Learning from a regenerative living lab
Implementing a regenerative living lab on Flinders Island, Tasmania comes with many challenges, an enormous range of insights, and some truly inspiring moments. We are taking the path less travelled and more purposeful, so our walk must be slow and intentional. So, nine months on, what lessons can be learned about empowering places that seek a different relationship with tourism?
What is a regenerative tourism living lab?
The Living Lab is an experimental ‘collaboratory’ that seeks to build the social, environment and environmental resilience of the Island using tourism as the main acupuncture point. Why tourism? Tourism is a major driver of social, environmental, economic and political change. On Flinders Island, tourism became the entry point for this project because, back in 2020, it became a lightning rod, a trigger point, igniting a large part of the community against what they feel had happened to them without their input or consent.
In simple terms, the project's aim is to build a new relationship between tourism and the Island using regenerative tourism principles and practices. The ambition is to contribute to community wealth, health, and well-being through tourism. This makes perfect good business sense, because a happy flourishing place is also one that is great to visit.
More importantly however, as we work though this project, it is clear that traditional solutions in tourism, like marketing campaigns or new product development, cannot not address the Island's deep systemic challenges. Indeed, traditional actions such as these only tend to exacerbate the community unrest because they do not deal with the root causes of the problems. Taking the view that tourism is part of a much larger and more complex system, the regenerative tourism living lab approach offers an innovative and experimental approach to building the Island's relationship with tourism.
What does our regenerative tourism lab include?
The approach to the implementation of the regenerative lab is emergent, meaning that we learn and adapt to insights and conditions along the way. It is based on a community-led approach that creates opportunities to learn, build capacity, and empower local networks and communities to solve their own challenges over the long term. The basic building blocks of the project include:
Embedded community engagement, deep listening, empathy building, and practising conversational intelligence.
Implementation of a social enterprise incubator and accelerator program for community-led and business projects.
Deep and sustained advocacy across government, identifying and leveraging the opportunity to drive positive systems change.
Adopting the practice of emergence and its four stages as defined by the Berkana Institute: name, connect, nourish, illuminate.
Development of a framework for regenerative tourism futures that provides a broad set of directions and malleable structure for future decision-making.
Facilitating and empowering community members to work collectively for their own future instead of looking to government.
A regen lab versus a destination management plan
The project commenced in October 2021 and will run for two years, after which we hope to have built sufficient capacity within the community to continue its legacy. The big difference between this project and the traditional way of doing destination management planning can be summarised as follows:
We are focusing on the issues and challenges that are experienced by the community in its broadest sense. Community is defined in its broadest sense to include anyone with an interest or connection to tourism on the island whether they are on or off island, in/aligned with tourism or not. A DMP will usually only involve "key stakeholders' and focus on industry issues. However, a living lab takes a more holistic systems approach that acknowledges the special qualities of places, local communities and nature and the rights of these people, places and nature to regenerate.
We didn't arrive knowing or assuming what the Island's challenges were or what they need. This stands in contrast to the DMP approach, which often assumes (and usually embeds in contracts, outputs and delivery schedules) that the challenge is to find ways to grow tourism, to reduce barriers to business development, and to promote investment. Instead, the Living Lab approach acknowledges that all parties with a stake in the visitor economy (i.e. people, communities, nature and businesses) have different challenges and issues. Starting by identifying with their issues and challenges, instead of imposing 'outsider' ambitions, is a distinct difference between DMPs and the Living Lab.
Invest in deep listening, authentic engagement, and building trust in the process. In the Living Lab, we started by asking the community what they perceive as the challenges, and this brought forward a range of emotions from distrust to distancing, acceptance and excitement at future prospects. Walking together, deep listening, acknowledging the issues with honesty builds trust, confidence and shapes the pathway forward. The DMP approach usually compartmentalises and minimises consultation due to the fact it can be a costly part of the process. In consulting, the community consultation is simply to hear and collect viewpoints (which is not the same as listening) and is rarely about building capacity or empowering the community to address their own issues with creativity and local ingenuity.
Emergent and experimental. Most DMPs work within contractual frameworks where a series of predetermined outputs are delivered on a schedule. The outputs are 'baked-in' to the process regardless of whether new understandings and insights emerge that change the nature of actions that might be deemed appropriate. This DMP approach is guided by scientific thinking, where deliverables, timelines, budget and scope are key limitations that allow little to no flexibility. The result is usually nothing more than a superficial output that sits on a shelf or hard drive. Then everyone gets on doing the busy process work of what they do, forgetting to refer to 'the strategy'. Instead, working in emergence, with the time to experiment, allows the opportunity to focus on understanding what are the real challenges, to intentionally design positive impact, and to engage in genuine change-making. This is a core-shifting way to work.
What have we learned so far?
We have learned so many lessons already that are worthy of sharing. Our insights and light bulb moments are adding up day-by-day. Progress can be uneven, actions that we have planned out and scheduled often need to be reconsidered, and directions need to be continuously reassessed based on emerging insights, the addition of new persons on the journey, and the twists and turns of circumstances as they unfold. Each of these insights is worthy of a post on its own, but for now we capture them in brief:
Never underestimate the value of genuine community consultation in building the future pathway. A commitment to genuine in-depth embedded community consultation builds trust and confidence in the journey, and is the gift that keeps on giving. Nine months on we are still in the process of welcoming and integrating people into the conversations and learning about their lived experiences of the challenges. Delivering a short sharp consultation process does not extend the same opportunity to the deep thinkers and the slow and intentional speakers as it provides the extroverts and quick responders.
The challenges are not what you assume. Never assume that you know what the problems and challenges are, or that you know what the community needs. If you do, then you will be addressing the wrong problem, and in the process, may waste time and damage the project's credibility. When we asked the community, the challenges they identified (e.g. visitor behaviour or anxiety about visitor demands) were symptomatic of a deeper more interconnected set of issues (i.e. a wicked challenge) including food supply and security, waste, liveability, work and economic stability. Spending time listening to the lived experience of the community and mapping issue complexity is essential.
Not everyone is ready to take this journey. The initial entry point into this project was sorting out the immediate tourism challenges, but this has become a wormhole into a series of unfolding challenges. Over time, people who were not interested in the tourism issue have joined because they are interested in food, waste or community wellbeing. The latecomers are learning how the visitor economy may be part of the problem and also the solution, and those who were initially concerned about tourism are understanding the complexities and linkages with food, waste and visitor behaviour.
Assume there will be pushback. The politics of resistance to change is everywhere. It can be direct, indirect, or simply by pretending the project doesn't exist. Research suggests that resistance to change can be motivated by a variety of factors including fear of change, lack of understanding, or the desire to control the narrative, for example. In this project, we have encountered all kinds of resistance as well as much support, and have built strategies to manage this resistance. But the question remains, can we really afford not to make this regenerative living lab journey work for the good of everyone? Denying the innovation and the insights that are emerging is denying the inevitable.
Leaders of the future are already present. From the outset, the community must drive and take ownership of this project and its long term legacies. One of the key concerns we have heard from the community is that they do not want people, with solutions from away, to tell them what to do. People 'from away' come to the Island having already diagnosed the challenges. They have a ready-made solution that they are scaling and do not understand the intricacies, the relationships, the connections, and the stewardship that the community feels towards place. The leaders who have this knowledge are already in the community but may not be wearing self-identifying lapel badges! Investing in community conversations, encouraging leadership potential, and nurturing the community's connective tissue are an important parts of the work.
Institutional space can be murky. When working with innovation, the institutional space can be unclear. A project such as this is pushing boundaries, questioning assumptions, building new ways of working that doesn't necessarily align with the existing division of roles and responsibilities. As a consequence, there is no ready-made pathway to integrate the emerging insights, learnings, or to build awareness within policymaking and institutional processes. For those who want to push back against innovation, this lack of a clear pathway to share learnings can be used to stymie the flow of information. In the absence of clear lines of communication and an opportunity to share insights, personal communications, chatter, and misinformation can create misconceptions and confusion. In this project, we have been careful to adopt a proactive approach in communicating the Lab's progress and insights, but we cannot control how such information is received or engaged with.
Busy work occupies the system leaving little room for innovation. Over the last decades, more focus has been placed on the busy operational work, and there are few opportunities for 'blue sky' thinking, innovation, and thinking 'outside the box'. The busy work of implementing projects, and the focus on outputs and ticking the box upon completion, means that the policy environment is not necessarily one that welcomes or nurtures innovation. In this project, we have taken a proactive approach and sought to maintain a regular program of communication and engagement with relevant stakeholders. The need for regular advocacy work across all levels of government in relation to such an innovative project should not be underestimated.
The Tourism CoLab is collaborating with Designing Tourism to implement the Islander Way, a regenerative tourism living lab on Flinders Island Tasmania. The Tourism CoLab is a social enterprise. Our mission is to design tourism and visitor economies that deliver community health, well-being and wealth building for people, places and nature.