In the first week of June we joined our partners Impact International for their annual event, Learnfest. Emily Auckland reflects on what she learnt at this one-of-a-kind event on the shores of Lake Windermere.

Aside from the novelty of spending three days in the beauty and splendour of the Lake District, Impact International’s Learnfest is a learning event with a difference. As one of the world’s leading organisations working in learning and development (L&D) they host this innovative and immersive festival-inspired event every year in yurts, tipis and marquees beside Lake Windermere.

Sounds like fun? It is. It’s three intense and absorbing days that brings together experiential workshops, fascinating headline speakers and adventurous fringe activities. Being part of Learnfest left me feeling rejuvenated and energised. Not just in myself, but for the work we need to do to make the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a reality.

Impact International has been a partner of UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development for almost a year now. But I hadn’t fully understood how its work and the work of learning and development professionals connects with the SDGs or sustainability agenda. But now I do and there are three things I think we all need to recognise.

1. Leadership is changing

When you ask someone what leadership is, too often the answer is a senior decision-maker in business or society. We hold up a figurehead and believe it’s leadership. In reality, we all have the potential to be leaders if we choose to be.

Leadership is not solely about the position you hold, it’s the way you work with other people. If you’ve read any of Simon Sinek’s work, then you probably know that effective leaders create a safe space for others to thrive in. At Learnfest, the brilliant Deborah Frances-White used comedy to show how we subconsciously include or exclude ourselves or others from any given situation. Including people and creating a safe space for them is something you can chose to do once you start to recognise how you are operating within a power dynamic and the behaviours that you yourself demonstrate. When you start to do this, you start to demonstrate true leadership.

2. Give learning and development the credit it deserves

During our workshop and discussions about the SDGs it was clear that individuals and teams that we wouldn’t normally associate with sustainability are already doing it. They’re aware of the impact they could have on the bigger picture issues even if they don’t have all the answers. Those of us working in sustainability need to realise this too, and find better ways to work with them.

This work goes beyond the volunteering or fundraising activities we might immediately associate with employee development or CSR programmes. I heard from a leading technology company about the leadership development programmes they’re running that have paired individuals with third sector organisations who don’t have the resources they need to exploit new areas of work, or where staff have opted to explore circular business models instead of traditional business management modules. The woman who led this work was fully aware that she could create a change if she brought some of the ‘real world’ in to their workplace and then gave staff the space to use their skills on things they care about. 

We heard from an amazing 18-year-old student who’s researched Generation Z and could tell us how employers need to adapt to accommodate a new workforce. We learnt about the impact of technology and digital solutions. We learnt about creativity, innovating, disrupting and being agile. The learning and development sector is looking to the future and is reacting in the same way that those working in sustainability are. We have the potential to do much more if we collaborate.

3. We need to embrace our humanity

On explaining the need to shift organising structures to make business future fit, Giles Hutchins touched on the fact that to do this we must embrace our humanity. At a workshop, he explained the complexity of the systems operating within our own bodies – our minds, the organs in our digestive system, our hearts. Through an exercise he demonstrated how connecting these complex systems to work in harmony with each other could help us in our work. How?

The session highlighted the natural tensions that exist in both our organisations and our lives and how these are dynamic and shifting. We often talk of systems thinking or looking at the connectedness or interrelated nature of sustainable development and the SDGs, but we often neglect the person we are in relation to that. To deliver the SDGs we must focus on our own humanity too. That might mean looking after our own wellbeing or developing our skills as individuals, or it might mean channelling our efforts into enabling others, or both, or all. That’s the point, this is a dynamic and changing system, by understanding and bringing ourselves in to the process we can respond better.   

Learnfest forwards

The captivating discussions, reflective experiences and pure joy of Learnfest has left me feeling enthused for the potential work UKSSD and our learning and development partners could do. It feels like there’s real opportunity to achieve some serious and significant impacts, not just on the organisations in our network but on the way that UKSSD itself could move forwards.

To make the SDGs a success we must bring all people together and move forwards. If we’ve learnt anything in the last two years of fractured politics in the UK, it should be that we all have a responsibility to reach out and find a way to work with others. It feels like L&D might be one way.   

Learnfest has taught me one major lesson. We need to stop every now and again to learn, to play and to grow and only when we do that will we be fit to make the sort of change we need to.

Find out more about Impact International and Learnfest here and get in touch if you work in L&D and want to talk about how we can work together to make the SDGs a success in the UK.