I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about the role of innovation in engaging people in complex societal issues. Specifically the impact innovative processes have on those who take part in these discussions, and also what those who commission public engagement activities mean by innovation.
So what is innovation in engagement?
For some, public dialogue, citizens juries and assemblies are all highly innovative practices and new ways of engaging people from diverse cultures and backgrounds on complex science and challenging social issues, possibly more so for policy bodies that haven’t engaged extensively with a range of publics in the past to develop their policies. For others, these processes don’t push the boundaries of engagement because, they’ve been done before, or they feel that participant numbers are limited, or restricted to those who are recruited to take part, or perhaps because they are often conducted as off-line workshop activities rather than through online engagement. So this is my point:
If innovation is about using new methods and processes then it is in my mind linked strongly to creativity. It is also something which should only be used if there is a point to it - if it will produce or have an impact.
Why is it important?
At HVM we believe that public dialogue and other deliberative processes are really important in ensuring people have a voice on the issues that matter to society and in that sense they are always innovative, bringing together people who wouldn’t normally meet for enriching discussions that have the potential to change society for the better. We’re not saying deliberation is the only way (a big shout out for citizen science, community mapping, social sharing, cafe society discussions and all the other brilliant on & offline engagement practices), but I don’t think that doing any of these things is innovative in and of itself. Nor do I think that innovation is a good thing by default. However, I do think that using creative and varied tools and processes as part of a public dialogue, citizens jury, assembly (you get the idea) is the right way to go.
Participants in HVM dialogues frequently express surprise that a) they’ve enjoyed it, and b) that they’ve really felt listened to and reassured that their views will have an impact on future decisions and policies. I think there are a number reasons behind both the fun elements and the trust the process engenders so that people know they’ve been heard.
How do we know?
HVM employs innovation as an integrated part of the process. We are led by what is best for the design and what will create impact for participants and commissioning bodies. This is likely to to be a creative endeavour, unique to that specific topic, for example:
Theatrical scenes created as specific stimulus - as we did for The Wellcome Trust’s The Crunch programme in which we worked alongside the theatre company Look Left Look Right to create scenes about the current food system drawn from verbatim interviews, as well as vivid imaginings of the future of food. This ultimately helped participants to reflect in a dialogue process on a positive system change.
Using a stepping stones activity to plot the trajectory of new technologies from now through the next 100 years - we used this for the recent work with the Royal Society on neural interfaces and found it provoked a lot of thought on where these technologies are going and how people want that to be managed.
Storytelling to imagine a future in which new technologies play a key role and in which society has an important part to play in what kind of regulatory frameworks need to be in place.
Empowering participants to use more critical questioning of specialists in the room by assuming the role of journalists, or a put yourself in their shoes activity which allows people to think themselves into the role of someone leading an AI initiative, the development of a neural interface platform, or a funding body planning their next set of priorities
Using illustration/ collage to share something really meaningful to a particular section of society - we used this in a dialogue on wellbeing and found that those who identify as chronically lonely created beautiful futures in which they could play an active part in society
Why we do it?
All these have added up to processes which have impact because the participants, in a two, and sometimes three, round process are enabled to have important discussions using tools which draw out their stories, ideas, views and lived experience. Part of our innovation is that we never pay lip service to deliberation, we always allow meaningful time for reflection, sometimes as much as four weeks between workshops. We encourage participants to talk about the issue at hand with friends and family, and often ask them to do a creative task in the interim to get them thinking. We do this because:
In today’s frantic society, where people have little time to listen and understand views that are not their own, it is to many people highly innovative to be given the space and peace to reflect on the issues that matter.
Why does this have impact?
Public dialogue allows participants to work on a level playing field with specialists in a subject (scientists, researchers, academics, policy makers and shapers), think, breathe in the subject, and reflect on all sides of the issues it raises. That means over time they come up with ambitious suggestions and recommendations that have the potential for a real and positive impact on how the policy, programme or initiative is taken forward for society. For the policy makers/ scientists/ researchers it gives insights they wouldn’t have had by sitting in a stakeholder workshop without people from all parts of society.
The greatest impact is that society can act more responsibly in planning for a future with seismic societal changes and/ or emerging technologies as a result of meaningful public engagement. The film clips accessed from the image below give you some insight on what this means for participants who have been involved in HVM public dialogues.