How do we make building community the easy choice?

Submitted by Derek Alton on May 8, 2014 - 11:16pm
Reflections from a discussion between two community researchers

Today I had coffee with my friend Brock Hart at the Queen Street Commons Cafe.  Brock is the founder of Overlap Associates, a consulting firm that focuses on using design thinking to solve complex problems.  Overlap was recently hired by the KW Community Foundation to do a deep study into the current experience of belonging and compile a report that will be released later this month.  Over coffee I asked him what his biggest take away from this project was.  I expected him to talk about a common theme or pattern that he saw through his research.  Instead he talked about how this research caused him to reflect on himself and how he interacts with others.  Brock shared that he realized he embodied the culture that he was studying.  He was a person who cared about having community in his life, knowing his neighbours and being a good citizen yet he admitted to me that he did not really know his neighbours and yearned for a greater connection in his life.  He shared how he has a young child and his neighbours do too.  There have been times when he sees them playing outside and thinks, hey we should join them.  But it never gets past the thinking stage.  It is easier to just stay put.

This resonated with me.  I am also doing work in community research and have had similar insights. I embody the tensions and the barriers that are coming forward in the research.  On one hand this brings the research to life as it is now personal.  It is also incredibly humbling as I recognize how entrenched these habits are in myself and that they are equally locked in within our society.

Brock brought forward another insight.  He talked about how he has many loose connection that he would like to deepen but he does not know where to start.  On what grounds do you chose who to reach out to?  Too much choice can be paralyzing.  There are lots of people he would love to invite over for dinner but since there are so many people he is overwhelmed and ends up inviting no one.  I wonder how common this is?

Recently Brock started to build a deck in his backyard.  This has meant spending many hours outside.  Scott, a next-door neighbour that Brock did not know well, has taken an interest in Brock's deck project.  Scott brought over his saw the other day and helped cut up some of the wood.  Brock shared how as part of his deck design he was going to put up some side panels for privacy.  Now because of this interaction he is lowering these panels so that when he stands he can see his neighbour and be more likely to connect.  It is something that he would never have thought of if Scott had not taken an interest in the deck.  Brock now feels a greater sense of connection to his neighbourhood.  How many things are we doing without thinking that hinder our ability to connect?

One of Brock’s big insights is the application of behavioral science to how we design communities.  People often take the path of least resistance.  When we know this we can start to design our policies, programs and practices in a way that makes it easy for people to connect and interact.  A classic example of behavioral science at work is shifting from an "opt in" to an "opt out" format with organ donation.  We know that most people are willing to be organ donors after they die, however, with our current "opt in" format most people do not bother to participate, even though they are in favour.  Some countries have an "opt out" policy where it is assumed that you are in favor of donating your organs unless you opt out.  This makes it easier to choose the more socially beneficial option.  How do we use this knowledge to make policies, programs and practices that make building community the easy choice?

Paul Born often talks about how we need to make it easy for people to do good.  By bringing the behavior science to play in community policies and programs we are doing this for community building.

Doing without thinking

"How many things are we doing without thinking that hinder our ability to connect?"

This question speaks to the issue of thoughtless actions in general and reminds me of this quote (see below).  Helping with a building project, holding a door open for a stranger, smiling at the person you pass on the street, bringing your neighbour some of the muffins you just baked ...being thoughtful about ordinary actions can be part of the larger effort to connect. 

be kinder than necessary