Case: The Barefoot Guide Connection (global)

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CO-CREATIVE knowledge production & distribution

Presented at #cocreate14. Scroll below the digital presentation for additional pre-lab details provided.

PresenterDOUG REELER, Co-Founder, the Barefoot Guide Connection
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The story of the Barefoot Guides - from people who don't usually write for people who don't usually read

Click the image for the BFG digital presentation in .pdf form


The Barefoot Guide Connection is a global community of social facilitators producing Barefoot Guides and other reading, tools and exercises, freely available online as a creative resource for social change leaders and practitioners.  It is a story of co-creation in service of social co-creation. The Guides and accompanying resources help to cultivate approaches to social change that are more humanistic, grounded, creative, that pay attention to the less tangible motivators of change and that support a vision of the world that is more inclusive, more free and more sustainable, humanly and environmentally.

Key Outcomes Observed:

The Barefoot Guides have been thrown like seeds into the wind, downloaded, copied and emailed several hundred thousand times.  We have received many many stories of how they have been used by teams of facilitators, by community-based organisations, as study guides, by trainers in courses and by individuals, finding a variety of helpful supports for their practice.  Despite their non-academic nature many university lecturers and students have used them as well. We have heard how the Bahasa translation has been widely used in local government in Indonesia. They have been translated, some voluntarily by facilitators we have never met, into Bahasa, Chinese, Swahili, Vietnamese, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic and made available back to us to distribute online.

Key Processes Used:

Each Barefoot Guide has had its own distinct journey of co-creation. The first was very much a pioneering process, “making the path by walking it” on a shoestring budget, growing organically in a variety of collaborative Writeshop processes. The second BFG was well-resourced, methodically planned and executed and included a rigorous Action-Research process in eight countries on three continents.  The third was initiated from outside the Barefoot Guide community and written by a small collective from a transnational community but supported by us, and the 4th is being developed by a core group of 28 social facilitators & leaders from 16 countries on 5 continents, gathering stories & insights from multiple contexts.

We have developed some distinct approaches and methodologies: innovations in cooperatively asking better questions, observing and listening more intently, and thinking together more deeply and honestly, to distill, and commit to words, stories and insights for others to read and work with. Although we bring together diverse people from diverse and divided contexts to write the BFGs together, it has always struck us how, when one digs below the surface, there are patterns of human and social interaction and change that resonate across the divides, and how these processes of mutual learning begin to form the foundations for mutual working and creating the new.  We do not need to invent co-creation, it is in our DNA – the question is how can we release it from its fearful constraints?

The story of the BFG Connection online community and core group, a gathering of committed holders from each Writeshop who design and care for the community of practice, has also been a fascinating process of co-creation, of sharing and distributing leadership, struggling to balance competing dynamics of individual and collective ownership, action and responsibility in a networked environment across 4 continents, between open and focused process needs and trying to provide something distinct and valuable.


  • Sector/field – Varied (mostly Civic & Academic)

  • Initial geography (where the co-creation initiative started) - The seed germinated n South Africa with BFG1’s first writeshop but from the second writeshop it included co-writers from several continents and countries

  • Application geography (where the co-creation process has been applied)         Varied

  • Is it a one shot initiative ? an ongoing initiative ?  Ongoing; we have a further 8 BFGs in mind

  • Issues to be solved/addressed - The nature of the organisation that holds / cares for BFG – maintaining and also developing its various aspects. Financing – not sure if this can be solved – it’s an ongoing challenge

  • Early objectives (at the start of the initiative) - To provide an accessible guide on organisation development for practitioners from various sectors and disciplines, working with local organisations

  • Later objectives (developed/evolved through co-creative process)- Developing accessible guides and resources in a variety of disciplines relating to social change Supporting communities of practice

  • Key words used to define the co-creative process - From learning together to working together; Freeing innate generosity; Connecting heads, hearts and feet; From personal to collective journeys; Meeting diversity with diversity; Staying open to emergence

  • Key words used to define the context in which the co-creative process took place - Beautiful, intimate, supportive and challenging, valuing experience


  • Briefly describe the passion behind why this initiative was undertaken - Have a passion for valuing the experience and wisdom of the doer/practitioner; Envision a collaborative future not beset by ego-driven hierarchies, where the innate wisdom & generosity of people is allowed to flourish (not be limited by selfish gain)

  • What inspired the use of co-creative approaches in this work? - “Be the change you want to see in the world” it is clear to us that to create a co-creative future we have to do it co-creatively

  • Which established methods were drawn from in inviting co-creativity? - Initially borrowed the concept of the collective “writeshop” as the main vehicle for co-creativity but have significantly innovated the established methods

  • Why was a co-creative approach deemed better in this case than a more traditional approach? - To surface the experience and wisdom of people requires peer processes of people helping each other to be creative, drawing each other out. Some people can create individually but many of us as social creative

  • What was the role of serendipity in guiding how this initiative unfolded? - a journey filled with pleasant surprise, with all sorts of people coming from nowhere to offer themselves or their resources to support the initiative – which enabled serendipity is the gifting principle at the core.


  • Stakeholders/stakeholder groups involved - Mostly development practitioners from NGOs, freelancers, some socially-minded academics – some as individuals, some as teams

  • Roles of stakeholders - Writers, editors, translators, technical support, admin, facilitators

  • Role of a leader, or a leading team, if any - Leadership has taken many forms: for big decisions as a collective; process of core teams who meet either face2face or over Skype; Once a task is identified & communicated, people volunteer. The culture: if you feel strongly about something you are given the space to make it happen and if there is active support, people will step forward. For a while, the pioneer roles, have been “oscillating”, moving continuously between challenging and supporting –always seeing who to recruit into the core to take on more shared leadership. It has been an uneven process but there is now a strong core

  • Were any funders involved in supporting the initiative? (When did they become involved?) - The first BFG was created on a shoestring budget (taking from core funding) growing organically in a variety of collaborative Writeshop processes. The second BFG was well-resourced, funded by one donor, methodically planned and executed — included a rigorous Action-Research process in 8 countries. The third was initiated from outside the Barefoot Guide community and written by a small collective from a transnational community but supported by the team – they had a small grant for honorariums for editing and illustration and DTP. The 4th BFG is being developed with multiple sources of income – three small grants, Indiegogo and then the writers have all paid their own way to get to and attend the writeshop (some funded by their own organisations, some personally)


  • “Materialisation” of co-creation : events, meetings, facilitation sessions, co-developed content, joint actions… - Writeshops have been the key process, with supported individual writing, lots of skype sessons and emails

  • Technology involved (mobile phones….) - Google docs to enable collaborative wirting and editing; Skype, emails and a dedicated writeshop website

  • Social networks used: Facebook

  • Knowledge sharing processes used during the co-creation process - Here is the birds-eye design of one of the Writeshops – not all were run in this way but it is characteristic

Barefoot Guide 4 Writeshop Design, Jo’burg, 18 to 22 November 2013

Purpose:  Why we are writing the BFG4, the audience and the design – Writing Maps of our contribution (stories, insights, messages, practical considerations, images and questions) – First drafts – Ideas for other – pieces to include – New insights, ideas and questions for our own practices – New friends and collaborators






Connecting – surfacing from the inside-out

Surfacing – teasing out – visioning

Deepening – discovering

Resolving – Committing

Revisioning – planning


Arrival / registration/ settling in

Morning Ritual (20 minutes)

Review group creative presentation.


World Cafe

Final prep

4 sessions of the Cafe.

Open forum – what are we all seeing

Connect to own story

What questions and images do we see now?

Morning Ritual (20 minutes)

Review group creative presentation


Case studies

Action Learning intro

Prepare story (LH column)

RH column

Listening at 3 levels Case groups

Tell/reflect/draw learning and questions + images

Each group shares big insights and questions.

Morning Ritual (20 minutes)

Review group creative presentation


Refine Storyboards… begin first drafts

[Online workshop with Adobe Connect]

Morning Ritual (20 minutes)

Review group creative presentation


Big Feedback –

Assessing what we have.

Revisiting the BFG4 vision – take 2.

Planning the completion of the writing.

Closure, goodbyes etc


Introductions –

Meeting each other

The story of the BFGs

Purpose and programme

Review groups

Online process

World Café Preparation of the Tablecloths

From indiv to group prep

First takes on stories

These will be presented in the World Cafe on Tues morning.

Visioning and Designing the BFG4 – Take 1

Visioning/brainstorming what the BFG4 could look like when completed

What images do we see?

Writing Maps

Each develops a map of their contribution – story, insights, practical considerations and images.

Groups or pairs or individually

Feedback and improvement

on the storyboards and messages – in groups

Gallery of all Maps

Online prep

Online Feedback

Poetry / imaging session

Continue to refine Writing Maps… begin first drafts

Sharing of progress and new insights or questions


Collective Takeaways

Leading Image and Design of the BFG4


Review group

Take a Barefoot Guide to bed

Review Group

Supper in town

See ”Rainbow Scars” at the market Theatre

Review Group

Review Group

Writing and developing word pictures for illustrations

  • Content created – Barefoot Guides and resources – see

  • Impact measurement – BFG have received much anecdotal feedback about how people have used the BFGs and resources. The BFGs have been downloaded 10s of thousands of times between them. Voluntarily to translation into their 7 additional languages.

  • Significant difficulties met - Initially there was some difficulty with creating shared vision, some genuinely not seeing it and some skepticism with others. Part of the vision was that the BFGs would be freely available, not just for those who could afford it, but they were eventually convinced.

    The next difficulty was “giving it away”: The first BFG Collective was born out of the 2nd writeshop held for practitioners from many countries and organisations and we wanted us all to own what had been created together. Although the BFG was born out of the organisation Doug worked for, the CDRA, they created a separate, collaborative entity under which eventually became the Barefoot Guide Connection. This has hosted the BFGs and resources from the beginning. Again we got a fair amount of resistance since the credit for the BFG was no longer ours except as a member of the collective. But we held our ground and anyway by the time the resistance had surfaced it was a done deed! The CDRA does still play a significant role but as a player not an exclusive owner.

    Funding is a continual issue. A decision was maked to make do with what we had and to keep going regardless. As result BFG4 had to be postponed the BFG4 writeshop, but only by a few months, in which time we found the funds needed.

    Leadership has been a struggle that Doug experienced personally.  His pioneering nature fully committed at all times, needed to find a different style to enable collaboration, a more facilitative or “oscillating” style as there have been times when he had to pull back a bit. Sometimes with a nudge from someone, a nervous hope that others will take up the reins – generally they do (not always, mind you).  It remains a continuing struggle.

  • Conflict between stakeholder groups that arose – Described above

  • Steps taken ahead of co-creation which made co-creation possible or enrich the co-creation process – Always spent time cultivating good  inter-personal relationship before we dive into the work. This includes creating time for “learning together”, in many ways helping people to tell their stories to each other and to really draw on their experience

  • Timeframe : how long between the idea and its implementation: A couple of months.

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