Time for #RCUS

A Pecha Kucha* Style Introduction

This story starts with my 7 year old daughter, Clara.

Last summer, my sister (Jessica) and her boyfriend (Steve) came for a beach day with my daughters. A political conversation ensued. It went something like this:

Clara: Who are you voting for?

Steve: Not Hillary Clinton.

Clara: If you’re not voting for Hillary, are you voting for Donald Trump? Wait, you’re voting for Donald Trump?!?!

Jessica: Let’s not talk politics.

Clara: (hands on hips, much like this pose here) NO. LETS’ TALK POLITICS.

As designers, we often use popular media scans as a way of understanding how the population at large is feeling or the shared mental models that are represented and shared through media. This past holiday season, these memes underscored the zeitgeist of our nation:

Popular Memes of the 2016 Holiday Season

It turned out the risk of talking politics was (1) personal and (2) very uncomfortable:

  • Maybe we would piss people off.
  • Maybe we would deeply offend our families.
  • Maybe we would alienate ourselves and lose friends.
  • Maybe our social status would be hurt.
  • Maybe we would look stupid.

These are perceived social risks, which are fundamentally outweighed by the societal risks of not talking politics.

There are points made in each of these memes.

Per the Gene Wilder meme, democracy — the political system our country is grounded in — requires an educated citizenry and the ability to engage in the peaceful play of power, most easily demonstrated through civil discourse. In short, we need to be able to talk to each other. And when we can’t, we shake the foundation of the political system. As powerful as Saturday’s global demonstrations were, I am bothered by the lack of two way engagement. In response to hundreds of thousands of people coming to its doorstep, the White House, I felt, covered their eyes and ears in a “Speak No Evil, See No Evil, Hear No Evil” reaction.

The second point, made by the Freeman meme, is that not talking to each other actually prevents evolutionary transitions. Meaning — innovation, evolution, and every other form of progress — requires the introduction of something new.

Take cooking for example. Mix flour, olive oil, salt, yeast, and water, and you get bread. Add baking soda, and you get biscuits. The addition of something new catalyzes a reaction that fundamentally changes the outcome. When we’re failing to talk together, we’re losing opportunities to co-create the next best thing, or in BIF speak, we’re losing opportunities to co-create the adjacent possible.

This scares me. But I also recognize that this is specific to us adults — and therefore, there is hope. Kids are amazing at coming together, striving together, and challenging each other in order to co-create an outcome that can’t be created on their own. We call it play. AND we understand how to create the conditions for this:

We create spaces that are (1) safe for this exploration, and (2) visible signals of what is encouraged.

Providence Play Spaces, courtesy of Tim Gerrish, Gardner & Gerrish Landscape Architects

Can the same principles apply to creating the conditions for enabling unusual suspects to collide and connect with each other? For enabling safe and meaningful dialogue? For divergent thinkers to creatively resolve the tensions between them to create something wholly new?

There is powerful potential in this if we can create it. Consider two analogous contexts:

Public art is often the output of citizens — each with different visions and goals — merging colors and shapes in new and different ways. Jazz is the exchange of leadership from one player to the next — using each exchange to build, adapt, and co-create art in real time.

So what might this exchange space for divergent debate look like?

First, we begin with an invitation. We visibly and vulnerably advertise the opportunity. Second, we carve out the time and space to deeply listen to each other. Third, we remove the power dynamics that might make us feel “less than” or smaller than the “other.”

At BIF, this will happen through a somewhat experimental podcast series that we call #RCUS — Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects. It will showcase a meandering conversation amongst divergent thinkers; their objective is to explore what new opportunities can be found at the edges and intersections of their core beliefs, values, and mental models. That space defined by the edge of their comfort meeting the edge of their discomfort.

We hope that it will inspire similar conversations all around us — that we can replicate the conditions.

Because, Clara is right. As citizens, it is our one and only job to meaningfully engage, shape, and create our own governance. This is what politics is. And, we need to be able to talk about it.

*In the spirit of “working out loud,” this is a blog version of a Pecha Kucha presentation on the theme “Now what?” — a Providence-based event on January 25, 2017.

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