Why curation? This term best describes the work of identifying promising approaches, connecting them with each other and testing new strategies and tactics in a diversity of ways. How did it work out? As with any experimental approach, there was success and failure. In the first 18-month phase, here are some of the lessons that were learned along the way.
When adopting an emergent strategy approach, it’s important to have robust support, structure and processes in place so that the learnings can surface and inform strategy. It is also important not to expect clear strategy as an input, but rather as an output of an emergent process.
There was some uncertainty among Cities for People participants about the extent to which there should have been a more comprehensive strategy on the front end. On the one hand, using the Cities for People platform as an open invitation to collaborate allowed curators to work effectively in their realms, drawing on their organizational strengths and interests. On the other hand, shaping strategy as a group requires a set of guidelines and processes for sharing learnings and emerging intentions that were not laid out early in the process. This type of evaluation serves the purpose of developing or adapting especially innovative programs or initiatives that are unfolding in dynamic and complex conditions. Mark Cabaj and Jamie Gamble, experts in Development Evaluation, played a pivotal role in Cities for People. They were part of the team and collaborated to conceptualize, design and test new approaches in an on-going process of adaptation and intentional change.
Content and strategy are different. Which one is subject to experimentation – and when – are important matters to clarify.
Experimenting with both the what (emergent strategy around broadly defined resilience, livability and inclusion objectives) and the how (decentralized governance, curatorial model of project delivery) sometimes led to inefficiencies and uncertainties. When both the working model and emerging output were experimental, it became difficult to track learnings and develop concrete actions from those learnings. Without predetermined outcomes, it becomes necessary to identify the kind of checkpoints necessary to ensure that we are heading in the same direction, yet still open to unanticipated learnings and opportunities. The initiative could have benefited from collectively defining minimum specifications about curation to ensure learnings that inform emergent strategy would surface at critical moments.
Understand that power dynamics are still a part of distributed governance.
While a goal was to break up the usual power dynamics in a grantor/grantee relationship by trying out a decentralized governance model, with the hope that a system of shared accountability would emerge, there was not enough consideration given to interpersonal dynamics. Over the course of the experiment, it became clear that curators and the Foundation differed in expectations of the central coordination role, making the double layer of national curation – stewarding both projects and the network of curators – tricky to navigate. More concerted efforts to develop common understandings of interpersonal dynamics within the network, which shifted and evolved over the course of the experiment, would have alleviated tensions arising from miscommunications about roles and responsibilities.
Don’t focus too much on external communications too early in an emergent strategy or experimental context.
Launching a website and public-facing communications at the beginning of the experiment when communications goals and audiences were not yet agreed by partners was a challenge. In addition, because the notion of Cities for People resonated with so many different stakeholder groups and interested citizens, curators sometimes struggled to keep up in responding to requests for information, presentations and involvement. Having a public-facing communications platform was advantageous for getting the word out but inopportune for presenting a clear picture to outsiders about the work.
Embed values deeply in an initiative and ensure there are clear mechanisms to allow those embedded values to come to life, especially if the initiative is dispersed.
From the beginning, Cities for People wanted to focus on social inclusion as a cross-cutting theme, as well as ensuring the work was pan-Canadian, that is, reaching across geographies and engaging with both anglophone and francophone Canada. While individuals within the Cities for People network were on board with these two objectives, they struggled to integrate them deeply into their work as a collective.
In order to build a platform grounded in social inclusion and a pan-Canadian orientation, it is important to develop deliberate measures and actions that influence resource commitments and the work that participants undertake.