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Where Will a Project Go? A Novel Approach to Following the Questions

If you’re thinking about taking part in one of our Sanctuary Discussion Projects, you might wonder about the directions the discussions might take. You might wonder whether the discussion Facilitator, or the Interactivity Foundation, has in mind some particular direction in which to lead the discussions. You might wonder whether the discussions will start with some particular answers in mind. Actually, our Discussion Projects start not with answers but with questions. And, frankly, we don’t know the answers to these questions. Our Discussion Projects move by exploring different questions about some area of public or social concern. And, once a project gets moving, we don’t quite know what different directions it might take.

Of course, you might then wonder how it’s possible to facilitate a project if you don’t know where it is going. How can you facilitate discussions on a complex topic if you  don’t know the answers to the big questions the group will be exploring? Is this like the blind leading the blind? Along these lines it might help to think about some recent comments made by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver about her approach to writing a novel (per my rough transcription):

I begin with a question or often kind of a complex of questions that seem enormously important to me and whose answers I really don’t know. And that way I can enjoy the process of writing my way to, not exactly to one answer, because, of course, a novel doesn’t deliver a single answer, but it should deliver you, the reader, some satisfaction on the terms that it has established. It should really lead you to answer these questions for yourself. (Barbara Kingsolver on the Diane Rehm Show)

Following Kingsolver’s lead, we might describe the Interactivity Foundation’s Discussion Projects as taking a “novel” approach. A Discussion Project begins much as Kingsolver says: we start with a complex of questions whose answers we don’t know. The project discussions move ahead by the panelists exploring these different questions and developing different possible ways to respond to them. Like the process of writing a novel, our Discussion Projects are intended to enable creative insights and open up new possibilities we may not have thought up before. And just like a novel, our projects don’t deliver a single answer.

There are some key differences, of course, between an Interactivity Foundation Discussion Project and writing a novel. Rather than describing one narrative or storyline, our project discussions essentially develop different possible “storylines,” or different possible ways to respond to an evolving complex of questions. (Maybe it’s more like writing a collection of short stories). And it’s important to keep in mind that our project panelists aren’t in the role of “readers,” or recipients of what’s produced in the project discussions. They are the authors of it. As the authors, the panelists are not seeking to reach satisfaction for themselves on the “answers” that are produced. They’re trying to spell out a range of possibilities, to tell a number of contrasting stories, so that others, in future citizen discussions, can find their way to their own answers. The ultimate product of a project, a Citizen Discussion Report, should help citizens develop their own thinking about the area of concern.

The analogy between an Interactivity Foundation Discussion Project and Barbara Kingsolver’s approach to writing a novel may not be a perfect one. But if you’re wondering how a Discussion Project could work if it doesn’t know in advance where it is going, you might do well to think of it more like writing a novel and less like engaging in research or taking a trip to a predetermined destination. You might do well to think about Barbara Kingsolver’s approach to starting with a complex of questions whose answers she doesn’t know.

–Jeff Prudhomme