More engagement lessons from the Canterbury earthquakes

Recently, John Hamilton, the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management, New Zealand, spoke about the Canterbury earthquakes at the National Board meeting of Neighbourhood Support.

Resilience and personal fortitude

John was effusive in his praise for the “personal fortitude” of Cantabrians and the resilience of their communities. Their response has negated the myth of weak neighbourhood spirit prevalent in pre-quake discourse. The tragic impacts of the earthquakes have strengthened community engagement and communication.

the Student Volunteer Army in action in Christchurch

In immediate response to the quakes, Christchurch citizens checked on their neighbours. In the following days and weeks, community groups such as the student army arose and self-organised to check on people’s well-being and remove the liquefaction flooding streets and properties (see an earlier post). Unlike many overseas disaster scenes, Christchurch people used emergency accommodation for just a few days and quickly returned to damaged homes (where that was safe). Most of the fatalities occurred in the CBD, but thankfully residential buildings performed well and no lives were lost in residential building collapses. And, according to John “schools did a fantastic job” – no school children lost their lives.

Situational awareness

But the people of Christchurch and Canterbury weren’t anticipating an earthquake, and may not have been as well prepared as they could have been. The authorities found it difficult to get timely and accurate intelligence about immediate impacts and particularly in suburban areas. Effective community networks established before any disaster help the authorities gain situational awareness and better target response actions.

John believes that Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, has heeded lessons from Christchurch and is improving community preparedness. Wellington sits on a major fault line and people have been anticipating “the big one” for decades. Wellington civic leaders have engaged at community level to build emergency response capacity. Should a big earthquake occur, Wellington’s strong community infrastructure should  enable a good response.

Neighbourhood Support’s role

Community groups such as neighbourhood support play an important role in fostering community engagement. Neighbourhood Support was originally set up to improve security and reduce crime in neighbourhoods. This necessary, but reactive role, is dramatically enhanced by the more pro-active community engagement role – where people are encouraged to get to know their neighbours. Thus resilience is built into communities as people learn (or relearn) to engage with neighbours. Resilient communities are better placed to respond to destructive events, whether they be natural or man-made. And on the positive site, increased neighbourhood engagement opens up opportunities for an enriched social life and greater prosperity through community initiatives.

If you want more information about neighbourhood support, or would like to form a neighbourhood support group check out the Neighbourhood Support New Zealand website. Please comment – I would be interested to know about similar initiatives in other countries.

image credit: http://iprepared.blogspot.com/2011/02/helping-each-other.html

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Engaging stories: rebuilding Christchurch

The City of Christchurch, New Zealand was devastated by a series of earthquakes. The largest, on the 4 September 2010 wrecked havoc in the central city, but the second quake on 22 February killed 181 people and all but destroyed the central city. The response of the people of Christchurch is an inspiring engagement story. On 11 August, the Christchurch City Council released it draft Central City Plan.  The plan was immediately received with acclaim.

From an engagement perspective, the plan embodies three foundational strengths:

  • inspirational leadership
  • inclusion of the indigenous Ngāi Tahu
  • comprehensive public participation and community engagement

 Inspirational Leadership

From the day of the first quake, the indefatigable Mayor, Bob Parker fronted up and communicated clearly, exuding a aura of compassion and hope. As in the image below, he was often seen on camera with a person translating his words into sign language, an unspoken symbol of inclusion. When the Council released the draft plan there appeared to be an evident sense of celebration and unity in the council – not that common in local body politics.

 Inclusion of the tangata whenua

The Mäori tribe Ngāi Tahu are the indigenous people of the Canterbury region. In formal occasions, it is common for Mäori to acknowledge tipuna (ancestors) and those who have died. The draft plan beautifully incorporates words authored by Ngai Tahu to set an appropriate context for the plan. Here is the English translation:

This mihi is given by the Ngāi Tahu Rūnanga – Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri- to acknowledge and respect the people who have been lost and those whose hearts are grieving them, and the sorrow of this .  It also acknowledges the losses and pain of all people in Christchurch and Canterbury who have suffered as a result of the earthquakes.  Ngāi Tahu recognise their atua/god Rūaumoko as having pulled his umbilical cord and caused so much to break, including land from the mountains to the sea.  While acknowledging the pain, Ngāi Tahu see us uniting us as one people – the survivors (morehu) of Christchurch and Canterbury.  The mihi is a call to Christchurch to rise up, and together to rebuild Christchurch brighter and better.

Public participation – share an idea

Following the second quake, the City Council launched Share an Idea, a public engagement campaign to lay the foundations for the rebuild. In six weeks, the website, www.shareanidea.org.nz generated over 58,000 visits. Ideas were also harvested through facebook and twitter. Virtual engagement was complimented by a two-day community expo (attended by over 10,000 residents) and a series of public workshops. These are two of the larger examples of over 100 stakeholder meetings. (See the draft plan for more detail of engagement).

A total of 106,000 ideas were shared during the six week campaign – that is one idea from every 2.2 residents. Share an Idea generated a level of community involvement that has never been seen before in New Zealand.

The fruit of the engagement process

The thousands of ideas clustered into 5 themes:

  • green city
  • market city
  • city life
  • distinctive city
  • transport choice

The plan includes contributor’s comments to directly link the ideas generated to the completed draft plan (click on the thumbnail for a larger image).

Mayor Bob Parker described the new Christchurch as “a safe, sustainable, green, hi-tech, low-rise city in a garden”.

Out of adversity comes an unprecedented opportunity. We are embarking together on one of the most exciting projects ever presented to a community in New Zealand, perhaps the world…This is our city, it will rise again

Bob Parker

This is just a taste of a truly inspirational document. Anyone interested in stakeholder engagement, community participation or organisational development will benefit from a closer look.

Sustainability, engagement and the end of empires, part 2

We are nearing the end of the age of empires (see part one of this post). As the old world is crumbling under its own dysfunction, the new shoots of a new civilisation are discernible. This is the context for the shift to sustainability.

Civilisation by engagement and community building

With the old world essentially a spent force, impotent to deal with the complex issues we now face, the required course correction is a radical reorganisation of human communities and patterns of civilisation. In addition to developing the new institutions to support a new world order, we face the far more profound challenge – that of disrupting ancient and ingrained assumptions and patterns of behaviour, and supplanting them with new ones. This is no simple task.

Current sustainability discourse calls for change, but it is frequently posited as incremental change (albeit challenging enough itself). The environmental and social challenges facing us are enormous. We will struggle to reverse, or slow down some of the alarming trends, such as climate change, species extinction and resource depletion. But In some ways, the task of supplanting old patterns of behaviour, anchored and expressed in age-old human behaviours, is even more challenging. But the good news is, when we can achieve this, new patterns of human interaction will make it much easier to build sustainable communities.

The changes we are facing require the displacing of these old patterns of human behaviour with often diametrically opposed new patterns. For example, most human communities have used slavery as an economic resource. The practice persists today in locations where the prevailing cultural norms of subcultures view humans as objects for exploitation. This practice is unsustainable where human dignity is a dominant value and poverty is banished.

At present, we are in a twilight zone, where many are working hard to implement sustainability interventions, but are doing so on the foundations of the old order. Many corporates struggle with schizophrenic personalities – the old “profit maximisation at any cost” personality, and the emergent “sustainability” personality. BP’s gulf oil spill personifies this. I have no doubt, the companies’ leaders are genuinely aspirational, but the hyper-competitive marketplace invokes “profit maximisation” behaviours. We are attempting to build a new world on shaky foundations.

Green shoots – community building

There are encouraging developments. Take community building for example. I am hopeful that we have reached the nadir of dislocated urban and suburban communities and we are beginning to connect more with our neighbours. In this Ted talk, Rachel Botsman talks about the growth of “collaborative consumption” – a phenomena driven partly by new peer-to-peer technologies.

And in my corner of the world, the city of Christchurch recently experienced two devastating earthquakes. Amidst the tragedies, it was heart-warming to see neighbours looking after neighbours. Two “armies” were mobilised – the student army, and the “farmy” army, the former, tertiary students, and the latter, Canterbury farmers. These armies cleared away the tonnes of liquefaction that covered streets and suburbs.

More green shoots – the global community

A hundred years ago most of our exposure was to homogenous others – those that were much like us. It was very easy to be embedded in and “us and them” world, when most other nationalities are strangers. Now we mix a lot more, we are broadening our empathy far beyond the homogenous cliques of the past. We are more likely to respond to the plight we see our fellow humans suffering. And science has taught us to that biologically, we are all much the same.

The attitudinal foundations

In the previous post, I outlined the underlying assumptions that supported the empire building ethos – “growth is good” – “extracting value” and “us and them”. Our new world requires an entirely different assumption: unity of action. Rachel Botsman advocated a shift from competition to collaboration.

We also have to overturn some deep-seated beliefs about human nature. For example, we can live peaceably together, and we can transcend self-interest.

Is it arrogant to think that we are living in the midst of epochal change? Could it be that we are indeed part of a transformation of human consciousness? I believe so, and in my next post, I will assemble some supporting evidence. What do you think?

Stakeholder engagement and community building

Nascent engagement processes emerging in companies around the globe mirror community building dynamics happening in wider society. Both represent an epochal change in the way we communicate. And as we recognise the profundity and pervasiveness of this change, the principles that underpin these global changes have the potency to inform and guide our engagement efforts in our local contexts. We will never go back to how we were.

Mankind collectively is approaching a state of maturity, never seen before on the planet. We are emerging from a turbulent adolescence to adulthood. The communication of our collective childhood and adolescence was (and to a large extent, still is) characterised by conflict and contention and occurred in societal structures that created privilege and power for an elite. Some of that residual power flowed, then trickled, down the ranks. Can you think of a period of our history where this wasn’t the case? If you can, I imagine you will find it was an aberration from the norm.

The communication of engagement

As we started to formalise the study of communication, the first models that emerged, post-World War Two, were transmission models of communication.  These presented communication as “getting the message” and focussed on external noise that impeded communication flow. The complexity of the people involved in communication wasn’t really factored in. There can be no true communication where there is an imbalance of power.

A contemporary model of communication that better equips us for engagement and the profound changes referred to above is Susan O’Rourke and Sandy Barnett’s shared meaning model. Here, true communication is that intersection in the understanding of two parties.

shared meaning

As our mutual understanding develops, the area of intersection grows. This model aligns nicely with the engagement ethos, applying to our workplaces and communities.

This blog has focussed on the business world, but parallel engagement processes can be seen in communities and nations around the world. People are finding greater cohesiveness in neighbourhoods, crises are invoking a unified response in effected communities and the widespread protests in the Middle East sees people revolting against old models of power.

Community building

Christchurch’s horrific earthquake has bought out the best in the community. There have been two parallel responses, the impressive institutional response from government and NGOs, and the inspirational grass roots response. Among the latter are the Student Volunteer Army and the “Farmy Army”. These two groups have emerged independently to rid the suburbs of an estimated 260,000 tonnes of silt generated by liquefaction. The Student Volunteer Army, in teams from 5 to 1000, has to date completed over 1,500 jobs logged on their website by needy Christchurch citizens. The opportunity connect with fellow human beings in a time of crisis, I suspect will be life-changing both for those receiving the help, and the young people so freely giving of themselves. A spokesman for the volunteer army, Louis Brown, described the phenomena to TV3’s Mike McRoberts “An incredible effort; people stepping up, taking leadership, building trust with people that’s not necessarily earned but given to each other in a matter of hours is incredible stuff”.  The images of the Student Volunteer Army marching the streets also serves to soften negative stereotypes of young people.

The student volunteer army on the streets of Christchurch (from TVNZ – click here for the YouTube video)

Another development that may well have a more long-lasting impact is the development of neighbourhood forums. The Rebuild Christchurch website offers a tool for people to build an online community, based on their neighbourhood. Hopefully we are emerging from the nadir of decades of dislocation in our suburban bubbles to rediscover our neighbourhoods.

Engagement lessons

What are the engagement lessons that we can glean from these events?

  • While government/authority support is vital, grass-roots initiatives can mobilise people quickly for the community’s benefit.
  • The burden of cost is reduced as communities become more self-reliant and resilient.
  • Tools of technology facilitate engagement and community building.
  • The “armies” formed themselves and didn’t need to be “empowered”. Democracies enable this – most organisations don’t.

From these lessons we can distil some principles and values to guide our engagement aspirations – but I will leave you to do that☺. I would appreciate hearing through comments how this relates to where you work.