We spent two years building a digital community engagement tool to help practitioners close racial gaps. We share our lessons learned in a new report.

Living Cities has been exploring and defining what it means to be a 21st century learning organization since its inception in 1991. We have always placed a premium on learning over success. Ben Hecht, our CEO, likes to talk about Living Cities as an “innovation lab” where we test out new ideas to then spread what works to our member institutions and around the country. We began to put a framework on our learning agenda around 2012, when Ben wrote “Leading in a Hyper-Connected World”. The organization began to invest significant resources in knowledge and learning capacities, which included evaluation, communications, and knowledge management.

Living Cities is funded by its members in three-year funding cycles, and for the 2016-2019 round, we decided to refine and focus our learning efforts in the hopes of building a 21st century learning tool: a digital platform that would connect practitioners around the country to help them achieve their results in closing racial income and wealth gaps.

We knew that the social sector needed significant investment in digital infrastructure—similar to the massive connectivity investments of wifi, search engines, and social media of the 2000s. We knew that while we could not undertake the massive investment required to create a digital infrastructure that serves the needs of the social sector, we could create a digital tool that meets the needs of our network, and also test some specific hypotheses in the process to build the understanding of what it takes to use digital technologies to encourage learning and racial equity.

Today we are releasing a new report that details the process and findings from the development of that digital tool. The report outlines the approach and values needed to undertake a digital community engagement effort, and what organizations should consider if they want to be successful with online engagement.

Goals of the Development Process

We intentionally built our digital platform as a series of pilots. To live our values as a 21st century learning organization, we knew that we could not come up with a project plan with rigid time-lines or completely defined goals. Instead, we developed some general questions and set some assumptions:

  • How do we support a community of practice? Understand the scaffolding to put around existing communities of practice that will support the development, spread, and adoption of most promising practices.
  • How do we co-create a platform for sharing? Co-create a digital platform, building on existing technology and networks, for the effective sharing and scaling of solutions.
  • How do we build a repository of solutions? Build a robust, dynamic repository of economic opportunity solutions that is easy to discover.
  • How do we encourage collaboration in our ecosystem? Facilitate purposeful collaboration between Living Cities staff and stakeholders.

What We Learned

To answer these questions, we completed fieldscans of existing digital infrastructure, as well as developed several partnerships with other organizations to understand the needs of our community and how we could meet those needs. These partnerships included Sphaera, the Gates Foundation, Slalom, Context Partners, and Strategic Learning Partners. These partners helped us test what works and what doesn’t to authentically engage our communities.

We learned the following takeaways:

  • For an organization to achieve social impact, it needs to work in an open, networked way. A network of partnerships can help accelerate results through the sharing of learnings and promising practices.

  • The goals and results from any learning efforts need to be centered on racial equity. If learning efforts do not center racial equity, they will disregard the defining reason of inequity in our society.

  • Becoming a 21st century learning organization does not happen overnight. This work takes time and energy and investment to build the required capacity.

  • Part of the investment in becoming a 21st century learning organization is about shifting culture. Many organizations, and many individuals, are not used to working in an open, collaborative, learning environment.

  • Digital engagement cannot be successful without a deep understanding of community needs; it must be done in co-creation with partners.

  • Living Cities and other organizations working on digital community learning platforms are ahead of the curve. It is challenging to be supporting digital engagement in an industry that is still struggling to understand what that means.

You can read more about the project and our lessons learned in our new report.

Contributors to this report included several Living Cities staff members, past and present: Joanna Carrasco; Santiago Carrillo; Shanee Helfer; Shannon Jordy; Julienne Kaleta; Hafizah Omar; Alyssa Smaldino; Carmen Smith.