August 2010

"When creatives form a productive connection based on shared passion, they feed each other’s energy and build momentum toward greater achievements than would have been possible independently — something that all talented individuals intuitively understand."

John Hagel

OpenOttawaLibre (OOL) is a multidisciplinary approach that is being developed to strengthen Ottawa’s position as a creative city. Faced with stiff competition from globally dominant mega-centres, smaller cities like Ottawa can compensate for their size by actively bringing together people to exchange ideas, share perspectives, and form new partnerships to solve existing and emerging problems. OOL will make it easy to organize these events and lower the risk by developing an ecosystem with experienced facilitators, physical resources, and proven processes. OOL is anchored by Ottawa’s cultural planning group and aims to make Ottawa a global magnet for creative industries and talent.

Background

The OOL approach is motivated by a notion that Ottawa is already a creative city, but it does not perceive itself as such. The City of Ottawa has looked for ways to both demonstrate the creative potential of the city and to harness its power. Over the last few years, a number of discussions, proposals, and groups coalescing in different sectors have revealed a common desire to create a dynamic and exciting place for creative innovation that would be unique to Ottawa. There is now an opportunity to bring these groups together and to start a wider dialogue towards meeting this challenge.

The catalyst for OOL began two years ago when the City of Ottawa, in partnership with Simon Fraser University, hosted a symposium on creative spaces. Creative hubs were a focus of much discussion at that event and staff from the City of Ottawa wanted to find a way to bring that model to Ottawa. As a further benefit of interdisciplinary discussions during the symposium, the City’s cultural staff began to network and share ideas with organizations that foster innovation and creativity. From these discussions, they became aware of an event called OPEN 09.

OPEN 09, Sandbox, Turtles, and RED

OPEN 09 was held in November 2009 in Preston, UK and catalyzed OOL’s approach to event facilitation for creative industries. As described on the event’s website: “Open 09 breaks with the normal conference model and creates a new participatory experience to explore, inform and create change in the Digital and Creative sectors. OPEN 09 is a facilitated, participant-driven event centred around creativity, innovation and its future.”

Two aspects of the OPEN 09 event were particularly innovative: the event format and its facilitation technology. OPEN 09 was created and facilitated by Sandbox, an initiative from the University of Central Lancashire. Sandbox brings together a wide range of skills and expertise to enable innovative and collaborative ways of working. The event format encourages interdisciplinary interaction by splitting the participants into group sessions, called “Turtles” where group members discuss and debate specific themes that were crowd-sourced from the wider group prior to the event. Remixing the participant groups and repeating the Turtles several times over the course of the event serves to build upon each session’s progress and maximizes interdisciplinary interactions. This process has been shown to be highly effective in breaking through organizational barriers and polarized thinking in a way that participants find engaging and stimulating.

To improve the scalability of the Turtle concept, Sandbox drew upon their existing toolkit of facilitation technology, including a custom digital facilitation application, called RED, which they had developed. RED allows groups of people to easily capture and share their responses in real time. It allows participants to anonymously and collaboratively communicate, explore, and drill down into topics that require a shared understanding. The technology also captures the output of these interactions for analysis and dissemination following the event.

Prototype Event

Following the success of OPEN 09, the OOL team began to plan a similar event in Ottawa and enlisted the help of Professor Simon Robertshaw, the Director of Sandbox. It was decided to first hold a prototype event to gauge the community's interest in holding a larger event and to refine the event format. Approximately 40 people from diverse industries were invited to attend the prototype event, which was held on June 9, 2010. The scope of the prototype was equivalent to one of the Turtle groups of which there were a dozen in the OPEN 09 event.

The first question posed to the Turtle participants was "How do we make Ottawa the most creative city in Canada?". In subsequent rounds, secondary questions prompted participants for an actionable response, for example: "How do you make your idea happen" or "How would you spend $500,000?". The process was repeated two more times with two more questions. Participants each captured their ideas and reflections of the group discussions on large sheets of paper, which were later displayed between sessions and analyzed following the event. Detailed harvesting of ideas were done in special sessions using wireless keyboards. RED, facilitation software developed by Sandbox, allowed participants to see all the feedback projected on to a large screen in real-time. The ability to see that information from the larger group fueled even more ideas in the room.

The aim of the prototype that day was to see if people could engage with the process and to see if bringing a diverse group together would stimulate ideas. The prototype event would ask the question: "Should we do this again but on a much larger scale?" The answer was a resounding yes. Much of the feedback noted the need for this type of exchange. Participants felt they need a place to meet, where creative interactions between disciplines can occur. The event also revealed a willingness of the participants to take an active role in addressing issues of common interest, rather than simply passing it off as another person's responsibility. This sentiment is reflected in a sample of the written output from the event (Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Participant Feedback Captured During the OOL Prototype Event

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Beyond the Prototype: The OOL Model

The prototype event helped demonstrate the facilitation approach to selected people in Ottawa, but it also helped the core team to mentally connect it with other organizational models, in particular that of a business ecosystem. The model of OOL as an environment with players, resources, and processes aligned to a shared outcome is entirely consistent with that of business ecosystem platform. Using this framework, OOL can be designed systematically, benefitting from the learning taking place in this related domain.

At the centre of OOL, is the concept of an event: a facilitated session where diverse talent is brought together to collaborate on a topic of common interest in a novel and openly shared process. Essentially, this systemizes the process of an accidental encounter, actively bringing together self-selected creative people from multiple disciplines and focusing their attention on a topic of common interest. The goal is to make these events scalable and easy to organize by establishing the necessary resources, processes, and skills in the ecosystem. By reducing the barriers and encouraging event frequency, a supporting organization could become self-sustaining and anchor a multi-use cultural facility that creates a new capacity for both creation and consumption of cultural works in the city. This facility would provide a cost-effective means of allowing the organization to perform its role of fostering collaboration between multidisciplinary teams from science, medicine, engineering, academia, and government.

The OOL Approach

The activities of OOL use a consistent approach where self-selected stakeholders participate in interactive group discussions of their choice and work collaboratively towards meaningful and actionable output. Half-hearted participation is a lose-lose proposition that should be discouraged.

The OOL process follows a path from interactions in an online environment that culminate in a face-to-face group event. The online forums and face-to-face event are structured to be highly complementary. The strength of an online forum is its ability to cast a broad net of participation, allow time for introspection, and efficiently harvest small slices of attention. In contrast, a face-to-face event is intense and time constrained. OOL has chosen to adopt the Turtle format, which has been shown to be effective in breaking through organizational barriers and polarizing thinking in a way that participants find engaging and stimulating.

The OOL Technology

To prepare for a given event, it is important to gain a critical mass of commitment and engagement to make the event meaningful and productive. This requires several things to come together:

  1. People need to attach themselves to a problem worth solving.

  2. The problem must be sized and shaped by the group to make it realistic to attack with resources available.

  3. The group must gain sufficient critical mass and diversity to unleash the value of the process.

There are two major technological elements that are part of the OOL environment before, during and after the events: the online website and the event platform.

The website includes a multi-user blogging and forum environment with plans to support a self-organizing group formation engine. Using the online forum, OOL participants can join discussions around selected event themes. The goal of the forum is to bookend the physical event with open and shared discussions that shape the input to the Turtle themes. The forum is also used to later interpret the Turtle output for the benefit of the broader online community.

The event platform is currently based on the RED application from the Sandbox toolkit, with a goal to extend support to remote Turtles using a derivative the BigBlueButton, an open source web conferencing application.

Next Steps

The OOL team is in the process of planning a large event to be held in late 2010 or early 2011, but is also acting to realize its wider vision. But what has only recently been surmised, is how by creating OOL, Ottawa could more effectively compete against larger centres. OOL creates an artificial environment where we actively assemble a density of creative talent that have established trusted relationships and have them participate in a facilitated process that results in innovative and actionable output. In this way, OOL will foster collaboration amongst diverse disciplines, enable partnerships, and generate new possibilities to help build Ottawa as a creative city. The next steps will be driven by the intent to harvest creative energy and resources in order to:

  1. Foster stronger discourse and collaboration aimed at generating ideas that solve problems and that can lead to innovation.

  2. Nurture and connect Ottawa’s local cultural and digital media industries.

  3. Identify community needs, gaps and opportunities that can be addressed through policy, process and product development.

Conclusion

OpenOttawaLibre is an opportunity for both the City of Ottawa and as a model for other regional cities to consider adopting to deliver a higher quality of life alternative for creative talent and industries. It does this by systemizing the serendipitous process of encounters and creating a trusted but open environment that enables individuals from diverse backgrounds and points of view to collaborate on issues of mutual interest and shared passion. This is done by actively shaping the local environment to better deliver the desired outcomes.

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