An interview with Cabot Institute Manager

Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

As the second cohort of the Pale Blue Dot Org gets underway, we have decided to revisit some of those from the first group to hear their reflections on the course; what they have taken away and how their learning has fit with their own lives and work.


Philippa Bayley, Manager of the Cabot Institute, trained as a scientist. Struck by the beauty of human development from a single cell, she completed a PhD in Developmental Neuroscience. Philippa found herself interested in how people come to think about things so differently from one another and began to work in Science Education. This included exploring how to create events that enable people to see other perspectives and change their own perceptions.

She has been in her role as Manager of the Cabot Institute for just over a year. The organisation researches ‘risks and uncertainty in a changing environment’ and their areas of interest include climate change, natural hazards, food and energy security, resilience and governance, and human impacts on the environment. Philippa’s role brings together her scientific background with her passion for community engagement and education.

“A systems approach can inspire us to transform how we think about the world and appreciate the interconnections between humanity and nature…”

Philippa says that she was drawn to the course due to her developing interest in systems thinking. This curiosity had been piqued by a talk about the causes of obesity. Divided over whether diet or lack of exercise was the main foundation for obesity, the Government Foresight Programme had developed a systems map of the contributing factors to obesity. This map revealed the true extent of the interconnections between a whole range of elements – from diet and exercise to food education and fears of child security – that drove, influenced and impacted one another.

Philippa comments: “I was really impressed by this map and I became interested in the role that systems thinking could play in understanding, and tackling, other issues. I considered doing a master’s programme in Systems Thinking at the Open University but was attracted by the notion of the taster course that Pale Blue Dot Org was offering.”

She was hopeful for what systems thinking can offer, suggesting that: “there can be too much single issue campaigning and polarisation of positions in the environmental movement and I feel that systems thinking can offer a more useful holistic approach.”

She adds: “A systems approach can also inspire us to transform how we think about the world and appreciate the interconnections between humanity and nature. I feel that encouraging an understanding of this is much more constructive than railroading people into change.”

“Systems thinking is not a simple skill to be learned…It is a very individual journey”

Philippa says that initially she was expecting a more ‘taught’ approach to the course and that she wanted to come away with ‘tools’ that she could implement in her work. She reflects, however, that she quickly realised that: “It is down to me. It is down to how much effort I am willing to put in. People are busy, they want bitesize solutions but solutions to issues are not sitting out there waiting to be found. It will need to be a process of continual engagement. Systems thinking can help with this process but it is not a simple skill to be learned. The course gave me a starting point and my understanding of what systems thinking is, and what it can do, will continue to develop. It is a very individual journey and this was a vital lesson to learn.”

Philippa says that she also really enjoyed the development of the relationships within the group and the thoughtfulness of course leader Martin Sandbrook’s approach, which set the tone for the sessions and created an atmosphere for mindfulness and respect for one another’s opinions.

She also enjoyed how the subject matter often connected with her work, commenting; “One of my favourite quotations is ‘We teach as we are’ and I think that ‘We learn as we are’ is also true. The strands that I picked out from the course are the ones that fitted with my life and work.”

On a final note, Philippa adds: “The most important thing I will take away from the course is that anything that looks linear and simple is probably not an accurate representation of what is going on! Human beings are messy and we have to be willing to get messy too because there are no simple solutions to serious issues.”

by Emmelie Brownlee

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