Creating (New) Collaborative Spaces

There’s this ongoing sense of frustration from the adaptive, iterative, inclusive informal side of disaster response with the formal side. While we often focus on how to get members of a population not accustomed to collaboration to feel empowered to speak and act, and that is a core component of any work I do, that’s not what this entry is about. In the same way that I think many people don’t engage in their environments when conflict is a possible component, I think the lack of collaborative and codesign approach in the formal sector is simply a lack of exposure and understanding.

Come with me / and we’ll be / in a land of pure collaboration – sung to the tune of Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination

The thing to understand is that after Kindergarten, most people have been discouraged from being collaborative. While it comes easily in our youth, when we haven’t built up the skills (social and technical) to operate from that source, it can be difficult. When creating codesign space with members of a formal or traditional organization, they come with the mentality that experts are the best (and perhaps only) people equipped to know how to assess and respond to a challenge. In this mentality, only academics have time to think, only corporations have access to resources, and only people who have been in the field for decades can see patterns. Often, because of the constructs around being an expert or specialist, people considered as such have had difficulty finding cohorts. In fact, you’re often actively discouraged away from it – anyone who shares your field is a competitor for limited resources. Any remotely collaborative activity is done asynchronously and piecemeal, cobbled together later by yet another specialist. This backdrop should indicate the importance of providing safe and guiding space for learning collaborative methods to those coming from traditional sectors. Here’s how I’ve done collaborative space-making in the past.

First, we must understand the codesign methods we aim to use by making it safe and inviting to work collaboratively, and ways to ask questions and with the expectation of listening. We call this “holding space,” through facilitation methods of encouraging inclusivity like paying attention to equal speaking time and accessbility of language. Within this space, we set a North Star, the purpose of the group. Frame all conversations and problem solving trajectories by that North Star.

With the Field Innovation Team (FIT) for FEMA’s Hurricane Sandy response, our North Star was “helping members of the affected population.” This might seem obvious, but formal organizations have been set up to help the official response organizations – Office of Emergency Management, or Red Cross, or the local police department. This has happened in the past because of scaling issues of knowledge and delivery abilities. Any situational knowledge was based upon limited aerial imagery (difficult and expensive), people who were in the area but are now able to report by being in an office (stale information), and past experience (misaligned patterns).

With things like crowd mapping, a higher resolution of situational awareness is possible. People on the ground can tell you where they are and what they see. With this ability comes a new responsibility, to deliver response at a similar resolution. This setup also includes an ability to directly interact with members of the affected population, so it’s important to refocus our efforts on our end users.

Any time any question came up, or any difficulties got in our way, we reminded ourselves about our main objective. From this, we immediately saw many paths to achieving the objective such as education, housing, heat, and connectivity. Through skill and connection discovery, we determined what the best focuses were, based on the team members present. We were already collaborating – by focusing on a main objective, and outlining various ways of achieving that objective, people start to consider how they can offer ways of getting there. Too often, we delineate our jobs and then figure out what we can do – which would have limited our creativity by leaps and bounds.

This is when it’s important to have a slew of collaborative tools in your back pocket. What will kick up this new track of collaboration with productivity? Just as importantly, what will be so easy to use that your newly-fledged collaborators won’t trip over install processes or learning curves, losing this precious momentum towards beautiful new worlds? I really like etherpad, hackpad, or google docs as a starting point for this: nearly everyone uses a word processor, and it’s immediately evident as to what is going on. Suddenly, there is a shared view! The common problem of resolving differences across multiple word documents has disappeared in this setting! Reports begin to write themselves out of meeting notes! Butterflies and bluejays are frolicking in the sky. Be wary that during this part of the process, it is important to both make sure people understand what is going on, while also not becoming their administrator. Help people put their own information into the platform, don’t do it for them when they stumble. Other great platforms are trello, basecamp, and loomio for near-immediate recognition of usefulness. People will sometimes stumble in the transition – simply take their recent update on the old method (email, anyone?) and continue the discussion on the new collaborative platform.

Once that objective is set, everything else is just problem solving. Things which would have kept us waiting to act instead became new opportunities to try things out.

Back in New York, the Joint Forces Office wouldn’t allow the FIT team in, because not all of us were federal employees, a few of us were foreign, and some of us were *cough* activists */cough*. Instead of twiddling our thumbs, we instead worked from the apartment of a friend-of-mine. They had better (and more open) internet, far superior coffee, and great serendipity liklihood. While working from there, we linked the OccupySandy volunteering map into the Google Crisis Map and (unofficially) chatted with UNICEF about what options we hadn’t yet looked at for resources. The neutral space allowed us to accomplish far more than we would have in the official offices. It also meant that as we tried out collaborative tools, firewalls didn’t get in our way. When we were later welcomed into the official offices for their first-ever design jam (with Frog Design!), the indignation about Basecamp and hackpad not loading was so great that the FEMA firewalls are now on different settings!

Remember that people are delicate. What most people in the formal sector have been missing for a long time is the ability to SPEAK and to ACT, just on a different vector than those in historically marginalized populations. We are asking all parties in the codesign process to be active and engaged. In distributed and collaborative spaces, this is something we excel in. It is therefore our responsibility to show all newcomers how awesome it can be. Stand with them to make more space. Sometimes as manifest in blanket forts.

Value-Based Design

Bex and I put together a Value-Based Design workshop for the Codesign Studio at MIT Media Lab. Originally posted on the Codesign site (and then to the Civic blog and Bex’s blog). Here’s how we did it:

link to the hackpad version of this post

When you are designing a project for social justice, where do you start?

In this workshop, we practice value-based design, a method that helps us to design for large scale social impact and to relate this directly to how we plan and implement projects. We envision the impacts we’d like to contribute to in the world and the values we bring with us into our work as the first steps in this design process. As individuals, this method helps us to express our connection to our projects on a personal level and to prevent burnout as we are able to identify work that resonates with our values and to set aside work that doesn’t. As a team, this method helps us to identify shared values and to make design decisions based on our shared vision instead of personal preferences.

At the last Codesign Studio, Bex and Willow took the class through an hour-long workshop to identify our individual values and to design our projects and approach around shared values.

This workshop is inspired by Monica Sharma’s work in transformational leadership for large scale system shift. In this article, she describes the framework of the methods she shares for this kind of work. Connecting with our personal values and designing based on values is a key component. [Sharma, Monica. “Contemporary Leaders of Courage and Compassion: Competencies and Inner Capacities.” Kosmos Summer 2012.]

Individual Values

Uncovering our core values gives us better understanding of our own purpose and desire in the world. Doing this exercise with teammates is a great way to connect to each other’s inspiration.

(3 min) Select one person in the room to work these questions with:

Share something you’ve worked on that you had some role in designing.

Ask the following questions:

  • What did you envision as success for that project? Often people will dissemble, and say it wasn’t a success. People will also commonly talk about the activities of the project, things they did, instead of what the vision was of the project. So:
  • Ask them to imagine that it WAS a success. What is happening in the world then? How are people living? What is the quality of life?
  • Drill to one word. That’s the value you were working from. The value you represent. The word should not be an action or process (manifestation, collaboration, interaction, etc), but what people feel like if they can act or work in that way (joy, justice, inclusion, health, etc).

(12 min) Now, break into pairs. If there are project teams in the room, ask people to work with someone in the same team and ask each other the questions above.

(at 6 min) Remind people to switch

Have each person say their value when you reconvene. If you can, write these somewhere that will be visible for your team as you continue to work together.

Value-Based Design

Designing a project with the larger purpose in mind helps to think big and understand that your actions connect to your visions of social justice. It also helps your team to recognize shared values, a great starting place for connecting when you have to make difficult design decisions.

Overview (5 minutes)
In this method, we design with our teams first by developing shared understanding of the impacts we want to see as a result of the work we do together. These will be large-scale and will likely relate to values we identified in the Individual Values exercise. In this exercise, Impacts, longterm sustained state change.

Because we can’t implement impacts directly, we continue to design our work into pieces of work that we can implement. We divide these pieces into three categories: Inputs, Outputs, and Outcomes.

Share the above graphic.

Go through an example, here is an example of how we might have used this methodology in developing Codesign:

Ask what desired impacts of Codesign are:

  • Impacts – sustained state change. – What do you think the intended impacts of codesign as a method are? Empowered and equal engagement.

Ask what some inputs, outputs and outcomes are of Codesign:

  • Outputs – collaborative workshops
  • Inputs – YOU! Partners, us, this room, MOUs, etc
  • Outcomes – A change, but requires continued effort to maintain – Such as social relationships, people try it and don’t keep it up

We tend to fill these three categories with information in a nonlinear way — recognizing an Output may surface desired Outcomes and Inputs. Broadly, we design right to left and implement left to right.

Project Design (25 min)
Now practice the value-based design methodology with project with your team. If you are at an early stage in your work together and you haven’t yet identified or selected a project you will work on, you can begin by taking the various partner’s organizational values into consideration. Broadly, what are the impacts that your team’s members envision?

Before completing the exercise, have each group fill in at least 2 points under each section.

Wrap It Up
Reportback (15 min)
Ask people to share their process. Try using the Green/Yellow/Red method and ask each group to share one Green – a thing that was easy or clear; Yellow – one thing that was challenging or that they learned something from; and Red – something that was difficult or a block.

If the teams went to different parts of the room, have everyone tour around. Document the work of each group.