By Susan Hopkins, AICP
Shared experiences and serendipity are key elements of a healthy community—and a healthy democracy.
This morning, as I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I realized something about the work we do at Highland Planning. Community engagement is not only fun and meaningful for our clients and communities. It is essential to sustaining our democracy.
The podcast, entitled “Defending the Republic,” featured Cass R. Sunstein, a legal scholar and author of the recently published #republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Sunstein’s premise is that while free speech is important, it’s not enough to ensure a healthy democracy. Serendipity and shared experiences are also key elements.
What is Serendipity?
In simple terms, serendipity is something that happens by chance in a beneficial way. These are experiences that promote chance encounters and democratic deliberation. The way most of us digest news and social media today means that we have fewer and fewer opportunities to experience serendipity: things like “public forums of old,” traditional TV news, and generalist newspapers. This applies to public spaces, too. Parks, buses, plazas, and trails are all serendipitous places that foster shared experience and diverse encounters. It also applies to public meetings, open houses, design workshops, and focus groups.
Shared face-to-face experiences and unchosen serendipitous experiences, even when we don’t like them, can lead to encounters with diverse ideas. They allow us to hear opposing viewpoints and unfiltered perspectives. In other words, we’re increasing the odds that we become engaged in something that challenges our convictions, and that we will be able to understand, and learn from, people we might otherwise disagree with, distrust, or even demonize.
Many of us have seen the viral YouTube videos featuring angry crowds at “town hall” meetings around the country. Admittedly, that is not the type of shared experience many of us want to have. What is missing from those meetings is a carefully orchestrated meeting design that elevates the conversation and gives everyone a chance to be heard.In fact, the design of a meeting—from activities to the type of venue—is one of the most important ways to create a valuable shared experience that encourages people to see other points of view and consider other perspectives. Two techniques we use to facilitate dialogue in larger groups and/or in situations where there may be diverging values and opinions are Cardstorming and World Café.
- Cardstorming is an effective way to get groups to think, brainstorm, and make decisions together. The exercise encourages individual thought and moves towards consensus. It begins with a broad question for which people are asked to jot down answers on sticky notes. Then participants are invited to paste their answers on the wall. With the help of a facilitator, everyone works together to categorize all the sticky notes, create clusters, and prioritize ideas.
- World Café is a specialized process in which people rotate between small group discussions of 10-20 minutes each. At the end of each round, each member of the group moves to a different group. A “table host” may stay to welcome the next group and briefly fill them in on what happened in the previous round.
These are just two of many techniques we use to create serendipity and foster productive discussion.
So, the next time you attend a public meeting, talk to a candidate campaigning door-to-door, or have a serendipitous encounter at a park or on the bus, consider that you aren’t just participating in your community, you are helping to preserve and strengthen our democracy.