2017, for me, was a year in which I expanded my understanding of and experience with community-driven design processes. My education, background, and recent experience have all involved creating with communities, and this year, I was given the opportunity to go above and beyond:
- In two days in Athens, 150 participants created a vision for the future of libraries in a workshop I facilitated. Wow! It didn’t stop there, though. The ensuing project has already brought together tens of thousands of people from 213 countries in a dialogue about the future.
- In a series of workshops, this year drafted a shared vision for a new museum in The Hague.
- In an exciting and dynamic social context, we co-created a digital strategy for a new heritage centre in the UK together with stakeholders and its community.
- But also, in 90 minutes we developed games to make heritage more accessible, we co-created a thrilling potato exhibition with Polish heritage professionals and brought together some of the smartest people on earth to develop a vision on the future of nature. Etc. Etc.
In addition, I was allowed to visit or sit on the sidelines of many other inspirational projects: Story House Belvedere (image above), the Little Museum of Dublin, and our own Museum of Languages in Leiden.
I learned a lot, but my key take away is, that under the right conditions, every person has a valuable contribution to make. Cultural institutions are near perfect places to create these right conditions. Often we provide safe spaces or meeting zones; we have typically curious staff; and conversation starters in our collections. We can apply these assets to our development as much as to the development of our communities and even societies.
What’s more: we need this full diversity of contributions. Whether the challenge is developing a futureproof cultural institution or overcoming climate change, they require a diversity of ideas, perspectives, knowledge, skills, and experiences available in communities to be resolved.
Here creating with communities touches upon another important topic: diversity. When an organisation is inclusive, a greater diversity of ideas, perspectives, and experiences will enrich their processes. There is overwhelming evidence that diversity benefits teams, communities, societies, and individuals, amongst others because it improves fact-finding and communication between people, and slows down decision making.
So, is a consequence of creating with communities that it takes longer to make decisions? Does it slow down processes? It is a question I regularly get from time-strapped professionals, and the answer is a simple No.
Creating with communities doesn’t necessarily mean a design process takes longer. It does mean the process follows a different path, though. Traditionally, often in institutions, first, a decision is made, which is then ‘sold’ to everyone who should be involved. When creating with communities, first time and effort are put into bringing together all ideas, building a community, generating buy-in, and then a decision is made which can be implemented quickly.
Erin Meyer calls this the difference between decisions with a big D and those with a small d. Different cultures make decisions differently. Some set them in stone; others debate them at length. In creating with communities, it is the small d that matter first, before a well-supported big D is made.
I have a dream, a dream encouraged by the experience of this year. In Athens, 150 participants, their energy and ideas managed to start a unique movement that has now gone around to world to gather the full diversity of ideas about the future of libraries. What if we did the same for museums? A global discussion about why and how museum matter, together with tens of thousands of professionals and enthusiasts alike, aimed at using our unique assets to find an answer to one of the most pressing issues of our time?
Such a project would work in many different ways. First, I think a global community brought together by a trusted facilitator can contribute to global challenges. It would show beyond doubt that museums play a role in contemporary society, and it would help organisations to start creating with their communities more often. But above all, it would show that museums are for everyone and that everyone can make a valuable contribution.
I’ve been talking about this project at conferences and with potential supporters for some months now. Please contact me if you can help to make this happen in 2018!
Header image: The communities involved in Story House Belvedere in Rotterdam, one of my favourite discoveries of this year.