Building Infrastructure Takes Time

By Daniel Clark

AmericaSpeaks enjoyed the 2012 National Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation in Seattle. No matter that the city got its first rain that weekend in months and my afternoon of sightseeing was completely water logged. As always, the NCDD group is a diverse, committed, and capable group. And of course, the event did not resemble a typical conference with long keynote addresses and typical panels. Even the food was good at the very green Hyatt Olive 8, the first LEED certified hotel in the city. Another distinction is that we had not one, but two different teams of graphic facilitators, one working with traditional materials, the other working on iPads.

The focus of the conference was how to build a more robust civic infrastructure in our practice, our communities and our country. The Catalyst Award was launched, which will award two $10,000 grants for collaborative projects that move the field forward in two critical areas: civic infrastructure and political bridge building. You can check out the progress at ncdd.civicevolution.org and join yourself.

I have a word of caution to all of us that want to collaborate (and compete a little) for these awards, (and all of us with aspirations for a larger role for Dialogue & Deliberation in our world). Building infrastructure takes time, and we should focus on the words “move the field forward” when we are crafting our next steps. That might seem simple enough: focus on incremental improvement, and not to reach too far. However, recognizing the need for incremental change is only the first step, we also must learn how to let go of our own predetermined ideas of what civic infrastructure should look like.

For some, moving forward might suggest movement towards a goal that can be clearly articulated. Many suggest we need a clear vision for what we want, so that we can take steps in the right direction. While tools like a vision and a plan can be helpful, they are for me just that, tools, which can be used appropriately, but are often misused and overused. When most people envision an idealized future, it is based in their understanding of the present and the past, and not based in the unknowable realities of the future. Spending all your effort reaching for your vision can lead you right back to your present and past.

For me, the value in moving forward does not always have to mean advancing towards an identified goal. We should be willing to experiment with new ideas and allow our goals to grow more organically from our civic experimentation. Our process will determine our outcomes and if we accept the reality that we must pursue change in a piecemeal fashion, then we must allow our outcomes to be similarly constructed.

What does this mean for building civic infrastructure? Civic infrastructure is a social-cultural construct that will forever evolve. As it evolves, we need to be prepared to evolve with it and remain flexible as our goals and definitions change with the world around us. Furthermore, this civic infrastructure is evolving inside of a community, which is itself a large complex system (even the smallest communities).

I am a big fan of history, and I know studying our history teaches us many lessons. And, I pay attention to current trends. But I know I have a very limited capacity for knowing what these large complex systems need today, let alone in the future.

This awareness doesn’t make me discouraged. I am emboldened to experiment and make mistakes. I am learning to trust my own instincts, as well as the instincts of others. And, I question my long-held assumptions if I feel I am not making progress. Working in this fashion has renewed my energy for this work and I am looking forward to the road ahead, where ever it might lead.

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