S1. E6. Rowan Conway

Rowan Conway (LinkedIn, Twitter, UCL) is Visiting Professor of Strategic Design at UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP). Between 2019-2022 she worked with Professor Mariana Mazzucato to lead the Mission Oriented Innovation Network (MOIN) at IIPP, convening global policy-making institutions in a range of exploratory design projects focused on mission-oriented innovation and public value creation.

Rowan was Director of Innovation at the Royal Society of Arts, part of the Design Team for London 2012 Olympic Park, amongst many roles. She holds an MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice from the University of Bath and is a PhD Candidate at IIPP.

A very rich conversation, and so goes to 44 minutes.There is some small swearing when Rowan applies venture logic to addressing climate change (‘climate unicorns is b*ll*cks’). Apologies for both!.

Two key quotes (of many):
-If the dominant mode of entrepreneurialism is the venture mode, then we are on the path to wealthy hell.
-Living life as inquiry has really helped in terms of personal groundedness. Doing micro-experiments, being able to sort of take my own experience, and, and observe it through a process of kind of trying something, seeing if it works or not.



  • Elinor Ostrom on wikipedia here.
  • The RSA’s Power to Create explained in 2014 here.
  • Neoliberalism on wikipedia here.
  • Experimental psychology on wikipedia here.
  • Coloniality of power on wikipedia here and of power on wikipedia here.
  • ‘Think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ – Matthew Taylor (when head of the RSA) wrote about this in a blog here and a report (with Rowan) here.
  • “Living Life As Inquiry” by Judi Marshall (one of the initiators of the Masters Rown refers to at about 33 minutes) can be downloaded here.
  • First person action inquiry: “Reason and Torbert (2001) describe first-person research as encompassing those “skills and methods [that] address the ability of the researcher to foster an inquiring approach to his or her own life, to act awaredly and choicefully, and to assess effects in the outside world while acting.” As such, first-person research is research that we do by ourselves on ourselves.”


0:52 – Q1 What are you doing now? And how did you get there?
4:33 — BONUS QUESTION: What is inside the boundaries of design practice?
6:51 — Q2. What is the future you are trying to create, and why?
26:40 – Q3. What are your priorities for the next few years, and why?
33:01 – Q4. If someone was inspired to follow those priorities, what should they do next?
38:51 – Q5. If your younger self was starting their career now, what advice would you give them?
40:15 Q6. Who would you nominate to answer these questions, because you admire their approach?
42:15 Q7. Is there anything else important you feel you have to say?

Key points

-“I’ve had my design skills in a in a suitcase since I when I went to art college, you know, in back in many moons ago. And I brought them out in many contexts. And now I’m applying them to new economic thinking.”

“I’m not 100% sure that I’m trying to create a singular future, I am minded that I think that we won’t be able to thrive in a world where we try to reduce further in terms of the reductionist conceit of what life is.”

-“In recent times, we’ve narrowed to the sort of economic logics of both the state and then we have the market, but we don’t really have anything outside of that. I think sustainability is not about a future that is organised by the state, and you’re provided of a variety of basic services, and then everything else is the market and consumption.”

-“I think that there’s something far more pluralistic that we need to discover as humans about how to live together in the more complex world that we have indeed created, but we’ll be getting evermore complicated.”

“I don’t know that I’m trying to create anything other than I’m exploring what it is to have conversations and experimentation in an era where things are overtly complex. hat is it to live with a deep diversity?”

-Actually not really that interested in how we think about the configuration of our economy [in the big abstract sense of state vs market] but in how we organise life, what might once have been called the ethereal. So what is life outside of the reductionism of the state and the market?

-“Elinor Ostrom probably took us the furthest by saying there’s something called the Commons, and we need to understand that the Commons accounts for these things outside of what is seen as market and state”

-Trying to do is to have a language that we can describe things which are outside of just market and state (which Ostrom talks about commons) that bring to life and bring to visibility, ways of living, and ways of doing, which then mean we can see the whole set (market, state and more) to live the life that we want to live.

-The institutional form of the tech startup that then became big tech and assimilated stuff incredibly rapidly [and was key in the scissor graph of wealth inequality of the Global North]. That’s cut a sort of psychological cloth of how things work in business == a venture logic, which has gone in almost silently.

-The Silicon Valley model of innovation has become extremely mimetic in and been absorbed into our consciousness as this is how we do things, your ventures logic, and the ventures logic is profoundly winners takes all, which can then work against the public outcomes that was the reason for trying the innovation in the first place.

-As a designer, my job is to help people see how greenwashing could be really be weaponised [and also other attempts at solutions that fail, whether intentional or no].

-How do I operate in my job as a person acting with kind of integrity? These are really important questions that we need to start asking ourselves, but they’re really hard. So we also need to get to this space of part of my I bang on about being human, of psychological safety, of being able to sit together and have these conversations and witness it. And it’s really difficult.

-Summarising Rowan’s argument: there is a dominant economic logic, which is suffusing almost all of the ways in which we’re trying to engage with the world with the venture logic. Where that logic dominates, other things are much harder, if not impossible to put into practice. Therefore, that doesn’t lead to real solutions. So, if you’re interested in solutions, then you also have to question that logic. But in questioning that logic, you expose yourself to the fact that the sea you are swimming in is actually probably poisoning. At an individual human level is a shock to realise that what you think of as normal, is recent, and damaging. And also to realise that maybe we don’t know what could replace it yet. We don’t know what is next. And for you, one of the ways of finding what is next is by being very focused on the human centred design.

-The human question is not just ‘Oh, what happened?’ It’s also: was I responsible? How much of this havoc did I wreak? And what how do I deal with that? How do I how do I cope with maybe what we did wasn’t great.

-A design process for Immersing people in the framing logics — from the internal, individual logics through the institutional logics up to the macro economic/societal logics — which can take them to a space of ‘thinking like a system, acting like an entrepreneur’.

-We need more plurality than seeing solution in a start-up.

-Experimenting and trying to create a craft or a practice, which allows people to see a plurality experiences and therefore move into their design process with a broader sense of what they need to do, and what they need to explore to come up with the ways forward to their challenge. So they don’t just default to the dominant, usual tools.

-Free up the language of entrepreneurialism from just markets, or just state (which Marianna Mazzucato has done well) to include civic goods, missions, impacts. Unlocking entrepreneurialism from its past dependency on ventures (and solving other people’s problems).

-If the dominant mode of entrepreneurialism is the venture mode, then we are on the path to wealthy hell.

-Living life as inquiry has really helped in terms of my own groundedness. Doing micro-experiments, being able to sort of take my own experience, and, and observe it through a process of kind of trying something, seeing if it works or not.

-Taking hot failure of the agenda. Don’t hurt yourself deliberately, but fundamentally expect to have to go through painful experiences in order to learn from them.

-Career stance: Having curiosity and having mission orientation on creating the conditions for a better world. Doing the work that is needed until can contribute no further, and then moving on.

-Advice to young people: cut loose a bit and enjoy life.

-“That’s your life’s work and that’s your dissertation: know the difference.”


1 thought on “S1. E6. Rowan Conway

  1. Pingback: S1. E30. Daianna Karaian | David Bent

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