You might be wondering about what the Interactivity Foundation is all about. So here’s a quick overview of what we do.
Thinking of More
Our central thrust is to foster deliberative discussions to help people think of “more”—more aspects of complex social issues and more divergent or innovative ways to respond to these. To do this, we’ve developed an approach to discussions that is designed to help people collaborate with each other in the discovery of “more.” It’s designed to help people engage with each other in a way that helps them see more aspects of these social concerns, to discover their interconnections, and to develop contrasting ways that we, as a society, might address them. We’ve focused this central thrust into 3 highly interconnected areas:
- Sanctuary Projects–Citizen Discussion Projects that run for about a year of sustained discussions
- Citizen Discussions–a short series of several discussions to explore the ideas from a Sanctuary Project
- Education–supporting exploratory and collaborative discussions in educational settings
The project on “Shaping our Towns and Cities” is what we’d call a “Sanctuary Project.” Here’s a brief summary of these 3 focal areas.
- Sanctuary Projects
Our Sanctuary Projects are long-term citizen discussion projects that focus on a complex area of social and political concern (there’s more on our notion of sanctuary here). We focus on topics that are big—big enough to require lots of minds thinking together and too big for any one area of expertise to claim to have all the answers. We want people to be able to explore the interrelationships between different aspects of these topics. We’ve done Sanctuary Projects on Privacy, Depression, Human Genetic Technologies, Rewarding Work, Science, Regulation, Property, and Public Discourse, and we’re currently running projects on the Future of Civil Rights, Global Security, Democracy Promotion, and Shaping our Towns and Cities.
These projects run for about a year of monthly discussion meetings, where each meeting might run for several hours. We use two panels of citizens, one where the panelists might have some particular expertise relevant to an aspect of the topic (a “Specialist Panel”), and one where the members are just citizens interested in talking and thinking together (a “Generalist Panel”). The two panels work independently until the end of the process.
The project discussions proceed organically yet they are building up to something. They are intended to be non-linear yet they have a cumulative developmental flow. Roughly speaking there is an overall trajectory from exploring the different emerging concerns that society might face regarding the topic, then exploring different possible ways society might respond to these concerns, and then exploring what the consequences might be for those different possible approaches (this, in turn, leads to some revision and consolidation of those approaches). That’s a nutshell description of what we’d call our “Sanctuary Discussion Process” (in the future I’ll post a bit more detail about some of the key aspects of this discussion process).
The thinking of the panels is captured by the IF Fellow who facilitates the project in a discussion report. In the case of the “Shaping of our Towns and Cities,” I’ll play that role as facilitator and editor. The report briefly presents some of the different aspects of the area of social concern and some of the contrasting approaches that society might take toward them. Our goal is to emerge from these yearlong discussions with a group of contrasting approaches, or policy possibilities, that would be useful for stimulating further exploratory discussions among other citizens. This brings us to our next focal area:
- Small Group Citizen Discussions
These are short-term citizen discussion series where a group of 6-8 people meet for 3 or 4 sessions to discuss the ideas developed during a Sanctuary Project. We think of our Sanctuary Projects as doing the groundwork to help other citizens get into their own explorations of complex topics of social and political concern. Our basic thrust is still the same, to help people think of more, and more divergent, possibilities than they otherwise might. We’re not trying to sell anyone on a particular policy idea or a particular approach that we might take to a given issue. We see these events as a chance for citizens to develop and expand their own thinking about these complex topics by using the ideas developed during our Sanctuary Projects as springboards for their own exploratory discussions. I currently have a Meetup Group, the Reston Citizen Democracy Meetup, where I host some of these Citizen Discussions.
- Education and Classroom Discussions
We have become increasingly interested in the ways that our approach to collaborative and exploratory discussions could be relevant to the classroom, especially in higher education contexts. We’re interested in the ways that this could transform teaching to encourage more collegial and interactive discussions across disciplinary boundaries. And we’re especially interested in the ways that students’ learning could be transformed by teaching them to be facilitators of such collaborative and exploratory discussions in what we’d call student-centered discussion courses (more about this in future postings). To explore these connections, we’ve conducted two Summer Institutes (in 2006 and 2009) where we’ve worked with small groups of faculty members to flesh out how IF’s approach to discussion (and discussion facilitation) could be integrated into their classes. There’s more about this at our IF Education Blog.