Wellbeing Cities Forum: Insights

On September 15th, Naomi Murphy of our team at Connect the Dots joined a panel of experts for Next City’s International Wellbeing Cities Forum

The discussion centered on the “DIY City: The Power of Public Participation & Engagement.”

The conversation was moderated by Orlando Bailey: Director of Engagement, Bridge Detroit.

Panelists Included:

Naomi Murphy: Director and Lead of our Connect the Dots branch in Ireland

Camille Chopin: Deputy Mayor; Democracy, Community Life, and Governance through Collective Intelligence, City of Bordeaux

Élaine Gauthier (VdeM): Urban planning advisor, City of Montréal

Antonio Gomez-Palacio: Principal, Dialog Design

Q1: How should we approach equity in engagement?

AGP: noted that first and foremost, we should approach with humility

CC: added that we should always approach together, as we are more powerful together

NM: Said to be prepared to give up the quick wins and impatientience; give up the quick fix, and relinquish any fear of failure, as you will almost always face failures!

Q: When considering this idea of the expert: who gets to be the expert? How are you building your organization to receive information from experts?

AGP: an event is successful if everyone learns something. When everyone shares ideas and context, we can come to better decisions. Elevate understanding of everyone in the room to make collective decisions.

EG: How do we understand settings and intentions for the conversation? We must begin with sharing of intentions (not just objectives).

NM: organizational readiness is imperative–every time we start a project with a client, we have to build in time and flexibility to take on the feedback you get. Are you ready to receive and fold in feedback? What are all of the hats people wear? What are the different identities people wear? How can they be experts from each perspective?

OB added that “Engagement” requires relationship building (“think of it like a marriage, you have to date first before you get engaged! You must build a trusting relationship over time before you can jump in and engage on a topic.”)

CC: We always see the same people that are engaged, demonstrating the need to be creative, different, more fun, more flexible, attract different age groups. Residents know best, as they are experts of their own space. Leave some part of the budget aside for residents to propose projects for their neighborhood.

Q: Concerning sustainability (longevity)–often things end up being designed for older folks because that is who shows up to meetings. How do you design for now and the future?

AGP: People are frustrated by lack of outcome, lack of listening and reflection: there is a disconnect between people being engaged and what is being done. Engagement is thought of as singular events; we need to instead approach it like dating: building long term relationships. Build a relationship of trust with process, or it won’t matter what you try to do.

How do you get to a position of trust in a small amount of time? There is nothing worse than someone with a clipboard asking “what do you want” and 6 months later nothing has changed.

(AGP recommended that planners ask for volunteers for people who can represent the role of the future generation)

EG: The complex ecosystems must be mobilized when thinking about the future, and participants must be primed for a learning and inventing mode. What we have is not viable anymore: We must move from managing conflict to experimentation and designing together.

OB: Noted that he created a resident manual for engagement, requiring that the facilitator be open to learning and new ideas.

Q: We sometimes plan around avoiding tension and conflict (and pushback), and when you have a situation that you can’t play your way out, how do you prepare for it?

NM: It is a balancing act with opposing forces of conflict, unknowns, and timeline, budget, and delivery. We can’t keep doing old school top down, patriarchal, leaving only space for complaining. We need to move to a transparent, collective, and vulnerable approach. There exists a key resiliency piece: prepare for difficulty and a challenge beyond your ability. It is not a failure to be vulnerable and open, it can fix your process!

CC: you can’t please everyone, of course, and some decisions make people unhappy, but you must have faith in your ideas and explain how you’re doing things.

Q: success hinges upon how we enter a conversation. Detroit is on a world stage, emerging from bankruptcy, there is an appetite for culture. We must be respectful of how we engage. What does respectful entry into communities look like?

EG: You have to believe in the mission and be on the side of the people if you’re trying to engage. It may be intuitive; sense the setting, as it needs to be very humanized.

AG: What is a respectful approach? Honesty, openness, transparency. Be honest about what you know and don’t know. Be open about the budget. If you’re being truthful, you will get respect. The temptation exists to sugar-coat your responses, but it won’t work over time.

NM: A crucial starting point is to ask questions and challenge your assumptions. You don’t know anything, but you bring in assumptions. You must test your beliefs and assumptions before you know how to approach an individual community.

Q: How do we get people with old school ways of thinking about engagement on board?

NM: Work with where they’re at, what they’re used to, and the same goes for the clients. Work with tools and that moment in time. Work with what they have! Find case studies to back up ideas.

Below are some comments from participants, who were active in the meeting’s side chat:

  • “ And this is typically the antithesis of how “experts” approach work. And “invention-mode” so important. And inside city gov’t the engagement is simply “check the box” which is insulting to community! ”
  • Antonio: what a brilliant idea! Role playing for future generations—asking “the usual suspects” to think beyond themselves.
  • We are hearing that the pandemic has actually increased capacity for many folks to more comfortably engage in community planning discussions by using existing or new tools. Can you share what your experience has been in that regard and how this is linked to community wellbeing and what we can learn from it post-COVID?
  • Considering many of your roles, I’m wondering if anyone can speak to successes and failures getting civil servants and politicians (some of whom subscribe to that old-school expert culture!) on board, to try and ensure the implementation of material developed through engagement.
  • Vulnerability is very difficult for people in power who need to appear as experts. I love this idea, Naomi, of proper training and preparation for facilitators and show-runners to face a wall of failure and grow from it.
  • In addition to entry, skilled facilitation, shared learning and co-creation, we have found that shared/cross-sector planning and creative decision-making approaches are important.

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