US EPA Taking Democratic Steps Toward Community Involvement

The Institute for 21st Century Agoras presented a technology poster at the EPA’s 13th Community Involvement Training Conference in Boston on July 30 – August 1.

EPA Community Involvement Training Conference 2013Our poster is entitled A Democratic Approach for Sustainable Futures, with a more lengthy sub-title “Framing Consensus Views for Collective Action: The Sociotechnology of Interpretive Structural Modeling Embedded within Structured Dialogic Design.”

The technology of Structured Dialogic Design is well placed among other topics in the poster session assembled for this year’s theme … “The Next Generation of Community Involvement.” Dozens of conference attendees stopped by our table to check out our approach.

Among fellow presenters, several topics stood our for us. First is “Crowdsourcing for Better Communities.” Crowdbrite could act as a gathering tool for observations as a front end into the CogniSystem.   Their presenter was very, very interested to hear of the mobile SDD application that the Cyprus group is developing.

The second technology of interest is DASEES: Decision Analysis for a Sustainable Environment, Economy and Society. This is an experimental system being developed by the EPA in conjunction with Neptune and Company. DASEES integrates guidance and decision support tools to implement a five step Bayesian decision process: 1) Understand the Context, 2) Define Objectives, 3) Develop Options, 4) Evaluate Options, and 5) Take Action (Implement and monitor). The opportunity for SDD is as a front end to Steps 1-3.

The third opportunity exists in the model that is provided by the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes in St.Paul, Minnesota who engage rural communities in building resilience for climate change. This relates to ongoing interests we have for coastal communities in New England.

Beyond posters, participants were offered seminars, workshops, demonstrations, tours, and the essential mixing bowl of networking opportunities.  As is true of all such conferences, considerable energy is invested in rediscovering friendships and in affirming that that what is being done is being done well.  In any community, and perhaps even more so in academic and scientific communities, opening paths for learning something truly new is challenging.  Most innovations in life are incremental improvements.  Enhancements extend along trajectories that have been in place for years.  Every now and then, a long-sought “game changer” comes along and opens up new trajectories.

The best ways of sensing the early presence of game changers is through the reactions that they evoke.  When a game changing idea is presented, players will be surprised, concerned, defensive for the status quo, or supportive of the shift – which is to say that players will be anything except unmoved by the prospect of a radical innovation.  This is as it should be.  Alberto Rodríguez makes this point with the title of his seminar: “Is Meaningful Community Involvement Radical?”  In the civic arena, the community involvement “game” evolves through incremental innovation and takes a quantum leap only through radical (and frequently disruptive) change.  What struck us, as a team providing a demonstration of a sociotechnology for managing large-group collaborative design, is that participants at the 13th Community Involvement Training Conference who did tour the demonstration sessions seemed hungry for a game changer.

Folks with whom we discussed Structured Dialogic Design were quick to acknowledge problems with sustaining iterative deliberations in the face of rising “dialogue fatigue.”  Where citizen participation was an important element of community involvement, folks felt it was important to have a some means of explicitly considering cognition along with intuition about complex situations and uncertain outcomes.  And people who we spoke to appreciated practices which provided real-time documents of citizens’ statements and clarifications to help sustain focus and momentum when dealing with complex understandings.  The idea of using “an engineering” approach based on an exhaustive (but not exhausting) exploration of interdependencies across a matrix of citizen concerns and understandings was well received by technical audiences.  And everyone we spoke to seemed to value graphic representations of complex deliberation that can help communities grasp the essence of strong community agreement, and then also provide a language tool for extending the deliberations.

We feel that those searching for a game changer seriously considered the impact that might come from an integrated package that transparently combines focused input of cognitive and intuitive understandings, and that presents those understandings to citizens who then collaboratively fashion them in to a systems view of their situation with an easily communicated and easily updated graphic output.  Rode mapping, as a product, is indeed part of planning traditions, but putting the mapping activity itself in the collective hands of diversified group citizens, regulators, and developers can result in a planning model with game changing power.

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