the Festival was largely structured around events during which individuals were invited to share with others what their personal experience of learning had been, around the topics of collapse-awareness and Deep Adaptation. But with regards to the topic of radical collective change, we also discussed the necessity to be conscious of the values and worldviews encapsulated within our narratives - be they counter-cultural, bolstering dominant ideologies, or calling attention to ways of thinking that tend to be erased in colonial context. For example, a webinar participant referred to Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag of Fiction” (1986), which discusses the place of the (often male, and aggressive) hero in narratives, as compared to more feminist orientations; another Stories can also function as means of passing down socio-cultural elements of that are deemed worthy of being carried forward. Another a Festival participant quoted Chief Chevez, from the Lenca people of El Salvador, according to whom stories could provide vital help to a people and culture to sustain itself and pass through periods of societal collapse.

As regards qualities and behaviours that learners may bring, and that tend to be conducive to deeper personal and collective learning, the importance of remaining curious and open to exploring the unknown was a topic that emerged on several occasions. On one occasion, a Festival participant who is a university lecturer mentioned their disappointment at how few of their students were genuinely keen to learn, and even more so, how few of their colleagues in academia were ready to question the foundations of their own knowledge and worldview, and be open to unlearning.

“Teachers, academics, professors, scholars, we read all the time we learn all the time. We're not unlearning, though. We're just adding stuff on top of stuff on top of stuff. I've seen this many, many times. We, you know, we read a book together, we talk about it, we say, oh, okay, that's interesting. We invite a speaker and that speaker say something mind-boggling. And they say, ‘Oh, wow, this is so great.’ But we don't unlearn what that requires. And so we continue doing what we have always done, even after learning all that.”

5. The sowers

In the case of the Research Team social learning space, the sowers - that is, people taking care of the seeds and the soil - were mainly Wendy and I, as co-researchers. We sought to consciously embody forms of learning citizenship, as systems conveners, by starting new learning-focused initiatives within DAF.

In reviewing the results of this aspiration, we found that we were more successful in leading some of these initiatives than in others. Here's a quick summary of our self-evaluation.

Conscious Learning Festival: More learning citizens?

As mentioned in Section 2 above, one of our intentions in organising the Conscious Learning Festival was to help a group of "learning citizens" to emerge, through our calls and activities, who would keep championing the topic of learning within DAF alongside us.

During the first edition of the Festival, we found that a group of regular participants did attend nearly all events we organised, and were quite willing to reflect with us on the conditions, containers and forms of leadership that may enable social learning within the network - see Section 4 above. However, only some of these participants remained actively involved in 2022, and they did not - to our knowledge - convene learning-focused activities during the time separating the two festivals. So it is unclear to what extent our activities were really instrumental in fostering a long-lasting interest in these participants, or that they considered their involvement in social learning activities within DAF become part of their identity.

Another sign which can speak to the emergence of learning citizenship is when people actively work as brokers for the learning taking place in a certain community of practice or social learning space (including important insights, challenges, etc.), and bring it into another context. According to Wenger (2009), this can help “thicken the weave of a social learning system” and foster innovation.

Encouragingly, as a result of the 2021 Festival, several types of brokering took place between DAF and other landscapes of practice. In their testimonies, two of the Festival’s most actively involved participants expressed a clear logical continuity between their experience of the Festival, and initiatives they undertook afterwards: one of them wrote an article for a major news outlet on Deep Adaptation, among other activities, while the other started a new YouTube channel on the topic of collapse.

Another instance of brokering happened when researcher and community activist Christian S. Tröndle invited us to convene, together with him, a Festival webinar focused on his recent Master’s research on Deep Adaptation, but also featuring several of his colleagues from the Berlin-based Camp Collapse interdisciplinary group. The conversation enabled new interpersonal connections to form and stories of practice to be shared between participants in DAF and Camp Collapse.

Other activities and resources

In reviewing our activities, we also realised that while we had plenty of ideas for new learning experiments and resources, our time and energy placed limits on what we actually managed to carry out!

For example, an early idea we had was that of crafting a “gift question” for every DAF participant who had a research conversation with us. These questions were to be communicated privately with each person, as a personalised invitation to reflect deeply on their trajectory of learning in DAF, and as a prompt for retrospective conversations in the future. Although we did begin preparing such questions, we only succeeded in sharing them with a handful of participants (including each other). This appears largely due to capacity issues on our behalf... Too bad!

We were also hoping that many participants in our research would contribute useful learning resources to our repository, to accompany their learning journey. The idea was that anyone feeling a sense of personal resonance with someone's path of learning could then check out the resources that this person had found instrumental to their journey of personal change. Unfortunately, while several people did kindly contribute many useful resources, most learning journeys did not become associated with resources. Another hope was that these resources might also be integrated within a "DAF 101" online course, which could be offered to newcomers in the network. However, this has not happened so far.

Having examined the D&D Circle and the Research Team as two distinct social learning spaces, in the next summary, I will turn to processes of social learning taking place in DAF as an entire landscape of practice.