Living Cities has been in the midst of a three year experiment with open sourcing social change. Specifically, we asked ourselves what would happen if we reimagined how we reflect, learn, and communicate around our work, and the work of others in our problem-solving network. We hoped for less one-way monologues and more vibrant dialogue and engagement towards the co-design and co-creation of solutions.
We embarked on this path because we recognized the need to build ways to measure how our strategies are doing in supporting not just our brand recognition, but also our ability to be better partners and co-create better solutions. This will be a central focus for our team over the next year as we more closely tie this work to our organizational goals and outcomes. In the meantime, standard communications metrics can still provide useful data and insights about how our networks are, or aren’t, engaging with us through strategies like the ones outlined here.
In the spirit of transparency, here are 5 key elements of this work that we’re testing in answering this question:
1. All Hands on Deck: Synthesizing and finding opportunities to continuously engage around key takeaways and lessons from our activities and investments are fundamental aspects of everyone’s work at Living Cities. Our small communications team helps folks to harness those opportunities and to ‘package’ them for prime time, but this is definitely an all hands on deck effort, as evidenced by 119 blog posts from eighteen staff (out of twenty three) that we posted last year.
2. Partnerships, Partnerships, Partnerships: Living Cities is a collaborative of twenty two foundations and financial institutions, so our work connects us to a network of thinkers, doers, and dreamers whose work and partnership is fundamental to our theory of change. As we try to model the behavior we want to see in the social sector— “contribution, not attribution”—we are actively tapping into this network, sharing their ideas and content on our platforms. Last year, we featured thirty guest bloggers on our Catalyst Blog.
3. Ask Yourself: Is This Useful Content?: It might seem obvious, but we believe that in order for other leaders to see us a credible resource and partner, we have to share content that is actually of use to them.
Though the social sector has a great love of reports and white papers that are generally produced after the work has been done and the ‘best practice’ established, there is much greater need for real-time sharing. This is key because it enables others to learn alongside you, and to offer the benefit of their knowledge and experience so that, together, you can deepen and accelerate effective solutions. We produce and share content all along the ‘knowledge lifecycle’—from flashes of inspiration to deeper reflections and lessons from our work.
4. Speak in Plain Language: Sometimes, building a new ‘branded’ platform for content sharing is less effective than sharing on platforms that people already know and trust.
In terms of ‘where’ we share, in addition to our blog, we have built relationships with media outlets and platforms that are resources for those in our problem-solving network (e.g. hbr.org, governing.com, fastcoexist.com, collectiveimpactforum.org) , and through tailoring content to meet their guidelines/requirements, we have learned a great deal about messaging and storytelling. It is always enlightening when we find that language that we use on a regular basis is actually incomprehensible to those we are trying to engage. In the social sector, the tendency towards jargon and shorthand runs deep, and though this is a growth area, we are challenging ourselves to keep the language clear and simple, the style and presentation concise.
5. Ask Good Questions in the Right Places: An important part of open sourcing social change is asking questions—having an orientation towards learning, rather than a mindset that you have to know all the answers. There are so many platforms and tools available to support us in doing that, and also in collecting and analyzing/applying the answers to help us understand where we are as a field, where relevant innovations are emerging, and how we might build strategic partnerships towards shared goals.
We have been working over the past three years to figure out how to get the best out of the platforms and tools that are available to us, and how to build on them where it makes sense to do so. For example, when we have a hunch that we would like to pressure test, we might shoot out a quick tweet; whereas when we have a more complex challenge that we’re grappling with, we can collect some of the best thinking from across the field by hosting a blogging event. We recently did this in partnership with Meeting of the Minds, asking “How can cities better connect all residents to opportunity?” The 60+ responses that we got really helped to deepen our understanding of this wicked problem, and also to introduce us to exciting work from around the world, thus expanding the possibilities of partnership.