AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Rama Gheerawo and Melanie Flory from The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design

March 04, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Rama Gheerawo and Melanie Flory
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Rama Gheerawo and Melanie Flory from The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design
Show Notes Transcript


Rama Gheerawo is an international and inspirational figure within design. He won a ‘Hall of Fame’ award for his work at the Design Week Awards in 2019 and was named a 2018 Creative Leaders by Creative Review alongside Paul Smith and Björk, As Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, he uses design to address issues around age, ability, gender and race. He is a serial innovator in the fields of Inclusive Design, Design Thinking and Creative Leadership having personally led over 100 projects working internationally with governments, business, academia and the third sector with clients such as Samsung, Toyota, AgeUK and Panasonic. He champions inclusive and empathic approaches for individuals and organisations through his pathfinding work in Creative Leadership, with training delivered globally to thousands of people including over 700 civil servants. He is in high demand as a keynote speaker, and writes, curates exhibitions and runs workshops for audiences that range from students to business executives. Rama sits on a number of advisory boards and committees for awards, universities and organisations such as the UK Design Council, The International Association for Universal Design, the Design Management Institute, The Bhavan Institute for Indian Culture and the RSA Decolonising Design Initiative. He has been a Visiting Professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Katowice Academy of Fine Art.


Melanie Flory is a psychologist and neuroscientist whose research enquiry is at the intersection of design, systems thinking and cognitive neuroscience.

Melanie is the first appointed Associate Director of Research of The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. Her role involves leading the growth and development of the Centre’s inclusive design and creative leadership research and knowledge exchange portfolios, as well as co-developing and launching the Centre’s first doctoral and Master's by research programmes (2022–3). She is the neuroscience lead on the Centre’s creative leadership project.

She has a strong focus on fostering and incorporating the Centre’s inclusive design methods in cross-disciplinary research, innovation and knowledge exchange programmes and projects, with the RCA’s four Schools and other Research Centres.

Before joining HHCD in 2021, Melanie founded (2009), and is the Director of MindRheo, an organisational development consultancy intersecting neuroscience, design and systems thinking to enhance human, organisational and business performance and experience. Prior to MindRheo, Melanie held clinical, senior academic and research leadership positions (2000–11) at Westminster University, Ministry of Defence (UK) and the UK government’s Trauma Response Unit. She has led global cross-disciplinary research in war-related PTSD and the role of brain plasticity in emotion regulation and processing. Her research exploration seeks new insights into the interplay between emotion and cognition

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript and will need to be checked if you wish to publish it. AXSCHAT Rama Gheerawo and Melanie Flory

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I am delighted to have a returning guest today. Rama Gheerawo is Head of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art. I have been a huge fan of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for over a decade now and we have also got Melanie Flory, his colleague. Rama, you have just written a book as well about some really important topics, so why don't you start talking about inclusive leadership and then maybe Melanie can also join in and explain her role in that.

RAMA:

Absolutely, well it's a great pleasure to be here and just to show you what Neil is talking about, here we are. A crisply authored book. It's called Creative Leadership Born From Design and it's very much driven by design but collaboration with neuroscience, which probably describes the relationship between Melanie and myself. We both aim to improve life for people and planet but do that coming to a creative endeavour, through design and through neuroscience. So in brief, creative leadership is based on three human values of empathy, clarity and creativity. It is for three types of people. It's for established leaders, emerging leaders and the biggest group of all, those who were never built to be leaders, whether that is by age, gender, races, geography, economic circumstances or most importantly for this chat by disability, by access. So I think it really lends itself to that emerging discussion of not just representation in terms of access and ability but also leadership. So it's not just being invited in the room, being invited to the table or even being asked to eat. It's being asked what should we eat and it's being asked should we eat. So I think that is my culinary analogy of where accessibility leadership needs to go. And just to bring in Mel at this point. Please tell us a little bit about your role in the book and this whole landscape of leadership?

MELANIE:

So very quickly, I joined the Helen Hamlyn Centre last year as their Research Director, but prior to that Rama and I had been collaborating on looking at creative leadership from various perspectives. When I came to, when I met Rama, I realised that this was a program that was organically that had organically grown from Rama's experience as an engineer and a designer and his work right through the Helen Hamlyn Center, starting off as designer and working his way up to directorship. So creative leadership is really hard I think to capture in a book but the value that I saw that we needed to raise it to was the effect of these three components of creativity, empathy and clarity. The value, to raise it to the neuroscience, the psychology of these, in terms of the biological models they afforded in terms of learning as a skill set. But also the capacity to include everyone because everyone, it does not matter where you are in your life has the capacity of be creative, emphatic and clear about things that are dear to them or not. And to be able to then apply that to the behaviour of leadership was something that I felt we could elevate this model to.

NEIL:

Excellent. That is really interesting. We talk quite a lot about creativity and how particularly in the disability space, how actually disability, impairments and neuro divergences can be a trigger and spur for innovation because we're dealing with challenges and we are almost forced to be creative. Anyway, so that is a topic that we are quite familiar with and to an extent, ground that we have covered a little bit with Rama and others before. I think the empathy piece we also, as assistive technologists and people in the accessibility space, we try to live and work and lead with empathy. But I am really interested in the clarity piece. But the clarity piece is both from a cognitive accessibility point of view and also a leadership point of view. I think really often misunderstood and undervalued because we often, and I see this frequently overcomplicate things because we wish to portray that we are clever, that we are worthwhile as leaders that we have acquired knowledge. And in doing so we are excluding people. So am I sort of on the right track here with what you're trying to get at in the book or is there more to it and how might we learn to be more concise, be able to communicate with less ambiguity?

RAMA:

I think you're absolutely on the right track and coincidentally very clear there Neil. Clarity is born from communication you know. That is where the sun shines for clarity. But it is the most under studied principle. It is the one that ties together the other two which are in common parlance, you know. Empathy has been rising in terms of the leadership landscape and needed more so than ever, given the last couple of weeks and the last couple of years. Creativity, as you say is something we understand. You know design makes every conversation better. But that third component of clarity was actually the last one to notch into place and it's something that is often missing. You know I know Melanie will be able to speak about the neuroscience of where this comes from and the psychology of application but to talk about the inception of this for the model. It came from a couple of different points of view. The Helen Hamlyn Centre has worked for nearly over three decades now with people of all ages and all abilities. You realise that they are amazing instigators and creators, but there is a lack of clarity in hearing voices, in representation, in given the platforms for people to express themselves and it's the same for people of all races, skin colours, ethnicities and genders and yes, there are more than two genders on the planet. So clarity came from quite a philosophical moment, a reflective moment I would say in two situations, you know one personal and one professional. So the personal one was actually coming out of a relationship which was rather messy and we have all had those relationships and I was thinking what happened there. And then I realised I would never figure out what was going to happen there, so I might as well enjoy the flight that I was on. And the fact that I was not going to get clarity was clarity in itself and it actually allowed me to sleep that night. The second bit was looking at work challenges, professional challenges and this word equality that was being bandied around ten to 15 years ago. We have now, looking at it more as equity and inclusivity. But the idea was that how do people want to be treated? Is it equality? Do you treat people with a kind of tick box level of equality or do you actually enter into a more human understanding of what each individual needs and the word came to mind clarity, and I spent the next year saying to people, is clarity actually what you want here? And as a leader is understanding clarity incredibly important. And I think again as you intimate Neil, the accessibility disability area is right for this. In some ways, we have been speaking about living and breathing a lack of clarity for such a long time. We actually deeply understand where clarity can make an effect because we have been experiencing such a lack of it. And I say that also as an inclusive designer and a person who has designed things and worked with communities of all abilities. But it would be great to bring Melanie in here to talk a little bit about clarity as the third leg of the stool from the neuroscience and psychology point of view.

MELANIE:

Thank you Rama. For those of you listening, I can and sure you I have never met Neil before so I had no inkling that this question would come up. However, I just knew that we'd be asked for clarity and I have something from the book that I just want to quickly want to read out and that is because as human beings, we hanker for clarity. It is in our nature to hanker for clarity whether that is in a relationship, where do I stand in this relationship? Whether it's in employment, what is my role here? People work better, relationships work better, decision making works better with clarity. But something that Rama wrote in terms of clarity on page 95, where he says, clarity is having a clear understanding of, clarity is the ability to effectively communicate, to be clear is to maintain an accountability mind-set. So clarity is more than communication in terms of neuroscience it's a biological need to know where one is going, to know where the next meal will come from. These are very old primal instincts in the human brain. The wonderful thing about actually what we are doing here is raising it to another level. So the creative leadership actually takes these biological models although Rama you know, was working away and beavering away at this without realising there's so much more value in it than just leadership model. Because when we introduce reasoning into it. For example, there is a biological need to be clear about something. A mother needs to be clear that this is my offspring and therefore they include that person in their love. But it's not so when is something that doesn't concern us. Then we need to use the prefrontal cortex, you need to use reasoning in order to actually include people, to be clear about relationships, to be clear about accessibility and what clarity does in this model is by having an accountability mind-set. By developing communication skills, you're working this prefrontal cortex area of the brain in which you are empathically thinking about how it lands somewhere else. And you're guiding yourself. It's a self-regulating model. You're self-regulating your thoughts. You're regulating emotion in order to land somewhere else. In order to be accessible to and be accessed by and to that extent clarity is you know a really huge part of, or one of the foundational aspects of the three aspects. I hope that was clear.

NEIL:

Yeah, so thank you. I think it's really interesting because we live in times of great ambiguity and to a certain extent there has been a huge amount of talk about resilience and that resilience requires us to be able to cope with that ambiguity and those that are doing well right now are those that have developed some way of sense making from this complexity and that are able to either, like Rama did with the relationship, come to terms with the fact that it will always be ambiguous and the clarity is that that is the case and move on. Or that they can find a way of, like the mother, determining what is relevant to them and so I think that this is particularly the case in terms of accessibility. The lack of clarity is to what organisations need to be, to be inclusive because of the diversity of different types of disability, different disability models, cultures, ethnicity. You name it. It's hugely complex. Connect as a barrier to us taking any action on inclusion. So, how can we use the three legs of the stool to make sure that we don't get into sort of analysis paralysis and actually do something and take positive steps to lead and be more inclusive and to start being the tide that raises all the boats etc?

RAMA:

This is a great question Neil and the simple answer is balance. The three values are a tripartite model. They are a sort of trifle model. They feed into each other and they balance. There are days when only empathy is needed. But there are days when only clarity will save the day. You know, we say in the book, at the end of empathy or over empathy, that is when you need clarity and each of these, you know if we look at the world of accessibility and inclusivity, it can be on be unbewildering when you start to look at individual needs and assessments. Very often, you know when we first started our work with our autistic adults, people living with autism, one of the things we heard from an expert if you meet a 100 people with autism, you have met a hundred different people. It's not the film with Dustin Hoffman and you know Rain Man basically and Tom Cruise. So empathy, clarity and creativity are active dynamic forces. A simple way of remembering them is head, heart and hand because we speak about clarity, you know, having tones of the head, of intellect of decision making you know if you only have clarity you may be some kind of despot and dictator who are often very clear in their missions. We don't need to look too far nowadays to see that. Empathy, if you only have empathy you may be seen as a weather vane leader, listening to the last opinion and kind of over exhausting yourself and if you only have creativity without emphatic practice or the direction and the motivation of clarity, you may be a bicycle with no chain, peddling hard and going nowhere. So we have done a lot of work on how these values interact. How they balance and rebalance each other and you know one thing Melanie brought in when she came into this work is she said, you know they are ever changing, ever dynamic value a part of our work as human beings is to look at the interplay. And when I look at the world of inclusivity and accessibility, I'm rather inspired by an internet wit, you could throw away all internet manuals, if you were to live under the banner, be kind and in some ways, you know clarity, empathy, creativity it's about navigating the dotted line between simplicity and complexity because human beings live the full dimensions of their life. Whatever their ability. Whatever their needs and how do we understand and address that? So I think going back to the start of my answer, it's really about balance and one of the book chapters is actually called achieving balance. And it speaks to the dynamic play between the two and very final thing before I hand over to Melanie is balance has its kind of yogic meditative spiritual sense. But balance is a dynamic thing too. You know, the plane on the ground is a lumbering giant, up in the sky it's a weightless bird. A plane is making thousands of micro adjustments to stay in the air, but that is dynamic balance. Also an athlete, also someone in a wheelchair, wheeling themselves through Oxford Circus station about it's accessible. Thinking of you know someone then the mother carrying her baby, as Melanie brought out, a human being walking, all of these are activities of dynamic balance. So I think that is what we mean talk when we talk about balance, it's not withdrawing from life and sitting under a tree. It's an active progressive dynamic but centred thing.

MELANIE:

I'll just jump in here. I really love that question Neil about how do you have clarity in a VUCA world and I think the first thing is for human beings to be able to put these crates into practice is to drop the stress response, which is what VUCA does when there is volatility and uncertainty and chaos. Both cognitively and what is happening in the Ukraine now, people are biologically scared for their lives. And I think for the first thing is to deal with our stress response. To be comfortable with the fact that there are things that you are conscious about in terms of VUCA, you know, what is uncertain, you know, being comfortable there are some things you're conscious about and that straightaway starts to move you to, Rama called a balance, into a place of power, when you say what in this VUCA world, what in this VUCA situation, am I conscious about. I don't know where my next meal is coming from or whether I will have safety to go to Poland, you know whatever. Taking the Ukrainian situation. There are things that I have no consciousness about and that is my own actions for example when something comes up to things that I just don't have access to because they are unconscious but there is another aspect where things are just not known. When human beings are able to be comfortable with that. The first impulse that comes from VUCA, when you're comfortable with VUCA, with any kind of uncertainty or chaos or temporariness that is threatening, is creativity, that prefrontal cortex starts to take over because the autonomic system, the stress response decreases. That is where this balance that Rama is talking about, like a pilot where you've got three million chemical hits in the body because of your thinking. But where that thinking comes from starts to change in the location in the brain where that thinking starts to come from changes. And that is where you're able to then apply creativity, which then empathy and you know clarity and this is like another cycle of events, an iterative process that feeds on itself.

ANTONIO:

Quite frequently in our organisations, we try to address innovation in many different ways. Sometimes they go externally; try to find something outside and they bring it inside because they feel that there are not enough people inside their organisation that can be innovative. Others they prefer to acquire innovation that looks to others and they do her mergers and acquisition. But I think in the element you are talking about there is also an element of corrective listening to the people that are around you. So following that, how can we apply creative leadership to collective organisations for them to become more inclusive themselves?

MELANIE:

Rama this is definitely yours. I was fiddling with mute buttons.

RAMA:

So creative leadership is born from several instances of dissatisfaction with the world around and gentle dissatisfaction because you don't want to stay in a complete state of dissatisfaction all the time. One of them was looking at a very simple question, when we want to change an organisation, we often go to a consultancy whether it's a creative one, a management one, and you know organisational change consultants. When we want to change individually it's do more yoga, go running, spend some time watching sunsets and these two worlds have not seem to meet in my life. You go away for a weekend and then you come back and then youre stressed by the 500 emails you have missed. So in the book, a little passage, a little quote from it says carrots and consultants are not an answer in themselves. So you know, eating more carrots or hiring more consultants is not an answer, it's about bringing the two together. Why do we expect people to be one way at work and one way at home? So what is the truest sense of self and this is what creative leadership aims to bring you too because your truest sense of self is not defined by your ability, your disability, you skin colour, your gender. Your truest sense of self is an internal journey which will have an external effect. So creative leadership looks to address those changes, those needs within the individual, within the group, within the department, within the project, within the organisation. So it's internally facing and outwardly facing as well. So Mel, I don't know if you wanted to add something.

MELANIE:

I was going to say because creativity, empathy and clarity. They begin with the strength of this model is that it encourages self-regulation and self-regulation of cognition, thought, emotion behaviours. And also the practice of it, the deliberate practice of actually building emphatic skills or the deliberate practice of choosing to halt a habitual response. Every time you do that, you're actually interfering with a system in the brain, a connected system in the brain and when you start practising this deliberately, what you have is the ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation is something that human beings can learn very well from each other. We have in our brains something called mirror neurons and self-regulation, just self-regulation is a very powerful skill and it tends to hold the room. The person that is most self-regulated in the highest value emotion, let's say we are having a disciplinary hearing, the Judge who is there and who is actually holding court. The reason why everybody looks up. One of the aspects of being a judge rather than a lawyer, for example, not that there is any kind of status difference between the two is the thought processes, the cognition, the behaviour and the emotion that a judge practices and learns to actually exhibit is very different. It's palpable in a room and so Antonio your question about how does this actually play out as a group, that self-regulation, when it becomes collective is absolutely powerful. That is that brand thing you hear about regularly when you go oh this is an Ivy league university or Google is one of those, you talk about the culture of them and when you look underneath at what those cultures are and what those brands, what they are doing today in the world, you can very easily pick out these three aspects of behaviour. They are not the only behaviours but they are very strong. They are very much part of the DNA. So that is how that collectively mirror neurons help but of course collective learning is fabulous for this and where we get together and practice these skills.

ANTONIO:

So I have a follow up question on that is, we know that many of us, we are all here connected remotely from our homes. Many people at work, this became our normal. But at the same time many of us are spending our full days on meetings. So that is not really ideal for what we want to achieve as a kind of wellbeing. How can, you know considering this type of reality that we are in, what type of ideas and suggestions do you have in order to break away from this type of day to day writing that forces you to go into that type of a that work is putting us on and some people not able to escape from it, you know. They are afraid of saying no, I can't go to that meeting but we are on that meeting there is someone important and they might miss you. So people have to face all these challenges. So what is your take on this?

MELANIE:

Rama, do you want to go first?

RAMA:

I was going to volunteer you.

MELANIE:

I'll jump in there because this is a really important question. From neuroscience perspective, there is a worry about that the need that we are deciding really important things, we are discussing really important things and we are doing this on this flat screen. Not only that, in a usual meeting. We are not used to seeing our face. You are actually talking to other people. You are getting the reaction and these mirror neurons are able to actually work. In the brain, for somebody like myself there is the worry about the sensory input that we are missing. Let's just start from there. As those areas are working less, what effect does that have on behaviours, on social behaviours? These are really, really important questions. And the fact that we sit at our desks. You know, much more than we do have meetings sitting down but we can have it in different stimuli. We can have in a coffee shop. We can have it, you know in the office room if you know that stifles us or we can have it in front, where there is light hitting our eyes. We don't have control over that during Covid. That control has been taken away. That is the first thing. The second is people process information differently. Some people need 3D. I need 3D. I really do not like, every now again, my eyes going back to, oh, how my hair is doing on this meeting. It really is unusual for us to actually work like that. You know, so for a neuro scientist this is really worrying. In terms of how do we solve it, I think technology will go to some degree to be able to create three dimensional; it's just not the same. What our brains will look like in 2000 years if we continue to go down this route is anybody's guess. But you know, having said that, we built a fabulous new space, three proper space where the Helen Hamlyn Center just moved into, so please come in there and please and engage with us, engage with the objects we make and the prototypes we built. So Rama I'll hand over to you.

RAMA:

So it's just the short further comments to that. You know the email was a great answer, Mel. I think one anecdote to just actually bring people back into the room together and look at the difference. So as Mel says, our new building opened last week and we had our first series of meetings. The personalities, the connectivity. The 4D reading of the room was so incredibly different. I think in a two hour meeting which would have felt like torture online. But it was an ideation meeting. It felt so energised and I think we got through five times as much. I would say being on a 2D screen is a disabling condition, mentally, physically, spiritually. In many ways the Pandemic brought the world to a standstill but in a way that many people with disabilities have to live with every day in so many limited and limiting circumstances. So I would hope that people actually step forward from that, with a sense of empathy and don't get comfortable in your pyjamas in the living room because the flipside, we also see from the companies we work with and those around us is, people complained about needing to be at home and people are complaining about going back in the office and sometimes you hear people saying well I can do all that I need to do from home. Can you live life from the same room, the same four walls, where you know someone pipes in food, electricity, lighting because the other word for that is prison. So think of it spiritually. Think of your human spirit and think of its need, as Mel says to actually see the world in four dimensions. You know so the three dimensions of physicality but the fourth dimensions of emotional reading and sensory reading. And if all else fails this was part of our creative leadership workshops is go and smell something citrus because it will activate some of those creative channels in the brain and if you need to rest, looking out my window right now, I can see green in the distance, there's a wall of trees in the distance. So go and stare at some green in the middle distance and it will help reset you.

NEIL:

Makes a huge difference. I think we have lost the time and space to ruminate which is really important for good decision making and ideas. We have hit the buffers on our time; I could continue this conversation for ages. So I just need to thank My Clear Text for helping us out with the captions. Thank Rama and Melanie. Look forward to you joining us on Twitter on Tuesday. Fantastic, thank you very much and look forward to reading the book on creative leadership. Thank you.

MELANIE:

Thanks all bye, bye.

RAMA:

Thank you Neil and Antonio. Page | 9