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Chewing over Wuthering Bytes: leadership learning in our globally connected age

Wuthering Bytes is a festival of technology that takes place almost in my own back yard, in Hebden Bridge, a hike away from the dramatic moorland of Bronte country. Now in its 6th year, this annual romp through the many dimensions of tech is a thought-provoking delight. I’ve come away with a stack of interesting material to chew over. My notebook is a mass of untidy, enthusiastic scribbles telling me stories about Tesla coils and tea shops, gamma rays and guitars, satellites and air sensors.

The Festival Day programme is nothing if not eclectic – we sit side by side in a Pennine valley and peer into many different worlds in the space of few hours. It’s part of the joy of Wuthering Bytes to take a hop, skip and a jump across disciplines and appreciate the extraordinary diversity of what we humans choose to get up to. This year I’m particularly noticing community, collaboration and criticality as the leadership learning themes that ebb and flow through the Festival Day presentations.

Community, collaboration and criticality

All of the above feature strongly in JP Rangaswami‘s opening keynote. He stresses the importance of community, diversity and the need to connect differently skilled communities to collaborate and solve problems. His question, “What use is one telephone?” captures the sentiment nicely and sends a ripple of appreciative laughter around the room. I’m struck by his deep commitment to inclusivity: everyone has something to bring and contribute; not everyone gives in the same way or at the same volume; we’ll lose sight of so much – and so many – until we re-examine our criteria about what constitutes value.

JP calls upon the world of work to design structures and processes that encourage collaborative learning rather than adversarial relationships. He asks whether technologies might learn to bring time and tempo into our lives, making space for all that we gain from the hours spent interacting in our communities; he speaks of our need to know that what we do matters to someone. It’s a keynote that moves from tech to human to tech and back again, questioning assumptions with a critical inquisitiveness that reaches towards an ultimately optimistic social change agenda.

The communities thread carries forward as the morning progresses. Claire Garside tells us about collaborating with children and families on physical computing projects that use sensors to gather air quality information. Access to data shapes awareness and choice – insight into our immediate environment might encourage us to step back from the road when waiting to cross, walk a different route to work or arrange to meet others in green spaces. The piece of technology in her hand is also “an object to think with” – an opportunity to slow down and reflect – what’s its role, how does it help to create change?

What’s its role?

A number of unlikely objects help me to think about the unfamiliar subject of antimatter, thanks to Heather Williams‘ engaging methods for demonstrating the innards of a PET scanner. She uses doorknobs, ping pong balls, ribbons and a hula hoop to illustrate what occurs inside these mysterious machines (NB she uses a plastic hoop, not the savoury snack – a point of confusion I don’t anticipate until I told this story to a friend of mine). I notice how skilfully she builds a bridge between the depth of her specialist expertise and the shallows of my near-total ignorance about nuclear medicine. It’s a delight to be invited into a seemingly inaccessible world and learn about radio active isotopes and positron-emitting sugar injections in such an inventive and memorable way.

Michael Dales takes me somewhere completely different again – the fascinating tale of a software engineer building custom electric guitars in his spare time. This presentation speaks to the heart of learning and innovation, charting the many iterations through which he develops his knowledge and skills as a maker. The importance of collaboration and community to learning is paramount. He tells us of the many benefits of working in a makerspace with “people who know there are more than two kinds of screwdriver”. It’s a great shorthand for reaching beyond the boundaries of what we know to learn from others who have more nuanced, specialist forms of knowledge and expertise than our own.

More than two types, apparently

Michael touches on many pertinent questions for developing practical wisdom: where to place your time and focus; when to draw upon/outsource to others rather than developing your own skills; how and where to set expectations in scoping a project; how to define what success looks like… and how long to persist. He stresses that seeing a project through to completion has value – completing a full cycle of making yields the greatest benefits to learning.

One of many pragmatic innovations that emerge from his interdisciplinary process is a Fretboard Template Generator, a meeting of JavaScript and woodworking through which a useful tool was developed and shared with the guitar-building community. Each unique instrument is very much his own creation but their stories demonstrate the ways in which working alone is nonetheless a collaborative undertaking, shaped by connections with others. When he posts an apparent failure on Instagram he anticipates expressions of sympathy but instead receives techniques for fixing the problem. In “normalising the fact that bad things happen” he opens up a dialogue and discovers a new way forward where none was previously apparent.

Learning and innovating together

This year’s Wuthering Bytes reconfirms to me that relationships are the lifeblood of learning, creativity and change, something that shines through in stories of practice just as much as in innovation textbooks. A key message for leadership learning is the value to be gained from navigating the tricky business of building and developing diverse teams; we need to learn from our differences to reap the benefits of living together in a globally connected age.

Our connections with others disrupt our familiar ways of knowing, sparking deeper learning and critical reflection. They enable skills development and open up new opportunities. They inspire us to imagine new methods for communicating. They underpin our success in all kinds of significant ways. When Michael says it matters to him that there’s “someone out there who hopes that I succeed” I silently wish him well and thank him for opening up his world to me.

My takeaway Wuthering Byte-size learning? How much we need one another.