Five Big Truths — On Cultivating Resilience through Inclusive Participatory Ecosystems.
Recently I wrote a reflection piece on the insights we’ve been gathering about building a platform approach to inclusive participation in neighbourhoods, inspired by the many years’ work of the Participatory City Foundation. In Halifax, our work has been uniquely focused on building the relationships and learning that are helping us to understand how this approach could catalyze urgent and systemic shifts of our time, such as Indigenous Reconciliation; Shifts that are calling for the creation of new systems that prioritize a collective commitment to values like healing, justice, and regeneration.
With these insights fresh in my mind, I tuned into a webinar hosted by a Nova Scotia based organization called Onside which featured Sandra Makenzie, co-founder the Forge Institute, sharing research around the Maker Movement in Nova Scotia and its potential for community based innovation. The presentation resonated with me deeply as it reflected so much of what I have felt and observed over many years of working with diverse groups to foster community driven change, and has been further revealed through our recent work to build Every One Every Day Kjipuktuk.
Put simply it is this: The desire among people to connect and create is inherent within every community and with the right conditions in place, all residents can participate in building the kind of places they wish to live in and contribute to a more prosperous society for all. Over the last year I’ve been practicing and learning so much about what makes participation culture thrive and why this is essential as we think about how we wish to emerge collectively in a post Covid era. Through these reflections, I’ve landed on Five Big Truths that I’d suggest could be a starting place as we think about how our civic infrastructure can help to foster a more inclusive and resilient society — one where residents and the things they value are reflected in the places they live and the things they do together.
#1 – Great ideas and innovations aren’t a supply problem — our work is to create the conditions for people and their ideas to flourish. Innovation is too often viewed as something that happens in the private sector or in small, relativity inaccessible pockets of government or the social sector. Anyone familiar with community development or grassroots mobilizing knows that talent and ingenuity are abundant in and across every single community — when we understand and mobilize the supports needed to tap into these things.
#2 – People are natural consumers and producers, drawn to co-create things that generate value for themselves and others. There’s a critical link and so often missed opportunity between citizen participation and building a more inclusive, localized economy. One of the beautiful characteristics of humans is that we are uniquely made to think, design, create, and experiment — but we’re also social beings that thrive in connection to one another and the world around us. With access to the right spaces, equipment, opportunities, and support — most people will produce ideas and things we may never think possible. Often these ideas can be turned into sustainable livelihoods that can help to fuel our sense of purpose, create value for ourselves and others and contribute to a more just and sustainable economy.
#3- To build inclusive participatory ecosystems we must turn our focus to the relationships and inter-connections between things. If we think of our communities and neighbourhoods as living and breathing eco-systems, we understand that in order for them to thrive that we must focus on the relationships and inter-connections between things — living and non-living. In the context of civic infrastructure, this could look like a connected platform of spaces and projects, with teams to help to leverage relationships and resources across in order to maximize the functions of the system and expand the entry points for many different people. The notion of the ecosystem is critical because it highlights the idea that health and resilience are not characterized by the number and diversity of elements alone, but rather the number and strength of relationship’s and inter-connections between them. So just by the very act of designing for connection, we can build resilience and strengthen cohesion overall.
#4- Building transformative social infrastructure requires approaches that are hyper-localized and adaptable to enable participation at scale. Across Nova Scotia and the world, there are hundreds of amazing projects that are demonstrating how it’s possible to build more inclusive, vibrant and resilient communities. In many cases, these are relatively small, isolated initiatives that result in deep benefits for small groups of people. To reach levels of participation required for big impact, we need to design systems of infrastructure (physical and social) that can support and sustain thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of people getting involved. Now is not the time to play it small. This calls upon the social sector to reimagine program and service delivery; It also calls upon local governments to work with closely with all residents to put public assets and infrastructure to use differently; And, it calls upon the business sector to recognize the linkages between citizen participation and a more inclusive local economy so they too can adopt new ways of working with diverse residents.
#5 – Designing for inclusivity is a practice that is rooted in relationships and cyclical in nature. Here’s the thing — for far too long we’ve been designing and building things that reflect a fairly narrow portion of our society, hold dominant worldviews in place and relegate many to the margins. The result calls social service agencies into action, filling gaps with a range of programs and services that are often smaller in reach and targeted towards specific groups or activities, which can feel safe and welcoming to some, but not to others. While the nature of these patterns can be complex, there is a simple truth to be found: We need systems designed for inclusivity and the work to build them is deeply relational. Through many different relationships, we can center the voices of residents in the creation of communities and neighbourhoods that actually reflect who we are and how we wish to live together. Most importantly, the process isn’t static, but rather cyclical in nature so that it can respond to the unique identities and experiences that make up who we are as people and communities.
Across these five truths, I’ve been drawn to think more about the linkages between inclusive citizen participation and our collective capacity for social and economic resilience, and what I can say is this: Resiliency is inextricably linked to diversity in all its forms- diversity of thought, experience, culture and worldview. And now more than ever, we need this diversity and even more so, connection across it. Given this, if we’re able to think about and invest in our economy through a much wider frame of thought – one that recognizes the diverse economies required to support and sustain our monetary economy, such as social well-being or environmental restoration – we’d inevitably design more holistic support structures that strive for social cohesion and more inclusive participation in circular economies. It seems that the question of if or when we do this is no longer relevant, but rather how we go about it. I would argue the answer is with the the voices, values and creativity of everyone — we need to get to know one another in ways we haven’t before, to build greater understanding a new path forward, together.