Emergence and Structure: Creative tension in collaborative design and facilitation processes

A commentary and reflection on Change the Exchange: Creating Community Connections

“The workshop, I was stunned…I truly did not believe for a moment we were going to unpack those chairs…” In this simple and honest statement, made as part of a post-event feedback and reflection session, the rich uncertainty and wonder of working with emergence is expressed. For Michelle, a member of the Totnes community and part of the core team for Change the Exchange, the lived experience of working in an emergent fashion was challenging, yet ultimately an “enlightening experience.”

“…Having had this experience now, I realize I can be OK with just letting things happen, and this whole concept of emergence. And I know those words but I’ve never experienced it in this way, so I’m deeply grateful for that.”

In the end, nearly 40 people from across Totnes’ diverse social spectrum showed up to participate in a workshop and community dialogue on community currencies and local economic resilience. There was hardly enough room for all the chairs to be unpacked.

Collaborative design: The creative tension between emergence and structure

Several months previously, a small group of Economics for Transition students at Schumacher College (including myself) began talking about the potential to start a time bank in Totnes. Before long, we had invited several members of the greater Totnes community over for a conversation on a previously existing LETS scheme – the now defunct Totnes Acorn – and collectively decided that a more inclusive conversation was needed to truly understand what community needs were currently unmet and what this particular community really cared about. As Margaret Wheatley has said, “When a community of people discovers that they share a concern, change begins. There is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.”

And thus began a nearly three-month long process of dialogue and co-creation, ultimately culminating in Change the Exchange, an exploratory and experiential event held in Totnes to respond to the questions:

“How do we creatively meet our community needs? What does a resilient co-operative economy look and feel like?”

As a reflection of the main themes arising out of three core modules on the Economics for Transition MA, and incorporating concepts from complexity thinking and ecological facilitation, the collaborative design process that unfolded was highly emergent. With the exception of three members of the core team, no single design meeting was comprised of the same people, as an extremely open and dynamic space was held to encourage creativity. The process took on iterative cycles of imagining, re-visiting, and integrating different ideas for a creative event to be held in a public space. Up to the very day of the event, no exact form or structure was given to what might happen – though an extensive amount of groundwork and preparation was collectively put into the process.

Reflecting on this collaborative and emergent process after the event, several contributors to the core team commented that despite the event turning out as an overwhelming success in many ways, a process with so much uncertainty and lack of clear structure was very challenging to find their place in. One contributor specifically commented that she had expected someone to tell her exactly what to do and that she had been uncomfortable and unproductive without that direction. Similarly, though several found the emergent process to be highly creative due to its permeability and openness, they wondered whether more direct leadership at certain stages in the process would have produced more results.

As a lived learning process in group dynamics and social interaction, one of my deepest learnings has been around the creative tension between emergence and structure. As one of the key focalizers of this collaborative design process, I was interested to play with this tension throughout the process to explore what creative expressions might emerge. Indeed, my own conclusions are very similar to those expressed above: though the process itself was an organic expression of a different form of organization coming into being in the new economy, the actual event might have benefited from some more tangible structure. We succeeded in engaging many dozens of people in the Totnes market in conversation around new forms of economic relationship, yet no tangible outcome has yet emerged from this process. This is not a problem in and of itself; however, it failed to meet the expectations of some involved in the process despite the general feeling of success following the event.

Dialogue: Facilitating shared meaning

As a creative exploration of community resilience, we consciously chose not to approach this process as ‘experts’, not to ‘problematize’ the issue of the economy and thus become locked into the pursuit of solutions. As transient and temporary members of this community, we hoped instead to catalyze a generative community dialogue that might lead to a shared understanding of how individuals and communities relate to one another through economic means.

In designing a workshop and dialogue space to explore these ideas, David Bohm’s work on dialogue provided many insights. As he states:

“In a dialogue, nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins. A dialogue is something more of a common participation, in which we are not playing a game against each other, but with each other.”

Building on practice done as part of the short course ‘Ecological facilitation and leadership’, the work of Bohm, and learning gleaned from the collaborative design process of the event itself, I attempted to provide just enough structure in the workshop for people to have something to collectively respond to, yet allowed enough space for the group to navigate their way through that process spontaneously.

Ultimately, I feel we were able to effectively respond to the emergent needs and passion of the group, yet managed the space in such a way that no one voice dominated or went too far astray into narrow personal interest. Given the diversity of perspective and strong opinions present in room – and in true Bohmian fashion, the group that assembled felt very much like a microcosm of the greater Totnes community – we achieved a remarkable degree of respect, listening, and shared ideas. Though what outcomes emerge from the dialogue is still unclear, I feel confident that we catalyzed a much longer and more involved process of generating a new sense of what is possible in this community.

Paradox and Polarities

Though the event itself was an explicit inquiry into community resilience, offered through the lens of different forms of exchange and economic relationship (which I’ve written about elsewhere), I have learned more through the dynamic and challenging process of co-creating the event than through its actualization. One of the core themes introduced by Jenny Mackewn in ‘Ecological facilitation and leadership’ has been facilitation as a living experience of paradox and polarities. If true dialogue is “a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us” as Bohm understands, my experience of facilitation and design has likewise been one of navigating between poles, learning to sit comfortably with paradox – and ultimately realizing we can become the flow rather than simply go with the flow.

Thanks to colleagues and contributors for the images used above


Change the Exchange is an event that several of us at Schumacher College have been co-creating over the past few months with the help of Transition Town Totnes and members of the larger Totnes community. For more info, check out http://www.changetheexchange.wordpress.com

Change the Exchange

By Chris Tittle

“In a dialogue, nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins. A dialogue is something more of a common participation, in which we are not playing a game against each other, but with each other.”
-David Bohm

Times of great uncertainty and transition, such as the one we seem to find ourselves in, are also times of great opportunity and energy. They invite us to entertain the idea that what we know from the past is no longer appropriate in a rapidly changing world, that creativity is necessary to respond to emerging and persistent challenges.

How do we, as individuals and communities, respond creatively to change? What habits, patterns, assumptions, values do we hold that may actually block our collective creativity?

These are some of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves throughout the process of creating Change the Exchange. Specifically, how might we best invite…

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