“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
– Isaac Asimov
One of our core areas of work at Intelligent Futures is community engagement. We aim to structure meaningful, authentic and transparent conversations with communities about issues, plans or developments that will influence the future of these places. In order to do this, we have to walk a fine balance of learning about the local context, while simultaneously not developing assumptions about the place and the people. It’s not an easy balance to strike.
The key is something we call strategic ignorance.
Strategic ignorance is about removing assumptions you have and being open and curious to new ideas and viewpoints. Rather than gathering as much information as you can to know it all, strategic ignorance is about listening and learning from others, recognizing that their views are as valid as any one else’s.
Strategic ignorance was an essential tool for us in a project we led in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
We were tasked with engaging the community to create a 50-year vision for Wascana Centre.
At nearly three times the size of Central Park in New York City, Wascana Centre is one of the largest urban parks in North America. Wascana Centre is also home to the provincial legislature, a University, a college, dozens of sporting facilities, a museum, an art gallery and a multiplicity of other public uses. It is an important landmark in both the city and the province.
In 2012, Wascana Centre celebrated its 50th anniversary since the founding Master Plan by Minoru Yamasaki (architect of the World Trade Centre towers). As part of the celebration, Wascana Centre Authority undertook a comprehensive review, which included community engagement and visioning. Intelligent Futures was selected to lead the conversation with the community and development of a 50- year vision for Wascana Centre. We called it “ourWascana.”
“ourWascana” was an exciting project. One that required strategic ignorance.
Why? Because I am from Regina. My great-grandfather was a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, located in Wascana Centre. Every Fathers Day for decades, my family has gathered in Wascana Centre for a family picnic. I was married in Wascana Centre.
I have a lot of history with this place.
But the project wasn’t about me or what I would like to see for the future of this place that means a great deal to me. It was about listening what the community wants. The more personal the connection to a place or project, the more important strategic ignorance becomes.
I had to be strategically ignorant.
That means I had to park any assumptions and listen to the vast array of opinions, experiences and ideas that came forward through the process. We structured the discussion to create as many entry points into the conversation as possible, in order to hear from as many folks as we could. The result was over 3,300 individuals responding to the questions, providing over 8,000 ideas in 10 weeks.
Structuring a conversation in an open way allows for new insights.
Throughout the process we learned a great deal and were inspired by the insights of the community. By structuring the conversation in an open way, we found out how Wascana Centre impacts the community – often in ways that are surprising.
Learning and transparency are key to successful community conversations.
For a place as diverse and important as Wascana Centre, it is also important that the new insights weren’t just held within the project team.The learning we gained was shared back with the community through a variety of mechanisms, such as our #50thingsweheard Twitter campaign or our word clouds (in the shape of Wascana Centre) that highlighted major themes through our conversation.
In the end, ourWascana was a tremendous success.
The community rallied around the project and contributed enthusiastically. We were also fortunate enough to be recognized by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) as the Project of the Year in the Member-at-Large category. Who knew that being (strategically) ignorant could lead to winning an award?
John is the President and Founder of Intelligent Futures. John’s approach brings together elements of community engagement, strategic planning, effective communication and capacity-building to create meaningful conversations for the communities and organizations he works with. Projects that John has worked on have won awards from the Canadian Institute of Planners, the International Association for Public Participation, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Canadian Urban Institute and the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.
John is a Member of the Canadian Institute of Planners, is President of LEAD Canada (Leadership in Environment and Development) and is a member of LEAD International’s training team and has also been an instructor at the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University.