Agenda 2021: Bigotry-breaking through community innovation

We’re all looking at the coming year with some mix of hope and trepidation: an end in sight now to some of the biggest crises we’ve faced, but also a new, sobering awareness of Big Things we need to work on. I’ve been sketching the issues and the new opportunities I think we have to impact them, and I’d love to hear what you think.

Here’s one that I’ve been chewing on a lot:

We learned this year on a whole new level that we don’t know how to get along with people who are not like us. Whether it’s race or economic level or political stance, the divides that have been spreading for generations are now too broad to ignore. Those divides weren’t new to this year — Bowling Alone called this out 20 years ago — but those chasms have never seemed as pronounced, as deadly and as seemingly insurmountable as they do at the end of 2020.

But they’re not insurmountable. We can fix that. Let me tell you a little story, and then I’ll give you my plan of action.

My father never had a good word to say about Black people. Having come up in an almost completely white town, and having imbibed the stereotypes and caracatures and judgements common in 20th century white communities, he believed all the wrong things you’d expect him to have believed about those Other people who looked different from him.

Until he found himself working with Black people through his church. Including a Black pastor. The first Black pastor ever to serve that church.

That pastor became a close family friend, and presided at both of my parents’ funerals. He changed how my father thought and what he believed. Not by debate, but through working together on issues that mattered to them both.

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The only way that I have seen people learn to put aside their prejudices and judgements has been to place people in a situation where they are actively working together, collaborating toward a common goal. In developing Econogy, we called that work Co-creation, to avoid getting it tangled up with the more mundane pseudo-collaborations often called “public engagement” or “public feedback.”

Co-creating requires that you have a relationship with the people you are co-creating with. You have to see their humanity, build trust with them. Hear what they say, as well as what remains unsaid. And you sometimes have to argue, have to misunderstand, have to get your feelings hurt. But if the thing we are trying to co-create actually matters to us — like the future of our community — then we have no choice but to figure out how to come back together, reconcile, move on.

Co-creating is not easy. But it is powerful. And effective. In hundreds of public meetings I ran during my planning career, I can think of no recommendation that came into being that didn’t have the committed support of the people who hands-on helped to breathe it into being.

And hands down, the best co-creations I have seen have happened when people who have different lives, different incomes, different racial experiences co-create together.

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We have stunningly, tragically few places in our community lives today where we co-create. With anyone. Most of us live in a separate universe from the people who have much more or much less than we do, or who have very different color skin, or different languages, or any of a variety of differences. I am no more likely to cross paths with an QAnon supporter in a given day as I am to find myself with a Somali refugee. Our day-to-day worlds are highly homogenous.

That homogeneity costs us, all of us, a lot. It means that the network of people we can draw on to help us understand the world around us — to help us solve problems, even find and capitalize on business opportunities — is weaker, shallower, less beneficial than it should be.

It means that we draw the wrong conclusions from our limited information. It means that we make the wrong products, chase dreams that are too small to matter, and miss huge opportunities simply because the narrow slice of the world that we have any experience with didn’t indicate that those opportunities existed.

And those missed opportunities happens whether our mission is to fix community challenges, or build the next Google, or simply make a living. We miss our potential when we work from strictly within our bubble.

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So here’s how we create systems that enable us to co-create, no matter whether those are economic, business, social or something else (or all of them):

We create an inclusive Community Innovation Hub. A place where people can find and encounter and build relationships with other people who care about the community, even if your paths would not cross anywhere else. A place where people can find co-creators. And find the tools, the skills and the people that they need to co-create something new.

Those solutions can be a new public policy or a new business product, or both. It doesn’t really matter; both approaches can generate huge impact. The point is to see what none of us could see alone, and build new solutions that can address the issues that continue to bedevil us, no matter what form that addressing takes.

The Community Innovation Hub doesn’t have to be fancy. Anything beyond tables, chairs and white boards might just be gravy. But it does have to be safe and welcoming for people who aren’t in the majority. That may require some ground rules, some training, some design elements, some culture-building that is different from what we have normally done in innovation hubs. (I talked about ways to enable inclusive innovation in Everyonebody Innovates Here. ) A Community Innovation Hub requires building an honestly inclusive culture, which is more than just hanging cool pictures on the walls.

We do have innovation hubs in many cities, but they are a shadow of what they could be. They cater to a super narrow slice of our communities — the conventionally educated, the already-polished, the ones that we have been trained to see as the likely winners.

But they fail, a lot. And often what they succeed at is less valuable, less impactful, less beneficial — to the market, to people who need what they can do, to the community as a whole — that what they might have been able to do if they had had real opportunities to ditch their own blinders.

Innovation, done well, is an inherently inclusive game. But except for the rare few who run in highly privileged circles, we don’t learn or have the experience of innovating together.

But there is no reason why we can’t.

If we had community innovation hubs in even a small number of cities, we’d recoup that investment many times over. We’d be discovering and testing new ways to solve old problems that the experts would have never envisioned, because expertise narrows your view of the possible as it deepens your facility with the view that lies between your blinders.

We’d start learning to see through more sets of eyes than just the ones around us. We’d discover new perspectives, new ways of working, new tool sets, and new approaches to the thorny challenges that have evaded our old methods and our blindered, hidebound assumptions… including the assumptions, like my dad’s learned racism, that we sometimes forget that we have if we don’t leave our bubbles.

We designed a method at Econogy for creating community innovation hubs and powering them with young people — the people least encumbered by old assumptions and homogenous networks. We called it the Power Plant, and we’re looking forward to being able to build a few Power Plants in 2021.

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