Designing for civic engagement and peace

I’ve been thinking recently about how tech-enabled peace initiatives can shift the balance of power and result in alternative infrastructures for peace. It seems to me that the proliferation of accessible technology tools makes it easier to innovate from the ground up. I don’t just mean build new platforms or apps, but also bring about social and organizational forms that enable small groups of local innovators to have a big impact on broad social problems. If that’s all sounding too abstract, let me introduce you to the innovators I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past week – and who are the start of an alternative infrastructure for peace in Cyprus and its region.

The mahallae challenge winners

UNDP recently ran an innovation challenge for civic engagement and peace. The winners are doing very different things – promoting the values of volunteerism (i-Vee), mentoring young people on employment and entrepreneurship (YuBiz), empowering women (WeMe), organizing participatory urbanism in a divided region (Hands on Famagusta), and using creative writing to bring communities together (The Sociaholic Typewriter). What holds them together as a group is that they are all challenging traditional ways of engaging people in civic issues, and in this challenge finding new paths to build peace. 

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The other common attribute of these projects is that using technology enables them to more effectively challenge the status quo – through new tools, alternative social forms or creative ways of organizing. New tools: i-Vee is using game mechanics to subtly promote the values of volunteerism. Alternative social forms: YuBiz leverages an online platform to enhance mentoring through online communications and a strong mentor-mentee matching algorithm. Creative organizing: Hands on Famagusta has brought together people in the physical space of Famagusta to map contested areas, and will continue to organize discussion online through an interactive website and a game on the imaginary Famagusta.

Grassroots design for grassroots solutions

What’s so appealing about these five teams is that they really are coming from the bottom up – understanding what people in their communities feel and need, and building from that. And if it’s all about grassroots solutions, then we figured we also need to be grassroots about the design process. This week, I ran a workshop that walked through a process of user-centered design. It was great to work with Rodrigo Davies on materials and exercises, and he shared the excellent approach taken in YoLab‘s Creative Industries Prototyping Lab in Lima that is reflected throughout this workshop.

At the start of the workshop, I introduced four things for the teams to bear in mind as they turn their idea into a product and project: put the user first, prototype and test, build and iterate, remember that your users are your story and understand outreach as community building. We then spent two days unpacking each of these concepts. Here are a few examples of what emerged.

WeMe understands its users by making them designers

One early exercise for the teams was to come up with user personas that would help them understand how users behave, within what social context and cultural environment, and with what technological availability. The teams would then keep these personas in mind throughout the design process.  But the WeMe team went beyond keeping user personas in mind during the workshop: the two team members working on prototypes were two potential mentees (future users of the WeMe platform). For two days, they designed what they would like to use – a critical input at this stage for the WeMe team.

YuBiz gets the best testers for its prototype

We did two rounds of rapid prototyping to get the teams used to getting down to concrete ideas early. Teams then paired up to test the prototypes on each other, with the aim to show how the project works in practice, simulate how a user might interact with it and get some feedback. YuBiz showed their first prototype to the two WeMe team members – two young women looking for jobs.  They got a stronger reaction than they perhaps expected, some push-back in critical areas and a view from just the kind of young people they are hoping to attract as users.

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i-Vee gets serious about iterating

Teams were encouraged to iterate fast through two rounds of prototyping – with the idea that this process of building and iterating should continue after the workshop. It’s a good way to spark creativity and avoid getting stuck early on. The i-Vee team had trouble prototyping initially. They had really dug into their theory of change, researched how games can change social behavior and understood what the offline component of their mobile game look like. But what would the game be exactly? What game mechanics would explore volunteering? We encouraged the team to just start drawing something… and once they started it was hard to stop them. Over the course of two days the game really evolved into a full concept, with complex mechanics and a great potential for expansion. I can’t wait to play!

The sociaholic typwriter really knows their users are their story

The final concept we used to guide the workshop was the most slippery. What does it really mean to say that your users are your story? Fortunately we had the sociaholic typewriter team to show us the way. This idea was born out of the personal creative relationship between the two team leads – and the story of their interaction very much guides their design as well as the future scenarios for the project. The users of the sociaholic typewriter are already the story of the project, and we learned from them that this is a great way to find new ways to do things.

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Hands on Famagusta understands outreach as community building

Towards the end of the workshop we talked about the importance of doing outreach – to partners, to critics and to users. We discussed different mediums for putting messages out and talked about the importance of storytelling. [We also had some fun pretending to pitch to Ban Ki Moon in an elevator, but that’s a longer story.] The message that most resonated with the teams was to understand outreach as community building, and no team better than Hands on Famagusta to illustrate this. The team has already built a network of volunteers to help them map – block by block and in the sweltering heat – the entire city of Famagusta.

This community brings to life what Hands on Famagusta is trying to do: to disrupt a top-down decision-making process and force authorities to take into account views coming from the bottom up about how to handle a divided region. As my colleague Nilgun Arif explains, this type of grassroots disruption is common to all the mahallae concept winners. She believes (and I agree) that grassroots disruption is key to finding new paths to peace, especially in a context like Cyprus where top-down negotiations (alone) will never be enough to find a peaceful solution.

The mess of innovation

It’s been a fantastic, exhausting and *messy* few days – take a look at the video below for a taste of what it looked like. I can’t wait to see where these teams go and how they continue to contribute to a new way of building civic engagement and peace.

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