12min read

Learning from mistakes

At glocolearning, we stand for openness and connection, courage and humility, for ourselves and others. Glocolearning is a start-up social enterprise that facilitates co-learning and co-creation processes for food systems change.

The name glocolearning stands for global – local collaborative learning in action, with a bit of ‘loco’ in there, in the spirit of “Those who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” (Steve Jobs)

Glocolearning was born out of learning - learning by doing, by connecting, by trial and error, and by mistake. This over my 20 year career as a researcher on biodiversity in food systems, and also as a mum of two daughters.

Many stories build upon the connection between successes and strengths that people have built up or discovered over time. But this story builds upon the connection between three mistakes that provided fertile ground for glocolearning:

1. The spotlighting innovation mistake 

As a researcher, I co-developed an agrobiodiversity index, to bring together multiple dimensions of measuring and managing agrobiodiversity for sustainable food systems. The idea had come up over an informal lunch meeting with colleagues where we brainstormed together. It was then suggested we presented it to the upcoming board.

The communication team came in. Links with many partners were established. A real spotlight was put on it. We got extra motivated by the interest, but we were honestly too disconnected from the expectations that were being raised from various angles. Through the spotlight, the idea and the narrative around it started to live a life of itself.

A long story short: while originally motivated by the attention and interest, we lost a lot of time and energy trying to meet different expectations that we didn’t fully understand. This caused frustrations on both sides. We ultimately switched gears and actively took the spotlight off of the agrobiodiversity index, creating more quiet space to jointly and more deeply learn, together with partners, how to best advance the science for triggering real change in action for agrobiodiversity management.

While perhaps obvious for many, for me it was a real-life lesson learned of how important it is to create a safe space for collaborative learning, to openly discuss weaknesses along with strengths, and to more deeply understand each other to contribute to transformative change.

Meanwhile, the agrobiodiversity index has been taken up by the Global Biodiversity Framework agreement from Montreal-Kunming (in particular thanks to efforts by partner country representatives), we published global findings in Nature Food, and we’re building on lessons learned with the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) and the Climate Bonds Initiative.

2. The local wedding mistake

For field work, I was based in Kisumu in Western Kenya for a while, when a Kenyan colleague invited me to his wedding. I was very honored. Eager to embrace the local culture and to fit in, I went to a local tailor and had a fully-traditional Kenyan dress made, with head piece and all.

But when I arrived at the wedding, I immediately noticed that all the Kenyans were wearing modern clothes and I was the only one in a traditional dress. So there I was as the only musungu (white person) and the only one in a traditional African dress. (My Kenyan friends still laugh about it.) This taught me a lot about how we make assumptions about what is local, what is global, and how both interact with each other.

3. The learning mistake

I learn from my kids every day. I also make mistakes with them every day. One thing they have shown me very clearly is that they learn from trial and error, that they fall many times and stand up again, that they build constructions that crash but ultimately fly. They are not afraid to fall (we as parents are) and in general learn quickly.

Observing how kids learn, I noticed that I myself was increasingly tended and asked to particularly promote, focus on and learn from successes. And the bigger the research grants or programs became, the more important it was to showcase and spotlight success. That honestly left very limited time and space to learn from mistakes, from vulnerabilities and from key moments where you don’t think ‘eureka’ but ‘hmmm, that’s funny’ or ‘argh, that was not what I expected’.

As I was more and more asked to promote, scale and build upon successes, and to act as a fully confident expert in my field, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Over time, and with support of professional coaching, I realized that I felt more authentic and courageous if I could also deeply learn from mistakes, from ‘unlearned lessons learned,’ and from better understanding very different perspectives. In the background was the increased polarization in society and in food systems, the social media visibility & tunnel culture, and an overload of scientific publications, data and AI.

The start of glocolearning

That’s where the idea of glocolearning started and further developed step by step. At glocolearning, we facilitate deep collaborative learning and co-creation processes for food systems change in action, across personal, local and global scales. We bring a diversity of food systems actors, scientific disciplines, art and other knowledge together, and create space for new ways of learning from each other, connecting, thinking and doing by using co-creation and co-learning methodologies.

E.g. we supported SMEs in Ethiopia and Nigeria in an innovation challenge to co-learn and sharpen their proposals through visioning, backcasting and anticipating potential synergies and tradeoffs of their innovation, in collaboration with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). With The Nature Conservancy, we facilitate the co-creation of a foodscape initiative around Mount Kenya, bringing together farming and conservation communities alongside governments, business, NGOs, and researchers.

With Wageningen University, we led a cross-disciplinary backcasting process on food systems for healthier diets as part of a hybrid course, that brings together 50 professionals and 50 students. We always create explicit space to jointly learn from the past and look into the future, to discover how things can be done to benefit both people and nature.

We don’t know the end of the glocolearning story yet, but as we further develop it, I also keep learning a lot myself. And to have that space to actively listen and learn with an open mind, to not need to have the answers ready, to know that if I fall, I can stand up and learn, feels very liberating and empowering. I hope that glocolearning can give that feeling to others and contribute to openness and connection, courage and humility, for transformative food systems change.