Monday, December 08, 2014

Notes and Thoughts From The ‘Hidden Rooms’ Conference

I took part in Dublin City Council’s ‘Hidden Rooms’ conference in November. DCC convened more than 350 participants over two days to brainstorm 16 policy issues in a variety of interesting locations across the city. Each room was asked to formulate a pilot project that could be be actioned by DCC in 2015. I was asked to join room seven ‘The Rewarded City’, discussing ideas for incentivising and supporting creative entrepreneurs in Dublin‘s emerging cultural cluster.

On the topic of the Rewarded City 
The one quote that most resonated with me on the day was from Anne Miltenburg, the international contributor to the Rewarded City room. She outlined a massive challenge as: “how to make our cities hard-wired to accept new ideas more easily”.

That challenge is one of the major underlying themes of the Hidden Rooms event (and arguably of last year’s DCC/Pivot Designing Growth event as well). It also segues with my own understanding of some broader DCC agendas. Although it is also worth noting Anne’s experience of the difficulties she outlined in trying to get some crowd-sourced innovation projects started in Amsterdam. Their Government believes that people doing things for themselves does not necessarily save any money. As the Government argues that they then have to ‘spend time monitoring what those people are doing’. So that becomes a disincentive for Governments to encourage such innovative, bottom-up activities.

Other interesting ideas that I took away from the conversations about the topic of rewarding creative entrepreneurs were that, as public bodies do not have much money, therefore they are reluctant to put any money that they do have into anything risky. So the State ought to focus to provide enabling mechanisms for creative entrepreneurs, rather than reward mechanisms. Creative entrepreneurs will create rewards, not accept them. Volunteerism is not the solution to anything (in the long-term). The strategic alignment of self-interest is what actually works. True creative entrepreneurs will say: ‘I am going to do this anyway whether you help me or not’. And paradoxically those are the people who get support.

Photo: DCC/Pivot Dublin

On the process and methodology
I have recorded some insights and lessons from the workshopping day of the event. Primarily I made these notes and observations as guidance for myself for whenever I am facilitating any similarly-structured brainstorming sessions in the future.

The central idea behind Hidden Rooms was to gather an interested cohort of people together to brainstorm ideas around key policy areas. With the intention of creating novel ideas unconstrained by the limitations of the perceived conventional thinking.

One insight shared with me about this kind of process and methodology was that ‘people can be enthusiastic and keen to take part; but not have the mental tools to take part effectively’. One participant  observed that in Ireland we do not have a history of working together in large groups. We tend to operate best in smaller groups, or in one-on-one scenarios. That is a general cultural limitation which we all need to overcome. One which initiatives like Hidden Rooms are intended to challenge.

One primary risk of this group brainstorming approach can be that he ideas which the group produce are either too naive or too top-level. That they are just variants of ideas the client has seen before, or tried already. Or that they are merely what the client might expect from a group which has only been thinking about complex multi-faceted issues for four or five hours. (In contrast with the deep domain expertise of the client.) I do not think that possibility was actualised in the outcomes from Hidden Rooms. That can only be known in the longer-term, when the number of initiatives and ideas that were fully implemented can be measured.

Another insight from the workshop day is that, to make ad-hoc interdisciplinary teams work most effectively within concentrated time spans, all of the participants would be best served with a comprehensive background briefing on the project; so that they have a clarified context to operate within. Otherwise, a substantial amount of time is needed simply coordinating the group around the specifics of the topic they are to address. That leads to the issue of what is the optimal amount of briefing time on the day? Working within a fixed timeframe, the ideal should be to maximise the amount of brainstorming time. A related question then is; how much pre-event briefing is too much? If you send people a comprehensive brief, of say ten-pages, will they all read it in detail beforehand? There is definitely a trade-off here.

It turns out that the expertise of the facilitator is hugely critical to the group successfully generating insightful Design Thinking outcomes. This may actually prove to be the greatest influencer on the outcomes within compressed timelines. The facilitator can cloud the issue easily if they do not actively listen to the group and follow the dynamic of the conversations. Yes, the day needs to be managed and the activities must progress within the allocated timeframe, but staying wedded to a predetermined agenda can prove counterproductive to this type of engagement, when conversations are still in flux.

You also need a domain expert in the room (in this case the DCC client). They need to provide the necessary context to anchor the new ideas being generated. But the intrinsic problem is that the expert also has a strong understanding of what is unlikely to work and what has being tried already — which can prove to be a limiting factor on idea generation. It is critical that the facilitator and domain expert work well together. They need to be in general alignment. They need to liaise and coordinate prior to the workshop to ensure that their goals and aims align.

How could the activities of the working groups in each room be improved for subsequent events? Would it be limiting to predefine the necessary sub-groupings in advance? That could ensure that each sub-group includes at least one person capable of taking on the ‘snowplough’ role (possibly an architect in the specific case of the Hidden Rooms remit) and one other person who is an experienced Design Thinking practitioner. Either of whom could run the cooperative idea generation process on their own, if necessary. That approach could either optimise efficiency or reduce spontaneity, so would depend on the personality and dynamics of individual rooms.

DCC have now published the initial outcomes from Hidden Rooms on the Pivot Dublin site. The specific outcomes from the Rewarded City room are at this page.