Participatory processes add a sparkle of unexpectedness to the projects we can very well manage independently. This creative sparkle doesn’t just add to the fun, but helps us be innovative and stay at the forefront of developments, which is very hard if we stay within the realm of the expected.
How do you get a bookclub, a boxing lesson and a black metal band at your next event? For instance, at the next anniversary of your university?
Of course, you could book them. Go online, look for an affordable local option, and click the appropriate button. But you probably won’t. The bookclub, maybe, but the others are simply too unexpected, too random, to even be considered. You’ll organise a few workshops, a smart debate, and a rapid fire inspiration session after lunch. And that’s just fine.
On 11 November 2016, the Reinwardt Academy turned 40, and we celebrated this with a festival including a bookclub, a boxing lesson, a black metal band and some forty other activities, including workshops, debates and a solid crash course museology. The lineup was so unexpected, that we called one of the stages “unexpected”. At the same time, the lineup provided enough traditional elements (other stages were called “debate” and “bar”) to appeal to the large and diverse audience that should appreciate such an event.
The lineup of the festival wasn’t devised by a team of creative masterminds, or after a night out in town, but in a carefully designed participatory cocreation process, which I facilitated. When we started with this process months ago, nobody could have predicted what would happen during the festival. Some of the best bits were added in the last weeks, organically, unexpectedly. Watch my vlog of the event to get a sense of the day:
Talking with professor Pierluigi Sacco this weekend in Karlsruhe for a different project, I realised once again that it is this unexpectedness that is the true added value of participatory processes and community-driven projects. It is the creativity of others that adds a sparkle to the things we know and know how to do ourselves.
For the project at the Reinwardt Academy, I knew we could organise a great celebration, even if the entire participatory process would fail. Even if nobody had contributed, the team at the Reinwardt Academy would have been professional enough to pull something off. We invited the community – between 150 and 200 of them – to participate for an unexpected sparkle. That’s what creative communities are good at.
Three implications of these observations:
- As it is not easy and certainly not cheap or fast to design a participatory process, it’s probably best to go for such a process if you want to go beyond what you already know or know how to do (or think you know how to do).
- All genuinely participatory processes contain a certain degree of unexpectedness, in the outcomes and in the process. This was true for the organisation of the festival. I didn’t expect a student to suggest to participate with his band, and I didn’t expect some of the celebrated names to be completely unresponsive. I didn’t expect a dinosaur (really!) and I didn’t expect some of the fiercest critics to (secretly) become the largest contributors (thanks!).
- Ultimately, I think, it implies that whenever you want to broaden the scope of what you know and know how to do, a participatory process may be an ideal way to do so. This was definitely true for the Reinwardt Academy. After a field day around their vision late last year, we identified some areas where there was a gap between the ambitions of the academy and their day-to-day reality. The festival and participatory process focused explicitly on these areas, thus helping the academy to grow and develop beyond their comfort zone.
What is most definitely not true, is that a participatory process will only yield totally unexpected results. A well-designed process led by an experienced facilitator can deliver expected results, with an unexpected sparkle. As I mentioned, the lineup of the festival consisted of as many expected elements (debates, workshops, a bar) as unexpected sparkle (bookclub, boxing, black metal) as well as elements that combined both (a crash course of the best the lecturers had to offer, for instance).
I am a big fan of participatory processes. Part of this has to do with my background: I’ve been trained to understand that in order to advance communities, inclusive participation is the best way forward. Part of this also has to do with the unexpectedness of human creativity. There is simply no script that combines the celebration of a museology academy with boxing, bookclubs and black metal, and has hundreds of people leave with a smile on their face. Only a participatory cocreation process can create so much unexpectedness, and such a high level of audience engagement and production quality.