Flow Theory and Experiences

Our name, Flow Associates, is in honour of ‘flow theory’ created by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who died last month aged 87. He was a Hungarian-American psychology professor, interested in mental states for creativity and productivity. He wrote the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience after 10 years of international research. The core theory can be explained with this diagram below, which shows the different mental states around the flow state, which can be achieved with the right balance of challenge and skill. It shows that the opposite of flow is apathy – not wanting to engage at all. 


I founded Flow Associates in 2006, when I realised that I can’t work full time within an institution. I work very well when I am intrinsically motivated and free to do it in my own way, but I become very stressed when working under conditions set by other people. I need to spend plenty of time doing activities that get me into a flow state, such as drawing from my imagination, expressive dancing and singing.

I was reading this book at the time of founding Flow, so the company naming was partly about timing and chance. But, the theory does guide us. For example, we (myself, Susanne Buck and Alex Flowers) always make sure to choose work we are challenged by, and that we are equipped to do. We particularly enjoy projects where outcomes for people develop:

  • Their sense of agency to effect change in their world
  • Capacities of knowledge, skill and meaning-making
  • Positive and compassionate values and behaviours. 

Flow theory hinges on the development of capacities, and how conditions can be designed to enable people to achieve their full potential. This thinking can apply to all the people we might work with, whether staff in client organisations or their audiences. It isn’t the only theory we use, and our thinking is growing all the time, but flow theory offers a basic and motivating concept to help anyone designing experiences and services that will engage people and develop their capacities. 

Flow theory lies behind our Engagement model, as we view engagement as more than boosting numbers or reaching certain groups of people. What matters most is the impact that this engagement has on people and communities. As people pass through each threshold they develop their skills and abilities to improve or cope with their context. If any activities intended to engage people are not designed with some components of flow theory in mind, they are less likely to succeed. 

This article goes into more detail into the nine components to achieving the flow state, to provide inspiration for designing successful experiences.

The best known is achieving a good balance of challenge and skill. Enough challenge might mean that the activity offers lots of room to keep improving skills, or to be creative with its forms. Good enough skills might mean having resources or the right place, time to practice, confidence, dexterity or knowledge. Without enough challenge you become bored, and without enough skills, you will become anxious. I used to be very anxious about painting because I got the lowest possible mark for my A level Art exam, but I have found methods and materials that suit me so that I can get into flow when doing it. 

The merging of action and awareness is all about learning through doing. It’s about laying down muscle memory through thoughtful practice. Doing could include speaking, writing or thinking with others, not just acting with your hands and body. It involves a balance of just enough action and just enough reflection on what you are doing. If you overthink you will get stuck, and if you rush at action without checking on yourself, you will struggle to do a good job. 

Clarity of goals might seem an obvious one. However, you need to approach this the right way. If your goals are too limited and closed, or too unachievable, you will lose motivation. A good goal might look like “I will build a chair that my children will want to sit in, and it will be safe for them”. You might not know how to do it, but you have the tools, and this is where the exciting challenge lies. A less clear goal would be “I fancy building a chair like a rocket that rocks and spins around.” If you start with the goal to build a safe, attractive thing for a defined user, you can still shape it like a rocket and add fun features, but you have to ground the goal in real needs.  

Immediate and unambiguous feedback is related to component number 2, the merging of action and awareness. But this is particularly about ensuring you get feedback from others and think of their views. Imagine you’re a costume designer for a big themed event. You can enjoy the creative process on your own but you have to ask the opinions of your clients and co-workers, at the right time, to be able to keep moving on in your task. These voices can tell you what you need to know, especially if you ask clear questions: will people want to wear the costumes? Do they fit the theme? Will they bring the right balance of humour and elegance? 

Concentration on the task at hand is all about creating the right conditions for focus. This might mean creating a defined space or time for an experience, or removing distractions and deciding to tackle only one task at a time. It’s a basic practical component, but one that can be quite hard to achieve. Some people are much better than others at blocking out all disturbances to focus – and this is very likely to be because they are highly motivated by their chosen activity. 

Paradox of control is a really fascinating component. Have you ever tried something like dancing and singing at the same time? If you are too conscious of all the steps and lyrics, and are determined to stick to the exact routine, you are in control. BUT, you will feel tight and are likely to stumble or forget your place. If you tell yourself that it’s OK to lose your place, and let the sense of enjoyment take over, you can move more towards a state of arousal. But if you aren’t in control of your routine, you might improvise too much and lose it all. It’s a paradox. So, what works is a constant pulsing of letting go and coming back to the plan, letting go to enjoy yourself, and back to the plan. 

Transformation of time is all about how when you’re in flow you don’t notice the time passing. You’re not thinking about when you can have a break or what else is on your To Do list. You’re not worrying about something in the past. Without those two markers of the past and future as barriers in your mind, you can immerse yourself in the process of the moment. I go to an expressive dancing class for three hours on Saturdays, and the time goes by in a flash, whereas if I spent three hours running it would feel like 12 hours instead!

Loss of self-consciousness is very similar to losing track of time. You might lose a sense of embarrassment. You might stop worrying about an issue that has been preoccupying you. You might not think about your appearance or what others need from you. You almost become the task, or the experience, for a while. 

Autotelic experience is all about enjoying an experience for its own sake, because it’s enjoyable or fulfils people’s own intrinsic needs, rather than being required or expected from outside (or extrinsic) demands. Some people can be more autotelic than others. Autotelic means self-motivated. Autotelic people don’t need to be rewarded, as they find their own rewards in their chosen activities, and they might refuse to do activities they don’t enjoy. A well designed experience is autotelic, and also encourages people to find experiences for themselves where they can feel the same again. Good experiences might create more autotelic people – which can be a challenge to our society if education or work requires people to do things they don’t want to do. And then again, if there are more autotelic people, education and work will have to change to accommodate their highly motivated personalities!

What have you taken from this set of components? Can any be useful for you in your role, or in the design of experiences that really engage people? 


Flow’s Engagement Thresholds Model

There are many models that illustrate different levels or modes of engagement, but at Flow we find it more useful to think about engagement as a series of thresholds that are passed through en route to a deeper impact. A lot of our work involves supporting our clients to enable and sustain transformative change for people, communities and organisations, through learning, participation and deeper involvement in arts, heritage, science or local citizenship. We have developed our Engagement Thresholds model to facilitate how this work is planned, delivered and evaluated. In its simplest form this can be visualised as a wedge-shaped graph, with number of participants on the y axis and depth of engagement on x.

© Flow Associates

This model ensures we view engagement as more than boosting numbers or reaching certain groups of people. What matters most is the impact that this engagement has on the people involved, their lives and communities and the organisation itself. As people pass through each threshold they develop their skills, capacities and abilities to improve or cope with their context. While fewer people pass through each subsequent threshold those few are able to do so in a deeper way, until those at the narrowest end become the champions who will support and influence those behind them.

We are often asked to share the thinking behind our Engagement Thresholds model with clients who have found it helps them to design better experiences, assess the depth and reach of engagement, and identify barriers along the way. So here we have brought together a potted history of engagement and participation models, along with more detail on our own thinking.

What follows isn’t a definitive history, and we would love to hear from you if you can fill in any gaps.

The First Rung of the Ladder

Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 article A Ladder Of Citizen Participation has been referred to by many as a starting point for thinking about participation in terms of a series of levels. She wrote the article while she was director of community development studies for The Commons, a non-profit research institute. She had previously worked for the US department of health, education and welfare, and had been chief advisor on citizen participation for the US department of housing and urban development. She was frustrated by what she saw in these roles and wrote her article as a provocation, describing the various ways that people referred to a process of ‘citizen participation’.

Arnstein’s Ladder (1969) Degrees of Citizen Participation

While the top 3 rungs of her ladder could be described as participatory, the others are more of a one-way process where people she describes as the ‘haves’ are in control of those described as ‘have-nots’. The middle three rungs are tokenistic at best, and the bottom three represent non participation.
In the article she referred to a French student protest poster from 1968, a year which had seen worldwide unrest, to illustrate how damaging this pseudo-participation could be:

“The poster highlights the fundamental point that participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless.” Sherry Arnstein (1969)

Reaching New Levels

Arnstein’s ladder of participation has become the basis of multiple models since, although many have taken her ideas literally as a hierarchy of goals rather than a question around the validity of these methods.

Roger Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation
Scott Davidson’s Wheel

By the late 90s there were several useful iterations including Roger Hart’s 1997 ladder of youth participation which focused on a specific audience, and Scott Davidson’s 1998 wheel which highlights the ‘shades’ within each level, for example breaking ‘consultation’ down into three states: limited, customer care, and genuine consultation.

(These images were taken from nonformality’s timeline of participation models that starts with Sherry Arnstein and ends in 2011. If you are like me and enjoy looking at different diagrams and charts you should check it out )
One of the best known and often referred to is the 1999 International Association for Public Participation’s ‘spectrum’ model, designed to identify levels of participation that define the public’s role in the process. Levels depend on the goals, time frames, resources, and depth of impact for the public.


While this is widely seen as a useful model, criticisms include the lack of reality in some of the categories. People have asked questions such as: Is ‘informing’ collaborative? Is ‘Empower’ possible? Where does ‘Listen’ fit in?

© International Association for Public Participation

Public Engagement with Research

Many of the more recent participation models, such as the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Onion’, focus on public engagement with research (PER). This model shows how different activities can enable publics to influence research and policy to different extents, and is used by organisations such as Oxford University to inform their PER activity. The outer layer of the onion is made up of one-way interactions designed to share information, but as you peel away the layers the opportunities for dialogue grow until at the centre of the onion the power is transferred to the public.

Wellcome Trust’s Public Engagement Onion

Wellcome’s Onion inspired Edinburgh University’s Beltain Public Engagement network to develop their own model which goes one step further to consider the number of people involved at each level. Shaped like a wedge, this model helps to show the value at both ends of the scale. Lighter touch activities only designed to inform can have wider reach, while more intense projects with smaller groups can have a deeper impact.

Beltain’s Public Engagement Spectrum

Designing Better Experiences

Flow’s Engagement Thresholds model builds on all of these examples, but instead of defining different levels of engagement as goals to aspire to, we have drawn on our expertise in Experience Design to focus on the qualities of an experience, and how these enable people to pass through the thresholds necessary to reach new levels.
As an emerging field, the starting point of Experience Design is the changes you want to enable for people in terms of how they think, feel and act, so that your designs are based on impact rather than resource. The more detailed version of our model below sets out some of the indicators that people are passing through these thresholds.

© Flow Associates

People may enter or exit the experience at different thresholds depending their personal context, and their experience of the event, activity or service you are offering. For example, thinking of participants in a workshop, people who arrive looking for information or help may leave feeling confident and motivated if they are given the tools to apply their new knowledge which in turn enables them to make changes for themselves. For others less confident about attending the same workshop then the welcome experience will be most important, and if it feels relevant to them they may leave feeling they have learned something useful.

‘Empowerment’ is also not the end goal, it is simply another threshold through which someone must pass in order to feel the deepest impact. This impact might come from a person being empowered to create changes in their life, through accessing your resources. Designing an experience that helps people to pass through these thresholds makes impact more likely because you are creating the conditions for change.

If you would like a high resolution PDF version of this model or arrange a call to talk through its uses please get in touch. We would love to hear your thoughts, and if you would like to use it please credit Flow Associates and link to our website.

By Susanne Buck


Feeding Tomorrow research: public attitudes to food sustainability

A big global challenge is to feed 8 billion people equally well, as the population rises and as ecosystem damage and climate change threaten our food supplies. Our food systems are unhealthy for the planet and our diets are unhealthy for people.

We are Flow Associates working with Flow India and People’s Palace Projects do Brasil. We are carrying out research for Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Science Museum Group, who want to know what people in London, Rio de Janeiro and Delhi think about food sustainability, so that interested organisations can engage them more effectively on these issues. Surveys, interviews and focus groups will be conducted with families, independent adults, school groups and teachers, as well as professionals in public engagement.

Don't forget, Green Vegetables Keep You Fit. 1999-719 Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Don’t forget, Green Vegetables Keep You Fit. 1999-719 Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

These will find out:

  • What interests people about food and the state of the planet? 
  • What do people understand about food sustainability and its various issues?
  • What do people think are the solutions? 
  • And how do they like to explore and learn about these issues, whether in museums or through other media?

The research is designed to explore differences and commonalities between cultural audiences in India, Brazil and the UK, in the food sustainability issues they face, how they understand them, and how they want to engage with them. The National Council of Science Museums in India and the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro are partners in this research, supporting access to their audiences and communities. Due to COVID-19 restrictions in all three countries, the conversations will take place online in a variety of formats rather than within the partner museums. 

We want to hear your thoughts about food sustainability and would be grateful if you can share 10 minutes of your time with us to complete a survey:

If you would like to find out more or contribute to the research, please contact us on [email protected] 

Lead image: Buffet. 1997-5002/140 Science Museum Group Collection Online © National Science and Media Museum


Future Views toolkit


The Future Views toolkit is now ready for you!

Future Views is a forward-looking research project, providing tools to help imagine the next generation of cultural learning.

Royal Opera House Bridge, Artswork and Festival Bridge are working together with Cultural Education Partnerships across the South East. They commissioned us to organise a series of discussions and create a toolkit, to explore how emerging technologies, organisational behaviours and critical trends in the world might shape cultural learning in a local context.

We used processes inspired by Design Thinking and Speculative Design to create tools that are rooted in reality whilst unleashing imagination about the future. We worked with groups of young people and experts in four locations, and in discussion groups online, to explore big questions about making and consuming culture, learning, and working in the future. This process produced general and local findings, suggesting paths to preferable futures in terms of creative, cultural and digital learning.h local

The Future Views Toolkit is now available to any cultural learning partnerships to help them run a Future Views workshop and to plan their own local ‘route map to the future’. We are also facilitating workshops for local cultural learning partnerships across the South East, supporting young people and adults together to envisage the future of creativity and how they might collaborate to make a thriving creative place.


Flow Sustainable Art Award

Last week, I had an enjoyable afternoon judging the Flow Sustainable Art Award for a student graduating from the Wimbledon Master of Fine Arts course. The award was for a student who could demonstrate commitment to art practice that engages with ideas that help people and planet thrive. Last year there were 12 applications, and this year only 4, which made my task easier. I don’t think this generally corresponds to a drop in interest in art geared towards big ecological challenges, but was probably due to other factors such as stretched resources to put in a pitch for the award. 

Ines M. Ferreira (Inês M. Ferreira) was the recipient of the award, and she will come and spend a day or two with us at Flow later in the summer, shadowing or working on a particular project. 

Below are the statements of all four who applied, starting with Ines.

My practice forwards proposals on the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which focuses on the symbiotic relationship between man and nature as culture, but it doesn’t ignore the complexities of interconnecting socio-political systems, may they be inherent to art itself or in the real world. I explore the local en global, by articulating how local harmful practices to the planet have an impact in the loss of an ecological way of life, which affects the planet as a whole. My work also embodies the ethos of its critique by using recycled metal, as a way of counter-acting harmful mineral extraction.

Qianqian Cai

My creative practice focuses on reconstructing a harmonious existential relationship in the context of time, imbues the most ordinary events or objects with a metaphysical and ceremonial sense. Through sculpting time, depicting the inner sense and exploring the authentic self, my artwork shifts the narrative past into an introspective present, makes the spectators reconsider their existential relationship with the other things around.

Poetic harmony and mysterious romanticism are the aesthetic foundation in my practice, which is influenced by the anciently oriental philosophy about creating a balanced world of mutual tolerance, respect, and appreciation.

Cara Jean Flynn

The natural world is my source of inspiration, focusing on the orders and structures within it, as well as searching and synthesizing new ways to redefine our relationship with nature.

This incorporates the sustainability and awareness of materials and processes I use and the fundamental ideas behind the work. My aim is to address common misconceptions that nature is an autonomous entity existing independently from the human race. By doing this my aim is to try to understand the human condition within nature and by doing so understand it’s balance of fragility and strength in light of current environmental issues.

Yuting Wang

The main media of my work is oil painting. My work explores the people ‘s destruction of nature and living situations, and how these issues impact people’s psychology and emotions. I also consider how modern technology damages both humanity and the environment as a consequence of post-civilisation. In my painting, I express the post-civilisation scene as a dystopia. I hope to convey an uncanny feeling of the dystopia to remind people of the environmental situation. Through concerning the pollution issues to improve the state of the planet.


Making it: future skills and creativity

The Government clearly recognises the recent growth of creative industries and sees them as a key part of their Industrial Strategy. This piece of research by NESTA (link here) explores how skills need to be developed to boost all the sectors within the Creative Industries. It shows quite how much the Creative Industries are calling for skills other than artistic ones, such as technical, organisational, relational and teaching skills. The research also highlights the importance of those skills that are associated with creative and design occupations right across the economy, for example in engineering or research.

Despite their acceptance of the value of the Creative Industries, the Government’s education policies are militating against their own Industrial Strategy, with their continued support for the compulsory EBacc and their White Paper that shifts vocational/technical pathways (T Levels) to start at Post-16. Their policy ignores how the development of creative skills, and immersion in cultural or imaginative activity, helps young people acquire the broader range of skills needed for roles both within the Creative Industries and beyond them.

Tom Bennett, director of researchED, and appointed by Government as ‘behaviour tsar’ gives an indication of this flawed thinking. He wrote this week in The Guardian a piece (link here) criticising the appointment of a Lego Professor of Play at University of Cambridge.  He argued that play is essential but that success takes hard work. He picks up on how this research, funded by a £4 million grant, will “ensure children are equipped with 21st-century skills like problem solving, team work and self-control”. But he challenges the concept of 21st century skills by saying that these are age-old needs, that we’ve got far enough into the 21st century without a radical shift in what humans need to be, and that we can’t know what future skills would be anyway.

He rubbishes play in learning, and disregards the rapidly changing landscape of work, and more widely, the rapidly changing…landscape.

Our experience of supporting projects about the future of learning, culture and creative careers has been informative on this. We’ve learned by consulting, reading and observing that there is a role for more play in learning and that major changes to the necessary capacities of future generations are on the horizon, if not already here.

One project we’re working on is the Crafts Council’s Make Your Future three year programme (see for more). We are evaluating it, looking for evidence of the impact of encounters with makers and mixing new technology with traditional crafts. These hoped-for impacts include increases in 21st Century skills: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Flexibility and Initiative-taking.

The teachers know that these are important. They can see how young people change when they can be immersed in a project that involves them collaborating, thinking through a problem, using their hands and bodies, experimenting, and expressing thoughts and feelings. Through the practices of envisaging ways to improve on a design or solve a problem, then trying and failing, asking for help, trying something new, and constructively criticising each other’s work, they are refining these skills.

Another of our projects has been Future Views (link), commissioned by three Bridge organisations, to help cultural education partnerships imagine and plan for the future of cultural learning.

Consulting researchers, cultural workers and young people, we found that economic, political and environmental change factors present unprecedented challenges. Although levels of understanding and concern varied, there was a universal sense that there are coming changes that will affect resources in a profound and material way. Young people are highly conscious of a challenging future, and they accredit pressures in their mental health to wider global issues, combined with an increasingly high-stakes academic curriculum and increasing social division.

We discovered that digital technology is only one of many drivers for change in education and future skills. Although some aspects of technology are perceived by young people to be a threat, particularly the automation of jobs, there are many positive opportunities for harnessing technology to develop creativity, empathy and problem-solving. However, progress in this area is potentially threatened by Government education reforms and the plan to the leave the EU.

Many felt that technological advances (e.g. spatial imaging, data analysis or Internet of Things) offer opportunities to creatively tackle many of these emerging problems. Schools and cultural organisations need to shift expectations of a future of continued bounty, while facing these challenges with hope and creative thinking. They will need to deepen their collaborations and think more systemically. They will need to open up to digital creativity and to ‘design for good’, integrating them into other areas of learning or arts activity.

In particular, in a world that is increasingly riven by ideological division – in conflict over resources – people in the future will need to collaborate, to respond calmly to unprecedented situations and know how to defuse tensions. To develop these capacities, play is essential. You can develop responsiveness to new situations and be motivated to practice skills by playing games and being involved in simulations. You can find ‘adjacent possibles’ – or new solutions to complex problems – by messing around with combinations of words, images and ideas. You can learn to control your emotions by expressing them in safe situations, through drama or exploring film and literature. You can learn how to manage your mental health by playful strategies, by developing a sense of humour, and by exercising your body.

We know that young people are aware of the importance of creativity in an unpredictable future, some intuitively responding to their experience of a lack of creativity in school, others more consciously unhappy about it. However, they reported many barriers to their creativity being fulfilled, including a lack of agency and choice in their education. They think that careers advice and guidance in schools needs to be updated, with more awareness of the need for creative, technical and people skills in emerging areas of work.

The young consultees also talked of the need to involve and empower young people as cultural leaders, not just offer arts as ‘enrichment’ or see young people as passive consumers. This call was supported by cultural workers we consulted too, who want to empower young people to take control of their own path. To achieve this, they know that young people need more exposure to people in the creative industries, not only to understand their creative practice, but the ‘whole person’ and the way they balance and manage their creative life. They want young people to understand that not everybody has had the same pathway into the industry, and the importance of having ‘other strings to their bow’ to help them find their own way as an individual. They said that young people shouldn’t assume that someone else is going to make change for them, that they need to be active and take control. But, of course they need to be invited and encouraged in taking control.

Another project that we have supported is Cultivate (link), a creative place-making programme in Wandsworth and Lambeth, part of London’s Cultural Education Challenge. Part of it is a creative careers education programme, responding to the priority needs of schools, who are now responsible for careers education and guidance.

In recruiting independent creative practitioners and small businesses to run ‘Cultivate Routes’ sessions, we asked them what advice they would give young people who want to pursue a creative path in life. We received responses from 74 people, so it gives a fairly good indication of the views of the sector. Their advice, overwhelmingly, based on their own experiences, was to be utterly self-motivated but also highly collaborative and flexible. They talk about ‘just doing it’, focusing on doing what you love, not expecting Higher Education to provide a clear professional route as you have to forge this for yourself, having to keep refreshing your skills and not expecting success to come quickly. It’s a tricky path between total self-driven passion and responsiveness to the changing needs of the world and the ideas of others.

Finnish researcher Esko Kilpi (link here) writes about the skills needed for post-industrial work: “…conventional jobs are increasingly inhibiting flexibility and contextual responses to new problem definitions or new technological solutions to old problems. To succeed in the new economic spaces, we need symmetric relationships, open assets and very open organizations.”

Are we up to the challenge of reinventing creative business and cultural organisations to be more flexible and open in the UK? And if leaving the EU means that many of the more open and forward-looking organisations shift to be based in Europe, or more virtual, what impact will this have? The more flexible and open that young people start to become, the more likely it is that they will not want conventional work, or want to contribute to businesses within the UK economy.

We need to start bringing creative thinking to this challenge!


Flow’s Thrivable Culture toolkit

It’s not always simple to describe what we do at Flow, when we respond to a wide variety of contracts and adapt very flexibly to what our clients need. Over the past 11 years we’ve been in roles that include ‘learning partner’, ‘evaluator’, ‘audience researcher’, ‘programme planner’, ‘critical friend’, ‘trainer’ and ‘change facilitator’. Central to all of these roles is our ability to help cultural organisations develop and narrate a Story of Change, and to help them design experiences that power the changes they want to create.


Through these many projects, we’ve built up a set of tools for planning and tracking change. A major resource that we’ve developed is the Thrivable Culture toolkit. We’ve called it this because we believe that ‘Cultural’ opportunities help people, places and planet thrive, and that in turn, a thriving world allows rich and diverse ‘cultures’ to grow. By ‘Cultural opportunities’ we mean a very broad set of things – having freedom and resources to learn and enquire, to cherish our shared heritage, to express feelings, be imaginative, make things and innovate for the future. This contributes to wellbeing in the wider ‘culture’ – in all the ways we communicate, celebrate, critique and create as a society. Cultural opportunity is driven by the public Arts and Heritage sectors, but also by the Media and commercial Creative Industries, by Science Engagement, and by the Education and Health sectors.


By the term ‘Thrivable’ we are referring to an approach to growth that favours wellbeing for the many over wealth for a few. So, a Thrivable Culture is one where people and places flourish by pursuing what they love, helping each other and looking to the future. This is the big Story of Change that makes Cultural organisations so valuable. We hope that working with us using these tools will enable you to tell and realise your own part of this Story of Change, in ways that are meaningful to you.


The underlying philosophy of these models comes from our namesake, the idea of ‘flow’ or optimum engagement, developed by Csikszentmihalyi. This helps us analyse how people are both supported and stimulated by any experience, and what the barriers are to engagement. In order for organisations or their projects to inspire people, overcome challenges, and design for learning and change, we need to pay attention to how people can feel really absorbed, inspired and empowered. This is all about improving the qualities of experiences, places, materials, questions, processes and relationships so that staff, partners and audiences are both supported and challenged. From the zone between too much anxiety and too much boredom, people draw their energy to change. Improving quality in these conditions is just as important as impacts such as measurably increasing income or creating jobs. Or rather, in the Cultural sector, improving quality is the best way to achieve those quantifiable impacts.


Logic Models used in processes informed by Theory of Change can help organisations to define and evidence how inputs and outputs of any project result in quantifiable outcomes and longer-term impacts.

However, in cultural and experimental projects, or people-centred areas such as education, it can be hard to predict and quantify these outcomes. Rigid application of this model, seeing it as a narrow pipeline of change, can cause anxiety, an inability to pull together around common goals and a sense of inevitable failure. It can also be tricky to start at the end of the line and to think backwards from desired impacts. As part of our toolkit, we’ve designed a new version of the Logic Model format to help teams plan for and evaluate change which we believe overcomes these problems. It is more circular, makes much more clear how planning and evaluation activities sit together, and it encourages more pause to think through the early steps of learning about your context and creating conditions for change.

The following explains an element of our framework in depth: What you do at the start of Discover phase of a project.


An important part of our approach is ‘front-loading’, which means thinking before launching into the hard or expensive parts of any programme or new project, taking time to build relationships, to clarify common values and to research the context around you. This doesn’t have to mean a long vague phase before implementing any project. It means distinguishing between the WHY and the HOW, or the Aims and Objectives. It means ensuring that all stakeholders are agreed on what you want to achieve, holding on to that vision while you test and develop a project, and being prepared for unpredictable contingencies as you go.

At this Discover phase of a project, we help you use Three Lenses to clearly think about your situation, which will then help you design interventions or planned outcomes. These Three Lenses are:

  • External factors: How you work in your wider context. How you optimise your use of resources and overcome external challenges.
  • Relational factors: How you design conditions for people to interact with each other. How you help people to develop their capacities for positive change by learning from others.
  • Internal factors: How your experiences or services can inspire shifts in people’s values and character, including your own. (These may not be easily quantifiable in themselves but can potentially create quantifiable change in people’s lives or the wider world).

These correspond to the three ecologies, environmental, social and mental, described by Arne Naess. The diagram below shows how the three lenses interact with each other continually, and in both directions. Relational factors are in the middle, as these connect and maximise the potential of the other two, helping individuals and organisations relate to the world around them and other people.



Why is it so important to look carefully at your situation? Looking ahead, the wider world is becoming more difficult, and resilience in the face of this is the buzz word. In some countries such as the UK and USA, Culture and Science sectors are struggling to be fully valued due to political change. Some other countries are investing properly in these sectors, but wider environmental or economic conditions might threaten their progress. To be resilient, it’s vital to be hyper aware of external threats and opportunities emerging now and on the horizon. Being hyper-aware does not just mean vigilance. It means thinking about how all these change factors interact in an increasingly complex and unpredictable system.


The next diagram shows the tool we use to help organisations analyse their situation, combining the Three Lenses, and with eight external factors presenting the threats and opportunities to achieving desired outcomes.


The 8 external factors are used like the PESTEL or STEEPLE analysis frameworks, but we have added the factors of Culture and Wellbeing. This new approach to analysing threats and opportunities is loosely based on Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, but uses an ecosystem instead of a pyramid to illustrate how all the contributing factors work together. In this ecosystem, Culture and Ethics sit at the centre of the circle, and Relational capacities and Internal values fall out of them and feed them.

By identifying the factors that offer the most scope for opportunity you can look for ways to overcome threats in other areas, to recognise where your project can have most impact. For example, the solution to overcoming an External threat – such as a change in Government that reduces funding – might involve working on Internal values or Relational capacities. In turn, the solution to fundamental problems with Relational or Internal factors might lie in leveraging an External factor, such as interventions to improve physical and mental health.


Here, we’ve broadly identified the kinds of Relational and Internal factors that might be nurtured if you want to effect positive change on any of the External change factors, overcoming the threats and generating opportunities. These are examples of ways these factors can be articulated rather than intended as a single correct path. Being a Values-based organisation means inviting your communities to explore and debate how values should be expressed and lived.

Contact us on [email protected] if you’d like to talk about how our work can help you.


Flow’s 2016

I’m writing this on the darkest and longest night of the year. It’s a good time as any to reflect on the past 12 months in Flow in the UK. Despite all the challenges in the external world, we’ve had a great year.

Our core team has grown from two (Susanne and Bridget) to three, including Ana Ospina who is our Cultivate co-ordinator. We have worked with some inspiring associates including Anna Husband, Laura Crossley, Jane Ruffino and Devorah Moritz. Over the summer months, we were lucky to have two interns, Fatima Khuzem and Alexandra Bagao, who carried out design projects related to their MA studies at Central St Martins and Ravensbourne (respectively).

We’ve delivered a wide range of talks, training and facilitation sessions, in areas such as Experience Design and Audience Development at Central St Martins, evaluating museum learning at University of Westminster. We delivered training for Guardian staff in narrative theory. We’ve delivered courses for Artswork in making change with digital learning. We’ve run workshops in thrivability and cultural wellbeing at the Ry Folk High School in Denmark (see photo above). We delivered training for cultural professionals in Creative Libraries in Qatar, and also, working with the Science Gallery, trained artists in science engagement in South Korea.

We’ve enjoyed a range of collaborations with universities. For example, we collaborated with Central St Martins’ students on the MA in Narrative Environments to develop narratives and visitor experiences for the new building of the Institute of Physics. We were privileged to be invited by Wimbledon College of Arts to judge the Flow Award for sustainable arts practice, and the awardee was Yussef Agbo-Ola whose artwork is an exciting combination of plant material science, ecological innovation and sculpture.

We continued delivering our contract to co-ordinate and develop Cultivate. This is a creative learning programme across the regeneration area of Nine Elms that stretches from Battersea Park to Vauxhall. It’s been a privilege to have a chance to work with teachers and children across this area. We know that teachers are struggling with workloads and reforms, and dealing with the pressures of a changing place, but we’ve also seen so much resilience and imagination in these schools. There’s a lot to say about this, but will do an update post in the New Year.

We’ve been working with Invisible Dust developing a story of change for their growing organisation, creating evaluation tools and producing a report for the Human Sensor project (link about this here.) With programmes very close to our values, Invisible Dust works with leading artists and scientists to produce unique and exciting works of contemporary art and new scientific ideas exploring our environment and climate change.

We are evaluators for a new programme called Arts-friendly Archives (link here), which is led by drama specialist Jefny Ashcroft. Three plays draw on historical archives in Wolverhampton, Dudley and Stratford upon Avon. The project includes training of archivists and targeted audience outreach to engage new creative and diverse users of archives.

Flow also helped the Heritage Lottery Fund review all their processes and marketing materials for their Board and committee recruitment, aiming to increase their diversity and inclusion. See more here.

We also carried out audience research for English Heritage to review all the historical material on their website, including the Story of England.

We concluded our 3 year-long evaluation of the Ashmolean Museum’s Me, Myself and Manet programme, and enjoyed the final project, Beyond the Balcony, led by digital artists brook and black working with Young Dementia UK and MIND. About Me, Myself and Manet here.

We enjoyed working for Royal Museums Greenwich, especially as they are in our neighbourhood. We continued to evaluate the ongoing Travellers’ Tails programme, a major partnership initiative exploring big themes of encounter. More here.

We delivered audience research to inform the National Maritime Museum’s Endeavour project, the development of four permanent galleries, and this included amongst many other activities, researching people’s views on climate change. More about Endeavour here.

In a similar vein, we also carried out research and activity planning for the the Science Museum’s planned Medicine Galleries, including developing plans for being a more dementia-friendly museum.

One of our most exciting and challenging projects this year has been Future Views. This is a forward-looking research project, creating tools to help imagine the next generation of cultural learning in 20 years’ time. Royal Opera House Bridge, Artswork and Festival Bridge are working together with Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs) across the South East. They commissioned us to organise a series of discussions and trial a toolkit, to explore how emerging technologies, organisational behaviours and critical trends in the world might shape cultural learning in a local context. The final toolkit will be launched in the Spring. More about Future Views here.

Continuing the future-looking theme, we have recently begun a new role as evaluators for Make Your Future, which is a national programme led by the Crafts Council, connecting traditional craft with digital technologies. It aims to ignite a passion for craft in young people, working with Higher Education Institutions, cultural partners, secondary schools and makers to mash up traditional and digital making skills in the classroom. It will pioneer an approach that strengthens the position of making skills as a cross-curricular bridge in schools, creating new opportunities for work and study in ceramics, metalwork, textiles and digital craft. About it here.

Another project we are proud to support through our evaluation expertise is Amal, supporting Muslim arts and cultures. We are happy to be working on it because it aims to nurture a more cohesive and vital British society, overcoming divisions and misunderstandings, through secular cultural programming. See more here.

We firmly believe in the power of culture to heal divisions and make positive change in communities. It helps places thrive. Through all our contracts, whether training or consultancy, we are slowly and rigorously developing a new framework for planning and evaluation based on this idea of Thrivable Culture. We will be consolidating and sharing this framework more widely and will be looking for partners to help with this. Please do get in touch if you’d like to discuss this or any other project.


Surname Africanus play at Wolverhampton Archives, part of Arts-friendly Archives

Get involved in Future Views

I’m reblogging this post from the Future Views (link here Future Views) website. We have been commissioned to run this project, and are seeking contributions.

This explains our research design for Future Views, and about how you can get involved in the process. Future Views explores how emerging technologies, organisational behaviours and critical trends in the world might affect young people’s abilities to live productive, creative and collaborative lives up to 2036. 

Our approach is always guided by the theory of Flow, which is that in order to be optimally engaged so that you can learn and flourish, you need the right balance of challenge and support.

Screenshot 2016-06-24 17.38.40

Between now and December 2016 we will conduct research into current and future trends, and run consultation with young people and leaders in each region. Focusing on three Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs), in Fenland, Colchester and East Kent we can build a ‘future view’ of each area, which we will use to ask how we can make the best of future changes for CYP, up to 2036, to stimulate the next generation of cultural learning.

Our first step was to carry out background research, and to share papers on three themes:

  • On digital technology (link here On digital technology) in context of cultural learning, and this infographic version (infographic version)
  • On changes in education (link here education) and the wider world that affect children and young people now
  • On living and working in the world, informed by a situation analysis (link here situation analysis) of social, environmental, technological, political & economic, legal and wellbeing-related drivers for change. Over the 6 months, we will refine this as more is known (e.g. outcomes of EU referendum).

If you have time, please do download and read these papers. We are inviting people to submit short pieces we can blog here, or comments, that respond or add to any of the issues raised in these three papers, bearing in mind our core question. You might be a young person thinking about your future, or from one of the three regions, or an adult with a professional or academic interest in these themes. Do get in touch.

Right now we are gathering information about the three local areas, inviting leaders and partners of the LCEPs to share with us their visions and challenges. (If you know these areas of Fenland, Colchester and East Kent, do feel free to give your view in the comments below or by email.)

Screenshot 2016-06-24 17.29.23

Between 28th September and 20th October, we will carry out the youth consultation using a bespoke speculative design toolkit, in workshops with youth arts panels and a school group. In October (Thursday 20th, TBC) we will invite a panel of experts to take part in a discussion event with the young people, which will be broadcast online. The panel will react to the young peoples’ future visions, and the challenges described through our research.

Using all these ideas we will produce a ‘Routemap to 2036’ for each LCEP, which considers how cultural and educational organisations can best collaborate to ensure that all young people will be fully empowered to make, consume, learn about and work in arts and culture right up to 2036. The Future Views toolkit will also be available to download/use online for other LCEPs to replicate the process.


Future Views for Flow

We in Flow UK are going through a nicely productive patch, working on some projects that really help us live up to our name – getting us into a state of flow. As well as longer term projects such as the National Maritime Museum’s Travellers’ Tails, the Ashmolean Museum’s community projects around their Manet acquisition, and running the Cultural Education Challenge project called Cultivate, we also have some new projects.

We’re helping the Science Museum develop an activity programme for their new Medicine Galleries, including provision for families, schools, hard-to-reach audiences and people with dementia. We’re evaluating a programme called Arts-Friendly Archives, led by playwright Jefny Ashcroft, working with archives in the West Midlands. We’re evaluating the contemporary environmental art projects, and the organisational development, of the arts organisation Invisible Dust.

One new project that is really exciting is called Future Views. The three ACE bridge organisations Royal Opera House, Artswork and Festival Bridge have commissioned us to carry out a process to imagine the next generation of cultural learning. Working with young people, Local Cultural Education Partnerships and experts in cultural, digital and educational futures, we are using a Speculative Design approach in a series of online and real-world discussions. This will result in a Toolkit that any local cultural education partnership can use to think about the future and come up with a Route Map to 2036. There will soon be a website and Twitter feed about the project, so watch this space.