We designed a new ‘definition’ feature as a first step in the process of creating a shared language for lasting, transformative change.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the design of our new website as a hub for shared learning around building a new urban practice.

In the coming weeks, I will be highlighting some of our thinking behind the site, and some of the features and capacities that we have added.

One of the new features I’m most excited about is the ‘definition box’. You can see, in the first paragraph of this blog, an orange highlight around the term new urban practice. If you click on the term in orange, a pop-up box appears. This feature allows all contributors to clearly define or add context to the terms we use to talk - and write! - about our work.

In ongoing discussions with our problem solving network, Living Cities had begun to see how jargon and sector-specific terminology can often impede our ability to have the types of difficult conversations necessary to effect lasting social change at scale. It can be, to borrow Sandra Bates’ analogy, as if the United Nations Security Council held its meetings without the use of translators. Leaders from different sectors, naturally, approach complex challenges differently than one another. Without a shared language, talking about our challenges and proposing solutions can be frustrating, wrought with misunderstanding and distrust.

Imagine for a moment that the United Nations Security Council held its meetings without the use of translators... How effective would they be? - Sandra Bates

On the flip side, we have also seen promising examples of cross-sector leaders who established a shared language as a basis for which to move forward and make progress towards their goal.

This dynamic played out in own work as well. In 2010, Living Cities began to see a promising new approach to problem solving in which cross-sector leaders came together to work towards a shared goal. We were inspired and encouraged to test this type of collaboration. The term ‘collaboration’ itself was not sufficient to explain the heft and rigor of the new approach - so we began talking about ‘collaborative change’. As Living Cities progressed in the work, we realized that others were talking about and testing the same approach – only they were calling it something different! They were calling it ‘Collective Impact’. In fact, social changemakers across the country, from analysts at FSG to our innovation partners at Strive Together, were talking about and testing Collective Impact. By the end of 2011, the ‘collective impact’ approach was picking up steam globally. Here was the necessary and sufficient term to describe the promising new approach that we had been seeing. Here was the shared language. We knew then that Living Cities needed to start talking about our work in terms of ‘collective impact’ too. And, by adopting a shared language we were able to tap into a larger network, making new connections with folks grappling with similar challenges across the country and accelerating our own learning.

Shared language is the cornerstone of any successful collaboration, partnership, initiative, or organization.

Shared language is the cornerstone of any successful collaboration, partnership, initiative, or organization. As a funder collaborative of 22 organizations, and a convener of multiple cross-sector partnerships, Living Cities knows that both developing and tapping into shared language is key to the success of our vision - building a new urban practice that delivers dramatically better results for low-income people.

We also recognize that developing a shared language is an ongoing process. While we work to build a shared language through convenings and other in-person engagement with our members and innovation partners, we know that we also needed a way to do this online. Our blog alone is read by a few thousand individuals across various sectors each month! The new ‘discussion’ feature was designed as a first step in this process. After all, there are elements of social change work that the existing language is sufficient in describing. (I’m thinking of Collective Impact and Adaptive Challenges here!) And there are other terms that might make sense to a reader from one sector or institution, but sound like jibber-jabber to a reader from a different background.

As we work to develop and build a shared language, we invite you to participate. See a term used on our blog or website that you haven’t heard before? Let us know! Hear us talking about an approach or practice that you know others are exploring – just with different language. Tell us! We’ve made it easy to comment on content all over the new site. Or, if you’d prefer your response to be more private, you can email hub@livingcities.org.