On Monday, December 14, 2009, I lead a design thinking session at the South West Citizens Advisory Council (SWCAC) meeting at Carolina Pines park in Raleigh, NC. Our goal for this meeting? To solve neighborhood problems the open source way. I told the SWCAC Chair, Mary Belle Pate, that I wanted to foster participation, collaboration, and shared benefit to tackle these topics. What I didn’t anticipate was the shared knowledge and community that came out of the hour-long session.
Citizen Advisory Councils (CAC) were established in 1974 to help educate residents about Raleigh government and to provide them better representation and input in city decisions.¹ There was a group of over 20 folks that divided into three groups. Each participant self-selected into their topic of interest. The areas of concern were installing new sidewalks, rebuilding an old bridge, and the expansion of a main road. We only had one hour to make progress. We focused the first 10-15 minutes on defining the problem. Then we spent 20 minutes on ideation and about 10 minutes on prototyping. The groups had a few minutes to prepare a brief presentation and each group did an excellent job of sharing their findings. I was optimistic that this would work with a new group of people that may not be familiar with the open source way, but I discovered the entire group was very open to trying this out. I thought it would be better then just sitting there and getting information like a normal meeting and the results were more than I expected.
I got great feedback from Mary Belle Pate, “It was wonderful to watch people learning more about issues and working together. From comments I heard, people really enjoyed it.” In fact, we are already looking to repeat this at a future meeting, perhaps focusing on topics like police or parks issues.
Characteristics from the open source way
There were five characteristics that I saw flourish during this meeting and the design thinking session that the groups used to navigate these complex issues.
- Participation – The attendees self-selected themselves into the group where they had interests. Then, the real work was done when people in each of the groups started to interact, focus on the topic, discover potential solutions, and participate.
- Shared knowledge – One piece in the design thinking framework is research. For this hour-long session, we were limited with resources. The groups depended on shared knowledge from their group. Because people have varying levels of experience with local and state issues, it’s really interesting for me to step back and see the groups make progress in this area. Those with experience have knowledge about processes, obstacles, and past projects. Those with no-so-much experience bring new ideas from other avenues of life. Regardless, shared knowledge allows the groups to move forward and make progress on their defined problems.
- Community – The basis of the CACs is to educate communities about city government. This SWCAC is defined by it’s geographic lines, but the people who attend the meetings and participate are part of the SWCAC community. At this meeting, we drew on the passion for this community and applied it to three issues that would benefit the overall community.
- Shared benefit – When planning this session, I immediately thought about shared benefit. For me, this is the buy-in that people need in order to participate. It builds on their community passion and provides and end goal. When the groups came up with ways to attack the problem, they have a stake in the game. Above all, each participant knows that if the objective can be achieved, their neighborhood, business, property value, or other benefits are improved.
- Collaboration – All three groups would not have been successful if they didn’t collaborate. The sharing of ideas, suggestions of solutions, and shared knowledge contributed to the groups making progress on each topic and coming up with a plan of attack. The collaboration extends beyond just coming up with a plan, each group now has a team of people to divide and conquer and achieve a goal, together.
More about the issues
- The first topic was about getting sidewalks on parts of South Saunders Street, South Wilmington Street, and Maywood Avenue. The key here is persuading the City of Raleigh to construct sidewalks on these strategic corridors. South Saunders Street and South Wilmington Streets have many established businesses and opportunities for future businesses. Having a sidewalk on at least one side of Maywood Avenue would connect the Farmers Market to South Saunders Street, where Raleigh has well-attended bus connections that take people to shopping, jobs, and places like downtown Raleigh. The group identified a list of things they could do to persuade city officials to get these sidewalk installed.
- Another group was looking for ways to fund the NCDOT (North Carolina Department of Transportation) maintained Tryon Road railroad bridge. The bridge is currently two lanes and is needed to complete the expansion of Tryon Road from Lake Wheeler Road to Garner, NC. There is some dependency on federal funds and approval to get this project going (because it’s along a rail corridor), but the group determined several steps and actions that they could take, over the next few weeks to make progress. They also identified things that needed to be complete in order for the project to be primed and ready when funds are available.
- The final topic was about the funding needed for the expansion of Tryon Road. The main request is to ask the City of Raleigh to return the funding originally intended for the section of Tryon Road from Lake Wheeler Road to South Wilmington Street. The bridge, mentioned above, is a key factor in this. It complicates the issue because the project has a mix of local, state, and federal stakeholders. Despite the daunting task of multiple layers of government, the group determined a short action plan to start making noise and showing the impact this project could have on their neighborhood and existing / future businesses.