IF sponsors—and our Fellows manage—Project Discussions on broad, complex topics of social and political concern. We often refer to these Project Discussions as “Sanctuary” discussions because they are designed to foster a protected space for truly collegial discussion and open and collaborative exploration of difficult issues. To do this, our discussion process is designed to protect the participants from the pressures of—
- Social approval. We give the panelists the opportunity to bring up and play with different, new, and unconventional ideas by insuring that their identity will not be revealed outside the project (a degree of anonymity) and by separating ideas from their contributors—we don’t keep track of who contributed what, and we separate the process of generating of ideas from their evaluation. Finally, decisions are made not through coerced consensus or compromise but rather by open exploration and “convergence,” and a “negative veto” whereby any single panelist can ask that a particular possibility be retained for further discussion. With these processes, we hope that panelists are sheltered—at least in part—from the need to assert their authority, defend a particular constituency, or avoid “mistakes” or probing questions.
- Time. Because we want to allow panelists the time for reflection, for generation of new and unconventional ideas, and for pursuing seeming tangents, our Project Discussions typically run for about a year or more with monthly meetings for several hours.
- The status quo, the conventional wisdom, or the past & present. We focus our discussions on what could be and not on the way things are or have always been. We ask panelists to develop multiple “possibilities” for the future and not focus on a single or certain “solution.” While the discussions can and should be informed by the best current knowledge, we also ask panelists to engage their imaginations and move beyond the often assumed limitations of a specific case and of the here and now.
Sanctuary discussions are conducted by two panels of 5-8 citizens each. One panel includes persons who may have some special expertise on the subject (“Specialists”). The other panel is made up of persons who simply have an interest in discussing the topic (“Generalists”). The two panels work independently until the very end of the Project when they meet together to combine their ideas and help the Fellow prepare a Discussion Guide for others to use in exploring the topic. The discussions themselves are organic and non-linear, yet they are designed to progress through (and often return) to several stages: (1) exploring the emerging concerns about the topic that society might face; (2) developing multiple and different possible responses to those concerns; (3) exploring the possible consequences for each of those different approaches; which leads to (4) revision and often consolidation of the possibilities.
Upon the conclusion of the joint panel discussions and using the possibilities and other ideas developed by the panelists, the Fellow prepares a Discussion Report that becomes the starting point for the next, Public Discussion phase.
To find out more about IF’s current Project Discussions, please click on any of the individual project discussion topics (listed in our navigation menu above and elsewhere).