Last month I wrote about Wisdom Councils and today I want to carry on talking a bit about why participative approaches to change are so important.  I have recently had the opportunity to interview Dr Manfred Hellrigl, Director of the Office for Future Affairs in Vorarlberg, Austria and find out some of the successes they had with Wisdom Councils.  As previously mentioned the Office of Future Affairs is one of the major users of Dynamic Facilitation and the Wisdom Council in Europe. Seeing them as important approaches to bring about lasting and profound change does however not prevent them from being acutely aware of the challenges.  While the example in this article is quite clearly local authority based, I think there is learning to be drawn from this for all of us involved in change and particularly change for sustainability.


The Office for Future Affairs is particularly proud of an example when they used the Creative Insight Council approach as part of a consultation activity.  They worked with the city of Bregenz, Vorarlberg’s capital.  There was a valuable piece of land right in the centre of Bregenz that had remained undeveloped for many years. Then suddenly the opportunity emerged to do something with it a few years ago.  Architects had worked on the project for two years but it was also felt that citizens should be able to have a say. When the Creative Insight Council convened they recognised what everyone else had missed. The town had been built in such a way that the railway line and the major road in town separated the city from the beautiful Lake Constanze, which in many ways defines Bregenz, and the new architectural plans left the city with the same dilemma.  The architects’ plans had missed the once in a lifetime opportunity to overcome the separation how it was perceived by the people.  Even though they had planned an underpass, the citizens of Bregenz wanted an overt linkage between the two parts of town, a kind of Spanish steps that would become a new landmark and a place for people to meet and enjoy themselves and the wonderful scenery.  Far from criticising the architectural know-how of the experts, they added the wisdom of the local people who knew exactly what was needed to make their city even more attractive, lively and liveable.  The architectural plans were amended and the project has been a great success.

Manfred Hellrigl has other, in some cases smaller, successes to talk about.  What I found interesting though is how a relatively small place like Vorarlberg, with a population of about 370,000 citizens, got into looking at consultation and change approaches that are so foresightful. And of course there is a history that has led to adopting this way of working. In the 1990s the government of Vorarlberg ran a lot of environmental sustainability campaigns.  The key things they learnt from these initiatives were that people do not like being told what to do and that they were much more likely to be influenced in their behaviours if they were part of a conversation and particularly one that was decentralised and participative.  When they set out to evaluate their earlier work, they first of all wanted to do what many organisations do - they intended to adopt the approach of looking at what was not working as well as they wanted so that they could learn from their mistakes and improve. At that opportune moment they stumbled across Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and investigated what was working already instead.

One of the big revelations was that their communities are already self-organising and that this self-organisation is a powerful change agent. So what works is creating an enabling environment rather than one that imposes change from the top. As a result of this finding, they revisited their entire approach to change.  Instead of going into communities with a project idea such as an energy campaign, they offered communities their support with their own concerns that they wanted to work on and find solutions for.   This also turned the federal county’s attitude towards its residents right on its head. Instead of treating them as customers, they became citizens once more. Then in 2004 Vorarlberg was determined to become known for being a child-friendly place to live. The Office for Future Affairs wanted to use the learning of using participative approaches and organised a Citizens’ Jury inviting about 2,000 people and ending up with 75 local people who worked with them for four days to develop a child-friendly strategy for Vorarlberg.  The interesting thing was that the Office for Future Affairs also worked with some specialists in the field and the insights and knowledge of citizens proofed to be of the same quality than those of the experts.  The only snag was that the Citizens’ Jury turned out too expensive for them to pursue so they went on the look-out for a viable alternative that would continue to provide a robust framework and results of high quality.  This is how they came across Dynamic Facilitation and the Wisdom Council. 

Having used these approaches for several years now they have also learnt about the factors which are central to using them successfully.  The biggest challenge they have encountered is finding politicians who are willing to take the risk to work with approaches that do not allow for results to be pre-determined and where outcomes cannot be controlled.  The main fear that politicians have is that citizens could come up with fanciful wishes that require abundant financial resources and that are just not do-able. 

However, experience has shown that the opposite is the case – citizens generally recognise what is working and consider it their own responsibility to improve things further.  Insights like this can only come from the people. If a politician claimed that things were going well and that we all had a responsibility to improve them further, it would sound inauthentic and like a party-political broadcast.  Another challenge is that once it is working, some politicians fear that their positions and roles become superfluous and again this is unfounded.  Quite the contrary, these approaches give politicians finally a way of really knowing what concerns their local citizens, what their pains and wishes are and are so able to work much more productively for the people who elected them.  Instead of double guessing they tap into the wisdom of the people.  And that insight is not just there, it gets created through and amidst the conversation. 

What the Office for Future Affairs has learnt is that these approaches work particularly well in two cases, firstly with communities which are simply innovative, who welcome change and creativity and always want to improve further – they really appreciate the insights gained from this type of work. 

Secondly, they also find these approaches work when communities are at the end of their tether – when a problem has become so painful that a solution simply has to be found.  The fact however is, that this is a continuum with a rather large middle that remains fearful of embracing approaches that enable self-organisation, that open up choice creating dialogue, innovative solutions and allow people to take responsibility. 

The Office for Future Affairs knows that unless politicians are signed up for the fact that this is an open process, there is no point of pursuing these approaches any further, which are quite far removed from the usual struggle for power and competitiveness.  I can relate well to these findings through my own work. In my article from November 2011 I looked at sustainability and leadership and I explored the difference between easy and complex (adaptive) challenges and surmised that we had to stop treating the many converging crises as if they were lots of separate simple problems.  Approaches like the Wisdom Council but also Open Space, Future Search, Lego Serious Play and the World Cafe work with the messiness that so many organisations are facing these days.  Like the Office for Future Affairs, many organisations and individual leaders need, I think, find the courage to do things differently to create the change that makes the difference.  As Albert Einstein so perceptively said “One definition of insanity is ‘doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results”. I rest my case.

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can also follow Andrea on Twitter

(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)



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