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[Un]learning in the Feral MBA: How to create the space for community-led regenerative development

Photo: Nowa Nowa Caravan Park, East Gippsland, Australia.

A portal back to thinking

Imagine a place where it's possible to think differently, to connect with nature, and be transformed by imaginative conversations about the future of business (our own and others) in the diverse economies of the future.

What if we could unleash our creativity and give ourselves permission to think differently? What might innovation look like if we could breathe, connect, and begin decolonising our mindsets and think differently? It's not so much about new thinking, but returning to what really matters.

The Feral MBA, recently delivered in East Gippsland, provided a much-needed portal into thinking differently and a space to plan for a different kind of regenerative future. In this post, we explore the real and tangible value of creating alternative spaces of thinking and innovation, and how such spaces are being created in regional communities through, in this case, an innovative business program.

Why do we need alternative spaces to think differently?

For centuries, liberal capitalism has dominated our lives. It has become so embedded that, for many, it is impossible to think beyond its core values - competition, scarcity, exploitation of natural and human capital, consumption, and economic growth. Despite that trickle-down economics has been soundly dismissed by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist who led the World Bank (as well as so many other esteemed economists), political rhetoric continues to uphold the mantra that even the ‘little people’ will benefit from rapacious capitalism.

Yet there is a growing chorus of communities across the globe rallying against the extractive and exploitative effects of our current system. They are taking back their local economies, engaging in developing alternative business models and ecosystems and regenerating their communities. The aim is to build resilience and reduce exposure to the shocks and disruptions that we all know lie ahead.

Governments are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate this new terrain. Blunt policy approaches and instruments developed at the centre make little impact at the periphery. Most of the funding is mopped up by consultants in capital cities and very little makes its way to the communities and the individuals that need sustenance. In the absence of local knowledge and lived experience, the issues and challenges of regional, rural and remote communities are often incorrectly diagnosed, and as a consequence, the wrong actions are promoted. Worst still, these solutions are ‘scaled’ as monolithic one size fits all approaches and templates.

It is increasingly clear that good actions don’t necessarily come from experts, specialists, consultants, researchers, or even peak bodies who diagnose the situation through the single lens of industry interests. The solutions that emerge can be tone-deaf to local circumstances and needs. As a result, there is now an awakening that local knowledge, lived experience, and an understanding that comes from being in and of place are essential ingredients in addressing the environmental, social and ecological challenges of our time. Not listening won’t make this growing momentum go away, so it makes sense to listen, learn, and open a portal to new thinking and change.

What is the Feral MBA?

Hosted on the lands of the Gunaikurnai and curated by FLOAT, the Feral MBA program brought together 23 micro and small business owners from East Gippsland and beyond, to create a space to rethink their businesses within a rapidly changing regional context.

Kate Rich, the Feral MBA’s creator, describes the program:

…as a radically re-imagined training course in business for artists and others. It responds to the towering failure of business as usual to rise to contemporary challenges. The focus of this business boot camp is not on 'making it' in an extractive economy whose core assumptions of competition, productivity and endless growth are unarguably bankrupt. The aim instead is to arm participants with experimental skills and critical materials to consider and produce alternatives.

Fittingly, the Iceworks, an old, repurposed industrial building at Lakes Entrance provided the setting for the opening weekend. It provided a stark reminder of how quickly technology shifts, businesses become redundant, and economies change. There was never any doubt it was going to be a transformational opportunity. From the first meeting, 'the ferals' contributed their creativity, unique lived experience, and deeply integrated intelligence into a collective journey of [un]learning and [re]imagining business and ‘the economy’.

Over the five-week course, Kate provided stimulus material and provocations. The peer-to-peer learning through weekly ‘feral business clinics’ provided powerful levers for change at both individual and collective levels. We explored the detail of our own businesses and livelihoods and questioned what our own businesses could be if we [re]imagined traditional concepts such as success, value, profit, and scale. As a collection of artists, creatives, social enterprises, food producers, for-purpose, and visitor economy businesses, we learned or deepened our skills in intentional listening, building empathy, and creative, generative questioning. Deep conversations, hard truths, uncomfortable insights, and disruptive actions were all part of the journey.

The aim of the program was not to boost productivity, increase market size, or gain a competitive advantage. Instead, it involved playing with confidence, getting experimental, and venturing into the unknown. Connecting the dots, stepping outside silos and challenging ourselves came with new learnings and confronting hard truths. We were encouraged to dig deep, flip thinking, and activate creative ideas and experiments within our businesses.

Alternative spaces for thinking and doing differently

My interest in participating was tweaked during more than a year of conversations with Andrea Lane of FLOAT.3909 and the Iceworks.3909 at Lakes Entrance. Andrea describes herself as a reformed economist with a passion to support the livelihoods of local artists and creatives in East Gippsland. Through various initiatives, including the Iceworks Studio and Sunday market, a FLOAT art residency, On Foot local walks, an Observatorium, Winter Festival, and the Feral MBA program, artists, creatives, and others help connect visitors and locals in transformational experiences. Individually, each of these initiatives supports local artists, creatives and producers, but together they are creating momentum for a different kind of community-led experience that serves both locals and visitors. It’s an approach that positions artists, creatives, researchers, food producers, and farmers, as central to the co-creation of authentic and transformational encounters between creatives, visitors, and locals (and all permeations in between).

Sustenance for artists, creatives, food producers and others is a core aim. However, such an approach has the potential to deliver a range of positive impacts that go well beyond traditional metrics. These initiatives appear to also deliver a deeper more connected and resilient community, a stronger sense of local identity and pride, the confidence to experiment, a heightened sense of collaboration and goodwill, as well as joy and fun. However, given that funding to support all these initiatives comes in the form of small irregular and incremental sources, in-kind support, unpaid volunteer labour and so on, the wider systemic impacts, and their value in catalysing systems change, are visible but have not been mapped.

This emerging, alternative and experimental space, where the visitor economy is being co-created by people without traditional tourism backgrounds, provides an exceptional opportunity to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions, to learn, and rewild our minds. After all, who is best to teach us to become resilient and innovative in our problem-solving? It’s the people that live in the real world, that know what it's like to be punched in the face, and can respond with real knowledge, lived experience, and practical ingenuity.

[Re]Wilding our minds

The Feral MBA was a chance to [re]wild our minds, to think differently, and to [re]frame what our businesses might look like. We were [re]minded to spend time with nature, to enjoy its beauty and to listen to what it can tell us. In one of the workshops on regenerative development and tourism, hosted in the studio of local artist and FLOAT Keeper Josephine Jakobi, the nature of Lake Tyres was present. In a simple yet clever installation, Josephine bought the Lake into the conversation using a rope from the FLOAT vessel. The exhibit took on many roles, including showcasing the wonder of nature, a reminder that nature should be included, and as a social connector in conversations.

Participants also spent time in nature, allowing minds to wander, bodies to feel, and senses to come alive providing the opportunity to tap into different kinds of embodied intelligence. Spending time in a parasympathetic state, letting our minds wander, is when we are most likely to connect with new information, be creative, and tap into our instinctual knowledge. We carry this intelligence with us but rarely give it an opportunity to emerge.

Through this lens, the Feral MBA program was an opportunity to explore how The Tourism Colab might change as a result of the rapid and sustained changes that will unfold from the cascading effects of climate, biodiversity loss, economic restructuring, and other megatrends. So, while we know that travel is part of our human condition and that we will always be motivated by the desire to travel and connect with other places, it’s also clear that how we travel, and how we take into account the impacts of travel must change.

[Un]thinking and [un]doing tourism as an industrial phenomenon and [re]framing it in terms of its capacity to [re]generate communities, environments, cultures and places is an obvious pathway forward. It’s an idea that is considered outlandish, even ridiculous for many at the hard core centre of the industrial tourism sector. But those taking a complex, scalar, dynamic, systems view of the world, and cognizant of the climate, ecological and social tipping points ahead, the necessity for deep change is clear. Ignoring those with the capacity to anticipate the issues, see megatrends, and identify challenges well before they arrive in the mainstream is much easier than contemplating what it all means. Retrofitting this knowledge back into a sector that is resistant to innovation can be very challenging.

With my experience in the program, as well as engaging in the local, ground-up work already being done by FLOAT and its communiversity, I was able to see, learn and experience what could well be the future of slow, transformational, regenerative travel. The experience brought into sharper focus what a community-led, place-based, and nature-centred approach might look like on the ground. It also aligned with the shifts in thinking that are taking place on a small Island to the south, Flinders Island, Tasmania.

What is a community and business-led approach?

Drawing from 25+ years of embedded community development work in a wide variety of contexts, community-led regenerative development is characterised by a combination of the following:

Authentic, inclusive and connected communities. Community-led approaches are those that involve authentic connection, ownership, inclusiveness, and a willingness to activate tangible, measurable change on the ground. Thriving, prosperous communities are those that people want to visit, stay a while and immerse themselves in.

A well-being economy for all. Community-led approaches place the needs and resilience of communities alongside and on an equal footing with business. Why? Because it makes plain good business sense to care for the resources that make business possible. Community-led approaches de-centre the individualism and competition that characterises traditional forms of business in favour of an approach that encourages connection, care, and co-creation.

Shifts the goals of the system. Community-led approaches ask not ‘How can we grow tourism?’, but ‘How can we live well together and create a thriving and resilient place that people want to visit, connect with, and stay a while?’

Values local knowledge, lived experience, and ingenuity. Community-led approaches recognise the dynamic, evolving connections between people and place. They value local knowledge and lived experience, and incorporate such knowledge and skills into local actions.

Funding that reaches the community. Community-led approaches build the community’s wealth and health. They ensure that funding and other kinds of support reach into different parts of the community, and provide different kinds of sustenance.

Empowers communities to help themselves. Community-led approaches co-create insights, understandings, and knowledge that circulates in the community. Skills are developed and connections made that empower local communities and provide the foundations for resilience.

Alternative spaces. Community-led approaches are developed in alternative spaces to traditional policy-making spaces. Alternative spaces to think, connect, learn, co-create and empower often occur in spaces where connections are made, and can be planned or unplanned, active or passive, formal or informal.

But what does it look like on the ground? This is where the Feral MBA has broken new ground, by creating spaces at both individual and collective levels, to imagine a different kind of future that empowers small and micro businesses and, ultimately, local communities.

What I will take for the journey ahead

Standing on the beach at Lake Tyres and looking out over Bass Strait towards Flinders Island, I cannot help but draw the parallels between what is going on in both places. Vastly different, yet similar in terms of the way communities are connecting and co-creating their futures outside the system. Hosting visitors is part of a diverse local economic future of both places, but it's a very different vision to 'tourism'. This I will carry forward...

With regard to the Feral MBA, it’s impossible to sum up the Feral MBA experience is a number of short sweet takeaway points. It was an embodied learning experience that I will take with me on the journey ahead, and which will continue to deliver lightbulb moments and insights in the future.

That said, the Feral MBA provided an informal, dynamic and emergent collection of spaces in which to open up earnest conversations about the future of our own businesses in a changing world. It allowed us to connect with a diversity of people with different education, lived experiences, worldviews, and daily challenges. Everyone came with curiosity and a willingness to collaborate and co-create the learning journey. Each of us followed a different learning pathway through the program depending on our business, our personal interests, and how the conversational algorithms worked.

In sum, the key threads that knitted this program together into a crafted experience help to further inform what a community-led, place-based approach looks like on the ground include:

  1. The extraordinary participants, and their willingness to participate in open, collaborative and heartfelt discussions, allowed space for vulnerability and support.

  2. The joy, play and fun of communing, learning and co-creating together without the traditional business values such as competition and individualism getting in the way.

  3. The openness towards the idea that we need to [re]think the economy and what that means (i.e. holding open the parasympathetic state instead of triggering fear, push back and criticism of the sympathetic nervous system).

  4. The desire to flip thinking, question assumptions and think outside the box, e.g. “How can travellers make a positive impact on our community, our environments, and our place?”

  5. The curiosity round [re]imagining new generative business models and forms of exchange that promote health, well-being, confidence, and connection.

  6. The need to [re]value what is important in the context of place, not just for ‘the industry’ but for the wellbeing of communities, places, nature and business.

  7. The ambition to [re]connect the community by curating a deeper sense of place, belonging and stewardship as a way of building inner and collective resilience.

It goes without saying that we need to think about how our current systems need to change in order to unleash this rewilding in both thought and practice.


NOTE: The use of [ ] is to draw attention to a deeper level of intentionality in the use of the word - to [un]do, [un]think and [un]design our future, and to distinguish from unintentional marketing expressions like 'reimagining tourism'.

About the Author: Dianne Dredge, PhD is director of The Tourism CoLab, a social enterprise dedicated to redesigning tourism for a regenerative future. The Tourism CoLab works with forward-thinking, creative organisations and businesses that seek a clear-eyed view of how to face the future. To do this, we work to deliver systems change, educational experiences (in-nature, in-person, and online), coaching, change-making journeys, and experimental projects.

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