Discover more from Culture & curiosity
#71 A brief summary of what I learned not just this year
“Our purpose is to be useful, to make a difference, to increase knowledge, to point the world in the right direction if it's off course."
— Andri Snær Magnason in On Time and Water.
Two decades ago, I wanted to be useful, make a difference, and change the direction of the world. Thus, I joined a program at our university focused on international development and North-South relations. I was going to be a development worker, improving the lives of more disadvantaged people, or so I thought.
In the first class of the program, our teacher handed out photocopied maps of the world. Then she started asking questions. Simple at first: Where is Paraguay? Pakistan? Equatorial Guinea? Then it got tougher: Which countries are not democracies? Which are the biggest oil exporters? Which have a female head of state?
The test changed my life. I flunked the test, as did all my classmates. Which was the point. The teacher changed my life even more. Joy Clancy, whom I regard as a key figure in my professional development, posed a simple question after the test: How can you be a part of the development of the world if you don't know about the world? If you do not know about a city, a business, or a people, how can you help them succeed?
So, naively as only a privileged white boy can be, I set out to learn about the world. I started working for Joy on a few projects. I read hundreds of books, traveled to dozens of places, interviewed people from all over. Repeatedly, I felt I understood everything. These were my early twenties. I'm hopeful some of you recognize that feeling.
In the chaotic years of my early career, an employer introduced me to the 21st Century Town Hall Meeting approach. Developed early this century by America Speaks, the method centers around large-scale citizen forums. In a digitally supported process, citizens work together on concrete solutions for significant challenges. In a short time, the ideas of all participants are translated into widely supported proposals.
The first meeting we ran was with a few hundred school children. Their task was to inform the secretary of state on youth policy. My glamorous role at the meeting was to keep the voting devices charged, in which I succeeded only half. Nonetheless, the buzz, the excitement of building consensus from scratch in a few hours, the pressure gripped me. It is a kind of magic. And I love magic.
The first part of the magic was that while there was a genuine debate and room for individual contributions, we still reached a broadly supported consensus. The second part of the magic was that it was enjoyable. I loved the intensity of the day — and not merely because I had to scramble to keep a few hundred devices charged in between sessions. The participants had fun as well, debating openly about things they cared about and seeing their ideas reflected in our final presentation.
There was more magic that day, but that wasn't clear to me, hunched off-stage near a power outlet, hot in my polyester suit.
My career can be understood as a quest to replicate this experience. Events like the 21st Century Town Hall Meeting are complicated and costly to run. It is not something that you pull off in a few hours on a lazy Sunday. It took me ten years to go from the boy in charge of the batteries to the person choreographing an entire experience. In between, I put in the 10,000 hours, volunteering, experimenting, listening, grabbing every opportunity to come close to the magic I felt that day.
While chasing the magic, the work also helped me learn about the world. Joy's message never left my mind. Every group was an opportunity to learn. Right-wing youth, slum dwellers, private school kids, migrants, bankers. And with every new group, a hunch became stronger: I can never know all there is to know about the world. The world is too large, people and their ideas too diverse.
The only way to live up to Joy's challenge is to trust in people's knowledge, creativity, and ability and empower them to make their own decisions. Only when all people are genuinely and fully involved can projects succeed in the sticky business of bettering the lives of all while respecting the earth's limits.
Which I guess, looking back, was the real lesson we were taught that very first class.
In 2009, I got a lucky break. I was hired by Erik Schilp to experiment with digital participation in the context of the museum he was building. For two years, our team tested the possibilities of technology to get people involved in difficult conversations. Then, in 2016, another Erik (Boekesteijn) invited me to be part of the design of IFLA's Global Vision project. We combined the framework of the 21st Century Town Hall Meeting with our digital experiences. The resulting approach allowed people worldwide to come together at different times to work towards a shared consensus. In the first round, over 32.000 people from 195 countries participated in the process.
In April of 2017, I finally chaired my first actual town hall: the kick-off of the vision process in Athens with 150 librarians. Two days of highs and lows, but at least people now could use their own devices to participate, and thus nobody had to be in charge of the batteries.
A year later, when I returned from chairing another meeting for IFLA in Barcelona, I thought that now I had reached a point where I truly understood something. In my mid-thirties, I genuinely understood the why, what, and how of working with people on their own development. Also, I had an appealing approach ready that others would be glad to follow. I landed a few small but meaningful projects while waiting for the big one to fall. Maybe the UN? The World Bank? The European Commission?
Alas, while the idea of inclusive participation and co-creation is broadly accepted, it is hardly ever the go-to approach for decision-makers.
By and large, development projects are still designed top-down or with only some community members. It is how we've always done it, and it seems easier. This is not only true when it comes to the development of social groups, villages, and cities, but also when it comes to the development of businesses and institutions. Strategies, ambitions, and directions are imagined at the top and sold to the bottom.
There I was, with my approach to imagine at the bottom and sell to the top.
And then Michael Edson called. He imagined a new institution that was all about creating at the bottom and selling to the top. Also, this was about involving all people in the work and values of the United Nations, not precisely a niche 'bottom' and mundane 'top.' If we wanted to help make this happen in the Netherlands? Meta Knol, Erik Boekesteijn, and I said yes. Obviously.
This September, as many readers know, the process that we started culminated in a festival in Leiden. Almost 200 partners, over 2,000 co-creators, and 25,000 people imagined new ways to organize for a better future. While not a classical "town hall," our processes borrowed heavily from these approaches.
We also learned new things and made loose ideas part of the method's core. We learned about the specific stories that succeed in activating people, the role of place and presence, community management, media and communication, and so much more. I had the opportunity to work with a stellar team, maximizing the learning value. I think we can say we're now at 20,000 hours of experience with large-scale participation.
We also specified the role of arts and culture in the process. Box!
What Art Can Do: imagination and creativity for new solutions to complex challenges
What Art Can Do ('Kunstkracht') is a diverse collection of methods and techniques to solve problems by embracing their complexity. The methods and techniques are participative, aimed at concrete outcomes and behavioral change, and are often supervised by a specially trained artist or facilitator.
Research in the context of Stichting 2030 has shown how interaction with and through art leads to an emotional connection with problems, engagement, and behavioral change. Practical study within the festival showed that:
🧐 Art teaches us to look, listen and experience the environment better.
🙃 Art makes room to do something different than usual.
🤲 Art for sustainable development means art participation.
👩👩👦👦 Art is thus always part of a community.
👩🏫 Art can quickly have an impact, but communicating about this remains problematic.
The What Art Can Do approach starts with making room for uncertainty and questioning. This may take a long time. Perhaps nine months on a one-year trajectory. In this phase, you approach the issue in all possible ways and always actively do something. You investigate every part of the problem, preferably with as many other people as possible. So doing means making, experimenting, sketching, designing, building, and thus discovering new questions. In the meantime, you share everything you learn with your partners and formulate lessons together.
After uncertainty comes decisiveness. Now you will make the solutions and put them on the market. Art always seeks an audience, so this process is public. If an idea doesn't engage the public, it's not a good idea, no matter how good it is. What remains provides the basis for solutions to the problem.
What Art Can Do is always part of a community involved in the issue. In addition, all kinds of experts can participate. In the meeting between the two groups, solutions emerge that are theoretically correct, contain practical wisdom, and are emotionally acceptable.
So, a brief summary of what I've learned not just this year:
Genuinely sustainable development can only be achieved when all people involved participate in the development process. While the initiative for development may come from the top (ideally with some budget), its ideas and energy come from the bottom.
When given this responsibility, people in all sorts of contexts prove up to the task. We've seen this with many, many groups in the strangest of situations.
Participation and co-creation can be done with 30 or 30.000 people.
Large-scale participation and co-creation demand a carefully designed process, led by experienced and specially trained facilitators, ideally in alliance with a network of partners.
Storytelling, community building, technology, networking, art, and culture all play a role in this process. They are part of the standard toolkit.
I'm now almost 40 years old. Experience teaches me that the above is a temporary list. In the next few years, much will happen that unsettles my ideas. But the approach is getting sturdy and the toolkit more versatile.
The lesson I will have to learn now is the politics of the above. A few classes after our initial test, Joy turned one of her classes into an elaborate role-playing exercise. We were all given positions in the impossibly complicated networks of international development. I think I was the head of the development bank. Also, we had agendas. Mine was to use my leverage for personal political gain. We acted out countless negotiations, and I got my promotion while the project we were negotiating about lingered. There is a lesson in here I still haven't figured out entirely.
Thanks for joining me this year in my newsletter. There's one more coming your way before the end of the year, but I'll make it light and funny. Promised. I hope you have a wonderful few days with your friends and family and we meet again soon. Thanks for reading, subscribing, forwarding, tweeting, and all the other ways you've supported this series of regular, irregular updates. It would be nothing without you,
Take care and see you next week!