Co-authored by Francine Madera, MADERA inc.
Access to information has changed dramatically in the past 2,200 years, yet the basic structure and function of libraries has remained relatively static. Silent rows of books and limited hours? The Dewey Decimal system? If libraries are meant to democratize access to learning and information, then it is clear that the time has come for a massive reimagining.
Revamping an age-old establishment takes more than just visionary leadership at the top. Communities - the end-users - need to be drawn into the discussion. Yet so often, decisions about the future of communities are made behind closed doors by a select few with little to no meaningful citizen input. The existing vehicles for public comment are time consuming, hard to find, difficult to navigate, and unpleasant from a participant perspective. Most people are unaware of where relevant public meetings are taking place, and most people can't take an afternoon off to wait in line for hours to make a two-minute comment that will rarely even garner a response. Because forums for public engagement are often woefully underutilized, people might interpret a community's lack of engagement as a lack of interest. But perhaps the issue is that public spaces don't exist where people from all backgrounds can engage in meaningful idea-sharing and collaborative community problem-solving in a user-friendly, free, convenient, welcoming way, where their ideas will actually be heard and considered by decision-makers.
We wanted to put our hypothesis to the test in Miami. What if we created a "public space" where people could easily and collaboratively brainstorm ways to address the issues of their community? Would that space be utilized? Would good ideas come from it? And if those ideas were synthesized into a user-friendly format that is intuitive and clear to understand, would local leadership take the time to engage in the results and actually take action based on the voices of their constituents?
An experiment was born. First up, a local hot topic - the future of Miami's public libraries. We launched a 10-day open idea forum on Facebook, called "100 Great Ideas", with an all-call to anyone in Miami to join in the discussion by sharing an idea or insight. Within days, 150 ideas were brought to the online space and the discussion group grew to include more than 600 members. Several individuals sent additional comments via email. Many of the ideas weaved together into strong trends, which we've synthesized the themes in this report . After the 10-day window concluded, several decision-makers proactively reached out to discuss the results, and others responded immediately to outreach from us. The community-generated report has been read by local mayors, the heads of the county library system, local foundations, and others who play core roles in deciding what to do next with Miami's libraries. Much to our surprise, many of the best ideas were already in the works, and the leaders we met with were not only extremely receptive, they were eager to run with new ideas and create additional avenues for continued participation from the community. They want to see more of this, and so do we.
Our major takeaways?
(1) People want to engage - they need better access points. Cities thrive when their citizens and government are positively engaged with one another. It's in each city's best interest to lower the barriers and invite people to bring their ideas to the table. Access points of various and relevant kinds are critical because they enable people to tune in at the times and places that work best for them. Digital access points, like an online community forum, allow participants to easily build upon the ideas of others and enable transparency. It was striking that such a large group came together in conversation in just over a week, and that the key community leaders in charge of libraries responded to our report within a matter of days. On both sides of the equation, people were eager to engage. The responsiveness confirmed our hunch that a different, more inclusive and accessible process of engagement and decision-making is not only possible, but also desired.
(2) We as citizens must take ownership of the crucial role we can and should play in our public government. This experiment was hatched, executed, wrapped up, and received with enthusiasm from both community members and community leaders with no pretext. We weren't hired to do this; it was driven from our longing to open up our current systems to different ideas and processes. We encourage residents to follow through on the ideas they have, big or small and conventional or not, for shifting our current systems. It is only by proposing and demonstrating the alternatives available to us that we can update those that are seemingly no longer working for today's modern day. It is imperative that we take an active role in sharing the needs of our communities with our representatives, instead of waiting for them to figure it out on their own.
(3) The public is ready for elected and appointed leaders to actively solicit input and create spaces for people to inform them. As we moved through the campaign, participants quickly wondered, what next? How do we see these ideas through to execution? Several commented that the ideas and exchange were valuable, but what good is the community collaborative process if the ideas are not actually considered and put into action? The public is ready for a stronger bridge between citizen input and government decision-making. Citizens are willing to step up and get involved, but they need to be met halfway and reassured that the ideas they suggest and propose are not just falling on deaf ears that have already made up their minds. Leadership must demonstrate new techniques and methodologies to keep citizens involved.
(4) We must foster an ongoing culture of engagement. While online platforms are convenient and efficient in bringing large numbers together, they can never replace the value of physical spaces where we come together and "live life in public," a precursor to people engaging in an ongoing conversation about the future of their city. As can be seen in cities with admirable civic environments like Portland Oregon, engagement is a culture and not a one-time process or event. As Miami seeks to become increasingly inclusive, it must find ways to leverage public spaces, of all kinds, to draw people and ideas together. Not just in one-off events, but more consistently as a part of the daily behavior, decisions and choices that defines our city's culture.
(5) There are some pretty innovative things already happening in the library space. Show-stopping buildings, modern spaces, bookless models, maker labs, and multi-purpose facilities with all sorts of innovative offerings. The Knight Foundation launched a national challenge giving away $2.5M in grants for innovative library ideas that garnered more than 700 proposals, many of which are outstanding. The change is starting to take shape, and this is a great time to get engaged.
There are solutions to community issues laying dormant in the minds of our friends and neighbors. It's time for a paradigm shift to one in which public leaders engage with their communities and take action based on the voices of their constituents. (And where communities demand that kind of interaction.) So go, get out there, engage your elected and appointed leaders, and use your voice to impact positive change.