How can we use communication to affect positive community change?
I found myself in a back room at The Happiness Lab on a Friday morning in late February, where I joined four others who had also been invited to participate in a citizen engagement workshop hosted by SeeClickFix. We each have different backgrounds and professions ((a coffee shop owner, a medical device designer, an online publication editor, a community organizer) and so what SeeClickFix wanted to know from us was what common core values do we share when we think about how communication can impact the communities in which we live.
More specifically, we wanted to focus on one important question: How can we use communication to affect positive community change?
But that’s not exactly where we started.
Instead, the SeeClickFix product team (Josh, Matt, and Slate) helped us create an affinity diagram — an exercise where we grouped ideas into meaningful themes so we could more clearly see the natural relationships and connections between them.
Here’s how an affinity diagram works:
Step 1: Transfer ideas onto sticky notes. Each idea gets a separate sticky note. At this point, organizing information isn’t important. It’s simply an opportunity to write down every thought. Once we had all our thoughts and a table full of stickies, we placed them all on the large whiteboard at the front of the room.
Our stickies were responses to the following five questions:
- What’s the most important thing you can do to positively impact your community?
- Why is it important to communicate?
- What is the best tool of communication and why?
- What are the characteristics of good communication?
- What are some obstacles that prevent good communication?
For example, let’s take the first question: What’s the most important thing you can do to positively impact your community? We came up with five responses (one each):
- Knowing your neighbors
- Invest in where you live
- Vote or voice your opinion
- Speak up
Step 2: Sort ideas into themes.
Next it was time to sort the ideas into groups — but with a catch: no talking allowed. We stood silently before the whiteboard and were given 15 minutes to shuffle, re-shuffle, and [hopefully] group all the stickies we had compiled as a group. The general strategy is something like this: Look for ideas that seem to be related in some way. Place them side-by-side. Repeat until all the stickies are grouped.
A few “loner” ideas didn’t seem to fit into any group. This is okay.
Step 3: Select headings for each group (and we can talk again!)
Identifying patterns and themes led to an interesting discussion. Even though we had successfully organized our ideas, it was a challenge to collectively select a heading for each group that captured the entire meaning of each note within the group.
At the end of this step, we had arrived at the following headings, each supported by individual thoughts:
- Options for various channels
- Verbally preventative
This was the end of creating the affinity diagram. Next, we went back to our five responses to that first question -- What’s the most important thing you can do to impact your community -- and chose which of the headings was necessary to accomplish each of the five.
For example, I think the most important thing I can do to impact my community is listen. To be able to listen, I need to engage in dialogue, be open, explore channels for communication (both verbal and nonverbal), capitalize on decency and empathy, and collaborate with others.
We all agreed that dialogue, being open, exploring verbal and nonverbal communication channels, employing decency and empathy, and collaboration are all essential to being able to listen effectively; and therefore essential to being able to impact your community.
Our next prompt was to consider how each of these groups manifests in our lives in a practical way: What does [core value group name] mean to you:
- In your community
- In a device
Take “dialogue”: What does dialogue mean in our community? We said relationships & solving problems. What does dialogue mean in our devices? We said reach more people, interaction, convenience, and speed.
Take “transparency”: In a community, it means we know what’s going on, things are visible, and we can see leadership; in a device, transparency means interaction, accessibility, being helpful, having added value, and the purpose is clear.
Finally, we explored the real question that SeeClickFix was interested in answering all along: How can the SeeClickFix platform be used as a communication tool, both citizen-to-citizen, and citizen-to-government?
The affinity diagram let us move beyond our habitual thinking and ways in which we tend to categorize, and instead tap into our intuition. It was freeing to be open-minded and not begin with categories, but instead find them by shuffling our communal ideas. Our ideas and patterns naturally emerged -- and this was the most fascinating part of the process.
I’m reminded of this idea of “community” and “civil society.” Noun. A community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity. But what else does it involve? A shared set of ethics. A priority on common well-being. Participation. So doesn’t a civil society depend on an effort to know one another and ourselves -- by engaging and participating? By communicating? In this exercise, I learned that sometimes we must lose our own individual identities -- as activists, writers, business owners -- to find our collective one. In this case, we abandoned our familiar, habitual communities to accomplish a collective task. We formed new relationships that brought with them insights into the universals we all share.
The fact that we were able to come together as a group proved the value not only of communication itself, but also how engaging citizens in designing both community initiatives and civic technology to ensure that the technology will benefit the communities it serves. After all, what use is the most innovative piece of tech design if no one uses it? How can product design utilize the power of communication?
People want to participate and contribute. If we can create and maintain an open place for the unexpected and controversial, encourage citizen participation, bridge social lines and find the common threads that connect us all, we can all have an impact on our communities. Sounds like a pretty powerful design to me.