it's a relationship


Community centered design for 21st century cities and corporations

May 17, 2014

This blog post is written in response to a May 12, 2014 group blogging event, co-hosted by Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities, which asked, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

As corporations and cities grow, unevenly amassing size and wealth, there is a greater necessity to design connections to each other and develop opportunity in a way that engages communities to decide what they want to become. This engagement translates into a nimbleness that is now demanded by the speed of change—whether it is consumer tastes, the flow of information or the increase of natural and manmade disasters. The scale and scope of change does not hit all people equally and a weak link in the social and economic structure makes the whole system more vulnerable. Municipalities and corporations alike must adjust more quickly and keep those already struggling from falling deeper into the abyss. It is a 21st century obligation for public and private institutions have to their communities, though is not necessarily easy to pursue.

The time of designing FOR communities is over. It is time we design WITH our communities—designing with people for solutions that scale.

At Context Partners we call this type of design Community Centered Design (CCD)—a practice that invites a community to co-design its future through a solution-finding methodology, keeping the focus on relationships. Community Centered Design identifies the core desires and motivations shared among an organization and individuals—citizens, employees, customers, alumni, partners or beneficiaries.

We’ve applied this practice to research the work of local organizers, then to develop a concept for Black male leadership, resulting in BMe. In another application we defined fishing supply-chain health indicators for the Walton Family Foundation by getting on the water and into production facilities. To create the 100 Resilient Cities prize challenge we spoke with city leaders and stakeholders around the globe with the Rockefeller Foundation. Community Centered Design does not create cookie cutter solutions, but instead designs WITH the community ensuring a perfect fit.

Practicing Community Centered Design means developing sustainable and resilient relationships among people within communities of all shapes and sizes. Then turning those disparate communities into networks of activity, into business models that are adaptive, yielding economic prosperity. These designed network solutions encourage economic inclusion at all levels and scales, whether facing the challenges of a mega city or the tensions of a new brand launch.

While it is true that we are all more connected than ever through technology and social media, these digital connections are not necessarily relationships and significant numbers of the population may not be reached by simply creating an online forum or other technology solution. Relationships must be based on shared values and purpose, and in common identity so action and connection can be incentivized and rewarded. Relationships are much more than another shiny new website.

When we teach and practice Community Centered Design we focus on four principles; community ownership, intentional relationships, meaningful motivators and comfort with chaos. Community ownership means whoever the “community” is, you must involve them at every step, suspending your own biases and weighing their inputs equally with yours. Intentional relationships require you to be more focused with your goals, driving toward powerful relationships as the core. Meaningful motivators mean values, habits, rewards and human behavior trump rules, strategy and process. Lastly, but perhaps most difficult, comfort with chaos requires that any powerful design process involve a certain amount of messiness. When you let go of some of the control and some of the bias, you let the chaos continue to guide you through the actual steps of Community Centered Design. This needs to be done without predicting, while still solving for the problem at hand.

As an example, in working with the Knight Foundation to design BMe everyone gained comfort with chaos through the co-design and testing process. Personal bias, ideals and the design had to adjust to what the community told us would work, and more importantly what wouldn’t. We heard from the community members that the original idea of a prize challenge was not enticing and we saw first hand what was happening on the ground that could be connected and amplified. We could not ignore the learnings from the pilot cities as we considered the next launches and the eventual product or program design. The BMe network design came from letting the communities speak via video submission about what black male leadership was to them. At the outset we did not predict designing a new organization, but that is exactly what the process eventually created. The community knew what was best and we left our bias and fear of risk or chaos behind. An amazing new organization was born.

If you embrace Community Centered Design’s four principles, then it is time to act. In order to build the methodology into the DNA of your city or corporation it takes structure. We suggest three primary steps to drive the process: LISTEN, CONNECT, MOVE.

To practice Community Centered Design first you must LISTEN. It may seem obvious but good listening takes practice. We listen with traditional research tools as well as new and innovative methods to uncover the core beliefs of a community. You might think of this as beginning the process of differentiating need from demand, getting firsthand experience that allows you to map the community’s relationships and beliefs. Done well, it is also the first chance to do outreach and create buy-in for your eventual product, service or cause. In a recent research (LISTEN) phase for large corporate telecommunication clients the interviews, focus groups and municipal site visits opened up new avenues for positioning programs. Listening focused on economic development and the eventual design and testing of incentive programs that support organizations to entrepreneurs. Unfiltered, unbiased input from a variety of stakeholders refocused the intended geographies, target populations and programs in unique ways that were unanticipated by the client. The community felt heard and the seeds for the rollout messages were planted. New considerations for the next step in the process were a direct result of the commitment to LISTEN.

After you’ve listened well, it is time to CONNECT, to start a dialogue and unite people in your community around their shared purpose and values. This is where we see many organizations spend too little time. You should prototype and test what you think you heard with the community members and often an improved product or service will result. We call this prototyping and revision “co-design.” The co-design process deepens relationships among community members to form lasting connections. In a recent project with the foundation arm of a global footwear brand, we mapped the community, created aspirational identities and deepened the connection of temporary employees, or flex talent, to the organization. This deepening would not have happened without the iterative co-design process with an underrepresented group. This flex talent group was given the freedom to express their view on their experience with the brand, were engaged in co-design of potential solutions and in the end they “owned” what became a better way to make their community of flex talent employees a valued, engaged and trusted part of the larger team.

After the listening, co-designing and connecting, it is time to MOVE. This means creating and providing the tools, experiences and rewards to drive the community to take action. This might be done through a combination of communications, community management and rewards to the community members. This step signals a shift from conversion to adoption, recruitment to retention, from purchase to referral. The Resilience Exchange, an innovative system for sharing and recombining solutions for scale on a global level, has matured through the listen and connect phases with our set of corporate, NGO, and philanthropic partners and is readying itself to MOVE. All of the charter members are engaging in the diverse efforts to grow the community’s members and users. These efforts include workshops, prize challenges and public “storefronts” that are incentivized and experiential which in the end, offer a service that provides solutions for tackling problems globally. This project’s process included multiple iterations of co-design and testing and even while we MOVE to the next steps, there is ongoing process of continued reflection.

Because Community Centered Design is never a linear process, we LISTEN (Again) to our community. And again. And again. Being nimble with the design means we continue to stay open to input, even as we launch and grow. Two recent corporate clients have continued to extend and expand their efforts that include national and global prize challenges, network development, nonprofit spin-offs and product advocacy groups. As we have worked with these for-profit partners, who were hungry for community for input, the product or service has been perfected to be more effectively targeted, messaged and focused on the desired scaling and outcomes of true “movement building” projects. Those community members and stakeholders, normally without a voice, have been brought in so their demands, dreams and wishes were heard.

Inclusive, responsible, resilient and sustainable communities and corporations of all sizes and types can find new pathways to success and remake the engagement process with stakeholders, clients and constituents. Community Centered Design is one way to do this, as we adapt to a changing markets, populations and patterns from the neighborhood to the global level. Inclusive prosperity and opportunity must be the goal.

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