Designing Engagement

Great TedX talk by Dave Meslin on apathy as a symptom of barriers to involvement.

Meslin systematically runs through a number of avenues of civic participation where participating is actually made more difficult (his hypothetical Nike ad, designed in the manner of a public notice, is particularly awesome).

This all reminded me of a set of points I made back in 2009:

What would it take to design a movement that actually changed what needs to be changed? How can we design a networked movement that aims to forestall and undo catastrophe, by building bright green regions and sharing innovation?

Here are a few of the larger design challenges involved:

  • Finding places where a system has been draped in complexity, and revealing it in clear, beautiful, interesting ways. How things work is of inherent interest to many people. How can we reveal the workings of the systems around them in ways that help them see the usefulness of change?



  • Making public life exciting where boredom has dampened people’s enthusiasm, if not simply driven them completely out of civic involvement. How can we simultaneously reject needless process in favor of quick, transparent and measured decisions and enliven participation? Being part of democracy ought to feel exciting, and invigorating: we should view every part of it that’s boring with deep mistrust.



  • Launching a counter-attack on pervasive cynicism and finding fresh ways to call it what it is: cynicism is obedience. The very origins of the word mean “like a dog.” Stripping cynicism of its rebelliousness, making it looks as entirely whipped an attitude as it is, is a huge step towards reclaiming the public realm. Indeed, I think we need to deploy our full battery of humorists, satirists and artists on looking at what part of us makes us so ready to accept the idea that all is sham and we’re beaten before we start.



  • Reaching out to people have been made afraid of participation, and spreading enthusiasm and a delight in civic life. How can we make civic participation more welcoming, and jam the manufactured reactionary anger that conservatives use to gum up our public processes (through tea-bagging and astroturfing)?



  • Reclaiming the media sphere by supporting local journalism that actually reveals, informs and educates. How can we develop means to support reporting, writing, filmmaking and public discussion that advances our understanding of what to do, leaving behind the tired debates of the last generation?



  • Reinventing or replacing the kinds of civic institutions — the university departments, think tanks, research labs, planning agencies — that democracies need to make informed decisions, in the wake of 40 years of work by the right wing to either destroy these institutions or overwhelm them with new, better-funded ideologically-conservative versions.



  • Diffusing innovation through our local businesses and industry groups. Unsustainable business is bad business, even in the fairly short run: sound economic strategy in times like ours is to get in the business of replacing the broken systems around us. How do we build local business cultures that support transformation as the opportunity it is?



  • Above all else, reimagining the future. Since we can’t build what we can’t imagine, and visions of the future dominate our ability to understand the present, how can we embrace future-making tools to redefine the possible in our communities? Because the powers that be have one gigantic weakness: they offer us no future, none at all, and every time we shift the debate to be about where we’re going, we win.


We don’t yet know how to do all this, but we can iterate our way into it through experimentation, exploration and innovation, consciously practicing ally etiquette to link efforts across a spectrum of systems into a collaborative whole. Indeed, since the whole thing starts with vision, simply sharing our visions for what this looks like is a huge step in the right direction.

We don’t need to wait for some mythical cultural awakening, either. There are more than enough of us, already. In most cities around the world, a fraction of one percent of the citizens getting energized and turning out — using new tools to learn together, coordinate strategy and exert public pressure — would feel like a tsunami of democracy and creative engagement.

And hidden allies can be found everywhere. Public life is full of people who want to see change, but need political cover. Change agents await activation in our government agencies, businesses, schools, political parties and media. If we can begin to engage the systems in which they’ve been quietly laboring at the systems level, we can expect unseen helpers in unexpected places.

It’s time to make ourselves into the people who can do what’s needed. To fight the powers that be, we need to see ourselves as the powers that will be, building the future we want.

The FInnish Innovation Agency SITRA talks about the importance of helping people see the “architecture of problems.” I think we need a lot more brilliant thinking about the design of engagement as well.

(Thanks, Yuri Artibase, for pointing this out!)