The Beehive Experiment

With over 1500 people attending 35 events during this year’s Fire Starter Festival we know that there is an appetite for sharing creativity, innovation and burning questions around how we can transform public services. However, we were conscious that many people were restricted in the number of events they could attend and we didn’t manage to capture the ways in which people were inspired to do something differently: on and individual, team or organisational basis.

For next year’s festival we thought we could try a ‘Beehive Experiment’ which we hope would allow greater sharing of learning and the opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas. Groups will be formed with members drawn from a variety of public services. Each member of a hive would go along to a different Fire Starter Festival event and then review the impact with their hive.beehiveWe piloted the Beehive Experiment with a smaller scale hive using events and shows over the course of the Edinburgh Festivals. Before sharing some of that impact and the questions raised here’s a little more information on the concept.

The Beehive Experiment is the result of a few strands of thinking and reflection around how we can collectively share learning, produce ideas and actions, rather than learning (and action) remaining with an individual. At its heart, it is about cross-pollination: how we can introduce ideas that haven’t met before, from diverse, creative people from a variety of disciplines and public services.  Could the cross-pollination lead to new ideas and innovation?

The experiment draws from cooperative learning where successful cooperative learning tasks are described as “as intellectually demanding, creative, open-ended, and involve higher order thinking” (Ross & Smythe, 1995). The historical roots of cooperative learning can be placed with social theorists such as Allport, Watson, Shaw, and Mead finding that group work was more effective and efficient when compared to working alone. This was further developed by researchers like May and Doob who found that people who cooperate and work together to achieve shared goals were more successful in attaining outcomes than those who strived independently to complete the same goals.

Philosophers and psychologists in the 1930s and 1940s such as John Dewey and Kurt Lewin, have also contributed to the cooperative learning approach with an emphasis on the importance of how knowledge and social skills can be used outside of the classroom in a democratic society. By fully engaging in the learning process, peer teaching and the development of inquiry, learners move from passive receivers of information to teachers and creators.

From a completely different angle I was introduced to the Beehive Design Collective by my ex-colleague and friend Jerry O’Neill. Within the context of a discussion around dream jobs he introduced me to the Collective and I was immediately drawn to the ethos and the underpinning values.

“The Beehive Design Collective is a wildly motivated, all-volunteer, activist arts collective dedicated to ‘cross-pollinating the grassroots’ by creating collaborative, anti-copyright images for use as educational and organizing tools. We work as word-to-image translators of complex global stories, shared with us through conversations with affected communities.

We seek to cut out the constant queries of ‘who made that?’ and ‘how much does it cost?’ from our creative process. We work anonymously by crediting every graphic we make to the collective as a whole; you won’t find the names of individual artists listed anywhere.”

The Beehive Collective, along with cooperative learning which I have used as a structure for a number years, began to weave and raise questions around whether we could be more creative, more effective and have a greater impact on our collective work if we shared our learning, cross-pollinated and focussed on the creative outcome rather than individual contribution, agency or organisation.

Originally the idea for testing out the Beehive Experiment during the Edinburgh Festival period was purely a practical one. Most people were already going to see a show or event during this period and were able to share their experiences fairly straight forwardly. The main Beehive Experiment would take place during the Fire Starter Festival in January 2018, and the pilot Edinburgh Festival Experiment will allow us the opportunity to tweak the guidance and consider issues as they merged.

However the choice of the Edinburgh Festivals was a fortunate one that brought another dimension and the third key strand: the role of art in social change.

In choosing what to engage with, we were struck by the introduction, entitled ‘The Making of the Future: Now’ to the Edinburgh Art Festival guide. It draws attention to two anniversaries for Edinburgh: the foundation of the very first Edinburgh Festival in 1947, and the publication of Patrick Geddes’, (town planner, conservationist, social activist and polymath, pamphlet The Making of The Future (1917) where he

“lays out his vision for a new more holistic society in which ‘Art and Industry, Education and Health, Morals and Business must …advance in unison’. Thirty years later, the Edinburgh International Festival was founded to ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’, seeing art and artists as critical for fostering dialogue between nations in Europe torn apart by war.”


For our group this seemed to provide some food for thought around the importance of art in relation to our own human spirit – what we were drawn to, perhaps deliberating challenging ourselves by going to see something we felt some ambivalence to or dislike of. By sharing what both attracted and repelled us we began to unpick the assumptions and judgement underpinning our choices.

We will share the learning from this first Beehive Experiment on the 1st November, 4-6 pm in central Edinburgh. If you are interested to hear what happened, discuss the role of art in social change, and consider how we can create more Beehive Experiments during the Fire Starter Festival please sign up here.

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