Workshop overview: Future-proofing the Hunter

As part of my PhD I am looking at the role for design and designers in increasing community participation in transition planning. Having just completed a series of workshops with Hunter Renewal and Hunter Jobs Alliance I thought I would reflect on the process as a way to share some of this knowledge about what designers can do, as well as offer this knowledge to others who might be engaged in community-led transformation.

I was approached to help design and deliver the community workshops by Dan from Hunter Renewal. We had met about 18 months ago through some other volunteer work I had been doing in the Hunter with the Coalition of Everyone and Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE). The workshops, Dan said, were aimed at gathering community input into how the money from the new Royalties for Rejuvenation Fund should be spent in the Hunter.

The initial planning happened before the last lockdown and so we had planned on conducting each of the five workshops in person in five different local government areas (LGAs) of Cessnock, Singleton, Muswellbrook, Maitland, and Lake Macquarie. These are the LGAs that will be most affected by industrial restructuring as part of a move away from coal. When lockdown occurred, we pivoted quickly to deliver the workshops online.

In discussions with the team about how to run these workshops, we spoke about how there have already been a lot of ideas proposed for the Hunter Valley, many from outside experts in science, technology, and the policy arenas. Whilst groups like Hunter Renewal had spent time gathering community input about their roadmap for change, this wasn’t common practice elsewhere. We thought that it was necessary to add some layers of contextual knowledge to these ideas: to increase their robustness and connection to place by allowing the community who would be affected by them to critique and build upon them. This was the basis of the workshops.

Dan and I spoke about a few different methods that could be used and we settled on a combination of methods we had both had experience with. For Dan it was the Diamond Nine activity. For me, it was a variation of card sorting that is sometimes done in user experience (UX) practice. The similarity between these two methods is that they use existing knowledge as a prompt to fuel discussion, and the discussion around the ideas is almost as valuable, if not more valuable, than the ranking of ideas that each tool uses.

What I now reflect upon is that we both chose tools we were familiar with. In speaking with my PhD colleagues this morning, we reflected on how it can be difficult for community organisers to access and learn new tools. It is often much easier to revert to something you are familiar with. Perhaps there are other tools that would have worked better, but in the small time we had available to design the activities, it was the familiar tools we drew upon.

When we had to move the activities online, the choice of method was restricted to that which would work in an online environment with people of varying technical abilities. It had to be easy to learn, simple to use, not easy to break, and not too time consuming. Having taken part in many, many workshops online over the last two years I knew that the designer’s favourite tool, Miro, was not something that fulfilled these requirements. It is complex, easy to break, and too hard to learn. Having recently been introduced to Google’s Jamboard, I felt it might be the better tool based on these needs.

Now that we had settled on the form of the activity, we needed the content. As I mentioned, there were lots of existing ideas out there. We trawled through over 30 reports and found over 150 ideas. To cut these down, we categorised them using four broad areas for change, removed duplicates, and then finally selected 22 ideas that were most suited to the Hunter. This search and synthesis is one role for a designer. I was able to do the hard yards on this first part before handing over to the Hunter team members to do the final selection. It was important that they did this, not an outsider because I cannot possibly know the contextual fundamentals that would allow me to make these types of decisions.

These are the 22 ideas. In the workshop and in the survey, people were asked to prioritise them based on what should be done in the first two years of the fund. In other words, which ideas were the highest priority for the Hunter?

list of 22 ideas that were used in the workshops in four categories: planning, diversifying the economy, supporting the community, supporting workers.

We were restricted by time when switching to online as people can only bear so much online work, especially after 5pm. It’s worth noting at this point the need to consider who will be able to attend an online workshop after 5pm, and whether other opportunities need to be given to broaden inclusion. We also did an online survey (using Typeform) to do this. There were 314 people who took part overall: 111 who came to one of the five workshops, and 203 who did the online survey. In the survey, people were asked how we could make it easier next time to help them take part. People mentioned childcare, transport costs, and time as factors to consider.

Back to the time restrictions. Rather than the 2–3 hours we may have had if in person (along with sharing a meal), we could really only run a 1.5 hour workshop. This meant that we then had to make another hard decision about restricting access: we would have to divide participants into small groups to tackle one of the four categories. There simply wouldn’t be enough time for them to consider all the ideas.

There was around 35 minutes given to the whole activity, and facilitators were able to run this more-or-less the way that felt comfortable to them.

The activity was basically designed as follows.

  1. Introducing the cards
    Each room facilitator had a Jamboard on which they had the ideas for their category on sticky notes. To start, each facilitator asked for volunteers to read one of the ideas aloud. This is what they looked like:
  2. Sort the ideas
    People were asked to sort ideas into two piles based on whether all agreed the idea was a priority for the Hunter, or if only some agreed. If no one agrees then the card was left at the top.
  3. What’s missing?
    People were then asked what ideas they thought were missing, ideally in the category they were targeting. These ideas were added by the facilitator to a sticky note. What’s missing (adding ideas) often yielded nuance on ideas on the table. This allowed people to move into a generative space within the boundaries of their category (planning, diversifying, workers, community).
  4. Highest priority
    Participants were then asked to choose which of the ideas they all agreed upon was the highest priority in their mind to tackle in the first two years.
  5. Share
    Then we returned to the main room and the facilitators shared the highest priority along with what the group had struggled with.

This is what one of the boards looked like to start:

This is what this board looked like afterwards

We had written a very comprehensive facilitators’ guide but realised after the first workshops that something more simple was required. This is the one page guide we gave to facilitators. Please let me know if you would like copies of any of these. I am happy to share.

We had one in-depth facilitator training session and two or three other smaller practice sessions. Before each workshop we met early to test tech and to clear up any questions that facilitators had. We also set up a WhatsApp channel so that they could ask questions before or during the sessions, and also so that we could broadcast messages to them during the workshop.

I’ve not yet synthesised the facilitator feedback or interviewed them, so I can only give some personal reflections on how well we supported them to play their role. Briefly, I think we could have spent more time working on how to deal with conflict in groups, and perhaps spent a little more time with participants talking about this too. Although Jai Allison, the lead facilitator, did mention the importance of listening and allowing everyone to speak, in the rush of the evening I am not sure that many were able to understand the importance of this message. This is a tension that exists when wishing to use local facilitators. There is obvious benefit for insiders leading the work, but if not experienced facilitators then there may be problems that arise.

As time was short we didn’t really have the space to reflect sufficiently on the priorities of each group. This could be improved next time I think by either extending the session by 20 minutes, or having a second session (if people were willing). It might even be good to consider having a second session with people who can spare the time to go through the synthesised findings and sensecheck against their experience of the workshops.

Following the workshops, each facilitator filled out a short online survey to capture the key messages they heard. This helped us collect some quotes to add to the report and understand what people had struggled with. It helped us to adjust the workshops as we proceeded.

  • What was the group’s highest priority idea/s?
  • What did the group grapple with and why?
  • Any good quotes you think could be added to our report?
  • What was the group’s favourite idea and why?
  • Did you add any ideas? What were they?
  • Did any problems, issues or conflicts come up that you think we should know about?
  • What was it like using the Jamboard?
  • Would you use something like that again?
  • Do you have any suggestions on how we could improve this process for the future?
  • Would you take part in something like this again?

We are having a debrief session in a week and if there is any feedback from others that I can share I will post an additional note.

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Kimberley Crofts

Strategic designer and researcher on a quest for sustainable futures through a PhD in participatory methods.