Around the world, the idea that what affects people in one country, state, or city; or of one race or ethnicity affects us all is being elucidated in very real ways. Never before in recent history has the issue of inequality been so publicly and rigorously explored and debated. Many have come to firmly believe that we will only be able to prosper and succeed as individuals and communities when everyone can prosper and succeed. As this belief is increasingly being embraced in America, there are enormous opportunities in communities across the country to restore their vibrancy, create good jobs and attract new economic opportunities, improve education, reform outdated systems, and strengthen community supports. Often these opportunities are missed because communities are too siloed and segmented to recognize their shared interests in working together to resolve common problems. And, too often, individuals and organizations working for social change are closed, focused on attribution over contribution, and unwilling to share what we’re learning through our work. Further, when we do share, it is often so far after the fact that others don’t have the chance to learn alongside us. It is only through recognition of our shared fates and interdependence, and the need to work together differently, that we will be able to see how we might capture key opportunities for our communities, in ways that reverberate throughout the nation and beyond.
At Living Cities, we are experimenting with and working to advance shared learning and the co-creation of solutions across the social sector. We believe that both knowledge management and communications are important disciplines that can be driven to work better towards these ends. This belief has pushed us to think differently about how and what we communicate. We want to share in as close to real time as possible so that others can build on our successes and learn from our failures. We want to provide and support platforms for others to share what they are seeing and doing. We want to spark, contribute to, and nurture dialogue. All of this is aimed at breaking down silos and fostering more collaboration, harnessing the power of technology wherever possible.
Here are three examples of our work in this area along with some lessons and metrics:
- We launched the new www.livingcities.org in September 2014 as an embodiment of our commitment to ‘default to open’. On the site, we feature and discuss challenges that we believe are some of the most important ones of our time. We showcase promising solutions and innovations from our work and the work of others. We provide opportunities for conversation by posing questions. We envision the site as a hub for shared learning towards testing, adopting and applying promising approaches. Specifically, new elements include:
- A navigation system that enables users to find more of what they want, and also make new discoveries by providing multiple entry points (e.g. people can come to content based on their existing knowledge of our work; or based on their desire to explore topics that are of interest to them, such as inequality, civic tech and workforce development);
- A highly functioning ‘search’ bar that makes it easy to quickly access information, resources and content;
- Pop-up definitions of frequently used terms that are aimed at building shared language and understanding;
- Clickable learning questions that are embedded throughout content to encourage others to share their relevant thoughts, lessons, ideas, insights and reactions.
It is still early in terms of evaluating this platform, but already we have seen our site traffic grow by an average of 100 views per day since launch. Weekly traffic has doubled. The navigation system and new features that we have introduced, such as a weekly ‘Throwback Thursday’ post that highlights older content that is still very much relevant today, have helped us to get more traction from our content, and to introduce ideas to new visitors in the hopes that they might offer new insights. For example, a recent ‘Throwback Thursday’ post of a blog about job creation and economic development actually became our third most-read blog of the year with 749 pageviews since posting. And from conversation on social media, we were able to see how others are working on the issues discussed, growing our understanding of the landscape.
We also have some hunches about ways we can improve engagement. We are actively thinking about digital events that can draw people more fully into the conversations on the site, including a blogging event through which we will open source content for our 2014 annual report around a central learning question that we are organizing all of our work over the next three years around: What will it take to achieve dramatically better results for low-income people faster? It is our hope that this event can help to source some of the best and most creative thinking out there, and to open up new opportunities to build relationships towards future collaboration. And, although we have been posing questions on the site, we have not yet seen a significant uptick in the number of folks using the ‘discuss’ function. We are going to experiment with a strategy to encourage staff to ‘model the behavior’ that we desire from ‘users’ by asking them to comment on and ask questions of our other blog contributors.
- We launched our 2013 Annual Report, Disrupting Inequality, in June to tap into the robust national conversation about growing inequality, what it will mean for future, and what we can do about it. Through a combination of dynamic infographics and images, and content that pulls from our research and work, and the research and work of others, we aimed to tell a provocative but accessible story about this important issue. A staged dissemination strategy that included targeted outreach to other leaders in the space and a series of Twitter chats helped to propel the report onto almost 60,000 organizational and individual social media timelines, with the hashtag associated with the report, #disruptinginequality, being taken up by many on both Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, the hashtag is still being used on our followers’ social media posts, even when the content has nothing to do with us.
We learned a lot from doing Twitter chats, both around the launch of the annual report and the launch of our new website, including that:
- Jargon and technical terms might present unnecessary barriers to participation and engagement. We noticed that many participants were retweeting the responses of others on the chat, but not tweeting their own original thoughts. This was particularly true for questions where we were using field-specific acronyms and jargon. We have seen how important shared language is through our work bringing together cross-sector leaders to solve wicked problems in cities. As we are doing with the pop up definitions on our new website, we will consider defining key terms in the framing documents in advance of future Twitter chats.
- Participants appreciate it when you take the time to learn more about them/their work/their interests in advance of the event. We did a lot of direct messaging on social media to invite folks to join the chats. As we found a rhythm, we were able to spend more time exploring their content and using what we learned to highlight their work or ask them specific questions during the course of the chats. When we did this, we saw higher levels of engagement. We have a hunch that this might be, in part, because it helps people to relate to the questions in deeper ways, and to see themselves as part of a problem-solving network. This changes the nature of the virtual conversation, enabling us to skip over the introductions and ‘small talk’ and get right into the meat of it.
- Asking questions that are really relevant to issues that you are actively exploring in your work can help you to identify resources that can advance your thinking. For example, in our final chat of the series, we asked, ‘What role can storytelling and technology play in #disruptinginequality? #NewUrbanPractice #OpenSourceChange’, and people pointed us to some great examples of organizations that are doing great work in this area, including United Roots’ #DeterminedTo campaign and Partners in Progress’ What Works Challenge Hub.
We think of the Twitter chats as a way to initiate possible deeper engagement in the future. Indeed, some of the partners with whom we are learning and working very closely with on our municipal innovation and civic tech work were originally introduced to us on social media.
- With the Citi Foundation, we have partnered with Governing on a microsite for our City Accelerator initiative on their platform. This platform is a vibrant resource for information and content on public sector innovation broadly, and on the work of the City Accelerator cohorts specifically. In the spirit of open sourcing, the public was invited to participate in the selection process by rating videos from applicants. The video pitches received a combined total of 26,604 views, 1,476 ratings, and 543 comments. Lessons and reflections from that work can be found here.
We are not alone in this work. We are very excited about the ways that many other leaders are embracing this challenge. Platforms such as the FSG Knowledge Exchange, the Collective Impact Forum, and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations are sharing a wealth of resources, aggregating knowledge from their networks, and encouraging folks to connect with each other and to collaborate more deeply. Funders like the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Knight Foundation are leading the charge to re-imagine how foundations share and communicate. The burgeoning civic tech movement and groups like the Fund for Shared Insight are working to understand how those working for social change can better connect to the people and communities we serve. And, there is no shortage of creativity among citizen activists and advocates and non-profit organizations who use social media every day to inform, engage and inspire.
We would love to hear about ways that you are experimenting with social change communications and open sourcing social change, and what you have learned from these experiments. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if there is a blog or resource that you would like to contribute to this conversation!