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Why we need communities of practice

Livin systems are made up of nested systems. LIke birds of a feather flock together, we need to learn from our communities and share experiences.

Emerging need for new and alternative education spaces

The polycrisis requires that we find new ways of thinking, new practices, and that we build new relationships between learning and doing. The way we have traditionally delivered education through formal institutions and fixed structures is no longer enough when we are confronted with a complex and rapidly changing world.

The Tourism CoLab has been running online courses, workshops, in-person learning journeys, coaching and mentoring for change since 2019. In this post, we reflect on the changing education and skills development needs of those working in tourism and visitor economies, destination management, and place-based activation, and why we are launching the CoLab Communiversity as an alternative space of learning, collaboration and activation.

The challenges within formal tourism educational spaces

Tourism research and education has traditionally 'progressed' in two fundamental ways similar to the evolution of modern science in general. First, the vast majority of thinking has advanced in a linear and incremental way since the 1980s in alignment with industry and government interests. Second, progress can be as a result of a breakthrough moment, a paradigm shift, a liminal moment than creates a seismic shift in thinking.

Linear progression

In tourism, progress has been slow, linear and larley lacking in innovative breakthrough moments. In the 1980s governments across the world started to position tourism as a driver of economic development and regional growth (Dredge et al. 2011). University courses sprang into existence and research gained momentum to support government-industry objectives. Knowledge evolved in a linear way, shaped by unquestioned assumptions that tourism research should support growth and expansion. Yes, there was some critical engagement around the edges, but critical studies groups have largely failed to provide an alternative or more compelling case for change.

The reason for this low innovation is that formal research and education are kept on a small and highly controlled playground. To be successful, those working within the traditional research and education institutions need to address metrics that are aligned with growth, economic development, and other industry objectives even if they don't agree. There is little room for alternative thinking and administrators have a low appetite for 'outside the box' thinking. "Stay in your lane. Do what you are told" is the commonplace sentiment. Ryan (2007) noted this risk averse culture over 15 years ago, reflecting on the rise of the 'zombie academic culture' bought about by a failure of resistance or a means of survival. But universities are too big to fail (or maybe not given the increasing number of institutions that are now reducing or closing down courses and programs - see Mayling 2023). They continue to be funded and incentivised towards traditional industry objectives. In this world evolution of knowledge is linear, slow and increasingly isolated from everyday practice and the novel ideas that happen when those with lived experience solve real everyday problems.

Breakthrough Moments

Less frequently, dramatic advances can be made through the application of radically different approaches, the positing of new paradigms and ways of thinking. This is revolutionary because it transforms a field by overthrowing existing paradigms and paving the way for new and radically different thinking. To illustrate, Airbnb is an example of an innovation in platform economy that has reshaped tourism (albeit with an extensive array of unintended impacts). The point is, that innovation and new thinking is more likely to happen outside tourism's traditional learning and research spaces, by those with a driven by necessity,. For this reason we need bold new spaces of learning, connecting, sharing and problem solving.

Dougald Hine explains the education revolution and the drivers of change in this powerful TedTalk:

The need for new learning communities

A different type of learning

Start-up communities know only too well that truly revolutionary ideas need nurturing, especially at the early stages. Ground-breaking discoveries are possible where they are held and nurtured. Experimental actions lead to learning and redesign. Founders and creators thrive when their ideas and passion are acknowledged and supported. They grow confidence, cross boundaries, and develop skills that they didn't know they needed. These spaces provide opportunities for formal and informal learning, sharing, reflection and evidence-based innovation.

New and transformative practices, such as regenerative tourism, do not sit comfortably within the more traditional learning environments. Regenerative practice is place-based, community-led and environment focused. There is flow between thinking, doing and being that elevates practice. An understanding of regeneration cannot be replicated inside formal education settings where instructors have limited to no practical experience and little exposure to complex interdisciplinary systems and drivers of change. Neoliberal management also means that educators (who are largely administrators) spend most of their time creating and delivering cognitive based learning rather than deeply experiential and participatory learning opporunities (See Dredge, Hales & Jamal 2013)

Drivers of demand for new learning spaces

There are a number of factors that are driving the need for new spaces of learning and connection:

  1. Low levels of adaptability and flexibility in formal education options.

  2. The expense and inflexible commitment that is required by long, mechanistic education programs.

  3. The desire to truly create thriving learning environments is outweighed by neoliberal economic management objectives and budget imperatives.

  4. Lack of deeply embedded experience and access to novel practical thinking in a depleted academic workforce.

  5. The embedded objectives and agendas of education programs that must be aligned to government-industry objectives in order to access funding.

These and other challenges have been noted by higher education, and one response has been the emergence of micro-credentials. Education and training institutions are increasingly offering micro-credentials as a way of offering employment ready skills. They are rebranding and restructuring their existing programmes as an easy way of revamping offerings. However, in order to receive funding to develop microcredientials, universities need to align with industry needs, labour force participation and employability outcomes (OECD 2023). So the system locks itself in to old industrial thinking. The ability to think, create, build new solutions and experiment is diminished in a world where the education is designed to feed the machinery of mass industrial tourism.

In a world where the drivers of the polycrisis are creating new, cumulative, and/or unintended impacts, 'rearranging the deckchairs' is unlikely to produce new ways of thinking, create problem solvers and innovative actions.

Learning as a social community

Over the last five years in the Tourism CoLab, we have learned that learning needs are changing, the problems are shifting, intensifying and accumulating. Learners are eager to connect with others who are also grappling with complex challenges to share stories, and they want to test their narratives so that they can find their voice and advocate more effectively.

Importantly, the learners we journey with are aware that there are no template solutions or academic papers that will give them an answer. Life long learning, sense making opportunities, and building emergent context specific understandings and actions are what they seek.

Co-learning with others on the journey

The vast majority of learners in the Tourism Colab are practitioners. They have experiences to share and explore with like-minded co-learners. This shared exploration and co-creation of understanding becomes an invaluable weekly opportunity to learn, reflect and act in real time. That said, the particular beauty of the community is the diversity of thoughts, experiences and cultures that are present. Each person brings their wholeness, made up of past conversations, studies, experiences, jobs, cultures and thoughts. The richness of conversations and what these conversations bring forward is unparalleled.

However, the most rewarding part of the learning journey is that participants can bring their whole-selves to the learning process. The CoLab learning environment becomes a place to elevate not only knowledge, but a sense of purpose and self. Many participants have noted that the deep reflection continues well after the courses finish and that the community facilitates continued connection with those who are also on a change making journey.

Why we need communities of practice

In The Tourism Colab, we have become increasingly aware of just how exhausted and isolated local businesses, change makers and community activists are working in their local places and destinations. They are searching for alternative skills and knowledge and looking for connection. Those working to explore and adopt regenerative practice are working alone. They would benefit from grround truthing their experience, their practice and their understandings. They may be locked into positions where they lack the agency to leverage their inner wisdom. These environments can be deeply de-energising. They often see a pathway and are starting to experiment with approaches. Yet they often find themselves in a constant state of fighting off inappropriate projects from the top; projects that are inconsistent with the authentic value proposition of local businesses, community aspirations, and ecological values.

It won't surprise too many of you that the majority of these change-makers are women, retired people who are spending more time in a balanced cognitive-felt experience state, or young people who care deeply about climate change, biodiversity loss and other changes in their local communities. Many are living in regional, rural and remote communities. They see regenerative travel as an important opportunity for a resilient local economy but feel uninspired by the current solutions and are unwilling to invest in expensive formal education. At the same time, they can imagine and see the steps to creating a new way, if only they were supported and their efforts nourished.

Spending so much time in the company of community builders, creative thinkers, activators and folk with a wide variety of lived experience and local knowledge has become so inspiring that we started to think 'Why not create communities of practice for all those who seek to connect, share ideas, ask questions, and be supported in their change-making journey?' So over the last few years we have been building a place where personal development, (post)professional growth, and connection can flourish together in flow.

Our call to build a community of regenerative tourism learners

A community of practice is a shared space. It's a welcoming place where a group with common interests can come together, share their experiences, and feel supported. It's a place to learn, connect, and thrive together. We are particularly interested in welcoming those from regional, remote, and out-of-the-way places, the edge walkers, the creative thinkers, the place-makers, the experimentalists, and those that nurture and care for our communities and see alternative pathways for the future of travel that is different to the past.

If this is an appealing idea, and if you would like to explore how you or your organisation can support or get involved in the CoLab Communiversity, contact us. As a social enterprise, we are dedicated to delivering education, change-making journeys, and supporting local communities and businesses in their regenerative efforts. We do this by pledging our time, providing our expertise, volunteering and mentoring. Your support would help us expand these efforts towards a regenerative future.

And remember...

Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead



Dredge D., Hales, R. & Jamal, T. 2013. Community case study research: Researcher operacy, embeddedness and making research matter. Tourism Analysis 15, 29-43.

Ryan, S. 200. Academic Zombies: A failure of resistance or a means of survival? Australian Universities Review, 54(2)3-11.

Mayling, S. 2023. Government plans to scrap travel courses will hit pipeline of talent for employers, Travel Weekly, April 14, 2023

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