Seattle Impact Hall hosted an 8-week social innovation lab in January, February and March this year. See our invitation for this program here. Read on to learn why we did it and what we’ve learned along the way.
Seattle Impact Hall is both a physical space in Pioneer Square and an expansive network of roughly 700 people who use that space either as individuals or as members of larger enterprises. We all belong to a global network encompassing 100 other hubs across 5 continents that collectively host 16,500 people attracted our emphasis on achieving a positive social impact through your work, investments, or volunteer time.
We maintain the physical space and build this network to stimulate new ways of thinking and new approaches to solving the ecological, economic, and social crises that headline our daily newsfeeds. As a general rule, our community shares the belief that technology and competitive markets, appropriately employed, are valuable tools for innovation.
Most important, however, we emphasize meaningful collaboration across diverse perspectives and two beliefs underpin this particular aspect of our work. The first is that lasting solutions will emerge only when we are open to listening and learning from each other. The second is that bottom up prototyping of solutions is necessary to break through the paralysis gripping our body politic. Quite simply, our public, philanthropic, and corporate institutions cannot solve these ecological, economic, and social crises by themselves.
It is in this context that Seattle Impact Hall joined five other Impact Halls across our network — Boulder, Baltimore, Budapest, Harare, and Shanghai — in accepting an invitation from MIT’s Presencing Institute to learn about and deploy their social design methodology known as u.lab. This opportunity was made possible by a grant from the BMW Foundation and the technical support provided by the Presencing Institute, which developed u.lab over two decades of research into how “individuals, teams, organizations, and large systems can build the essential leadership capacities needed to address the root causes of today’s social, environmental, and spiritual challenges.”
As a unifying theme, each Impact Hall agreed to focus their u.lab experience on creating more inclusive cities (branded Communities for Change) and sharing learnings as we proceeded. For our part, Seattle focused on “inclusive entrepreneurship.” Other cities chose themes such as affordable housing, the future of work, and global climate change.
We were motivated to participate in Communities for Change by our desire to develop our ability to convene a large group of people who represent a widely diverse experiences for the purpose of finding the common ground necessary to collaborate on effective problem solving. This convening role is the most significant expression of the value Seattle Impact Hall can offer as a network dedicated to social innovation. The Presencing Institute offered us both the expert guidance and a tested methodology from which to learn. Equally important, we also wanted to expand the reach of our network to encompass entrepreneurs and communities of color more authentically.
The core presumption of u.lab is to recognize that problem solving requires deep trust, an acknowledgement that no one knows the whole truth, and a willingness to listen with an open heart to reach a common understanding of the complexity of the problems we face. So it was with this on our minds and in our hearts, we began our journey.
Here are our core learnings:
- There’s immense value in deeper conversations with people that are different than you and it takes time and patience to realize that value. During this program we spent time on listening skills and, in the process, realized how easy it is to go into debate rather than dialogue. The result of this focus was that participants reported the most powerful part of the u.lab program was the strong connections they created with each other. It is what made people come back week after week. It made us think, how many of us are working on the same issue but do not truly know each other? What is it that makes us crave those meaningful connections, yet why do we need help to get there?
- Our challenges are at times overwhelming. We spent time meeting with underrepresented communities, both entrepreneurs and the organizations dedicated to supporting them. Some of our participants (and incredible inspiring leaders: HackNation, the African Women Business Alliance, MercyCorps, El Centro de la Raza, and What’s Next Washington) organized and led us on field trips for that purpose. Our experience was humbling and revealing. Our first impulse was to want to fix it — “I know, they should try this” — only to realize minutes later we realize that we barely know anything at all. At times that made us feel desperate. That feeling came back when it was time for coming together to work on solutions. Where do you start when there’s so much to do? While this easily led to frustration – we also realized it is a frustration that reflects the tension of the real world.
- We are stuck in our heads, most of the time. We spent a significant amount of time engaging different levels of listening and learning than we usually do. While this sounds esoteric, it actually means taking time in silence; that is, journaling, building three dimensional sculptures out of play doh, or performing a physical exercise called ‘stuck’. We were amazed by the profoundly meaningful personal reflection and life choices that resulted from a more heartfelt connection to ourselves. We were left wondering why we have so little time for something so important in these turbulent times?
- Outcomes. Unsurprisingly, the relationships that were forged were the most important results of this program. We all have a new respect for the value of meaningful conversations between people that care about a similar topic as well as what is required to get to that point. These relationships have already paid off in unexpected ways, among them new partnerships that are increasing real resources available to aspiring entrepreneurs of color. We expect the relationships will continue to bear fruit for years to come.
As we look outside the windows of Seattle Impact Hall and pay daily witness to hundreds of people in the most destitute states of mental illness, addiction, and economic crisis, we wonder what we can do with this new body of knowledge and these new relationships. What could we accomplish if as a community we started to listen and learn from the heart and collaborate to find lasting solutions? While that may seem crazy, for us is seems like the only way forward.
In the meantime we will continue to chip away at using the assets of Seattle Impact Hall as a catalyst for innovation on the difficult issues of our day. We have the skills, the creative community, and the credibility to be an effective neutral convener breaking down the barriers between our existing public, private, and philanthropic sectors. As a start, we are mapping our network according to their interests according to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. What are your interests? Join our network and let us help you create relevant connections on the topics that matter.
Our journey has just started.