Blog: The Art of Convening

Source: Tue, 27 Oct 2015 11:15 AM
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Rachel Houghton, CDAC Network, Monday 26 October 2015

In this interconnected world fuelled by technologies that are constantly alerting, tweeting and pinging us, it’s often hard to find the place and space to think. Author Piero Ferrucci in his book inevitable grace writes of the importance of losing one’s mind (the release from one’s familiar way of thinking) and having one’s heart melted (the dying or fading away of structures that normally encumber the psyche) as critical to helping us think creatively. At the invitation of The Rockefeller Foundation, I recently found that place in a little town in Northern Italy.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre is set in spacious grounds that smelled of rosemary and freshly cut grass. Amidst the olive trees dotting the surrounding hills the only tweets came from birds.  Taking walks in such a setting was an unexpected bonus. This is a place intent on convening creative conversations on some of the most difficult challenges facing mankind, now and in the future. As Director of the Communicating with Disaster Affected (CDAC) Network, I was invited to join other professionals from around the globe to discuss strategies for using communication to build resilience and effective response to public health crises. 

In CDAC, we intentionally seek to span traditional organisational and disciplinary boundaries in the pursuit of revolutionising the way aid providers communicate with crisis affected populations. The intellectual and operational leadership required to address this, as with other complex challenges, doesn’t reside within any single individual or agency, so the Network seeks to create interactions that, through sharing across boundaries, develop it. But even in this environment it is easy to get trapped into familiar patterns of thinking and doing.  Those at the Bellagio Centre gathering pushed me out of that comfort zone.

Over the course of the week I listened to presentations from and had deep conversations with a diverse set of experts: a born and bred New Yorker who works for the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, the Director of Global Disaster Response from the Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital, OCHA’s Head of Public Information for West and Central Africa, the Director of BBC Media Action USA, and more. My eyes and ears were opened to new ways of thinking about how we engage and support those in crisis affected communities.    

Mind-bending Jay Walker opened my eyes even wider to the complexity of the world in which we live; one in which the speed of change is unprecedented, borders are an illusion, and the emergence of the global communications network means ‘the back channel has become the front channel’. No institution will ever get ahead of this; at the same trust in institutions is demonstrably declining. In this context it’s critical to try to see the larger systems at play.

Jay’s session, and those of the other colleagues gathered, led me to ask questions about the humanitarian sector. It is somewhere I know well. But it is a sector in which front to end planning still dominates and where the tyranny of the urgent gets in the way of thinking creatively about the future.  We are failing in vision and understanding that we are part of a complex system where inputs do not predict outputs; where coordination, while important, is not enough; and where we perhaps need to prioritise building social capital and relationships of trust as pivotal to aid delivery in a decentralised and distributed world. In my own organisation, I am now considering how to take a systems approach to our forthcoming strategy and governance review. In this endeavor I shall be guided by the thinking of another author I love, Peter Senge, and his book The Necessary Revolution.

The Centre for Creative Leadership teaches us that wherever group boundaries intersect, there is potential for different ways of working and new forms of collaboration. ‘Boundaries reveal new frontiers for solving pressing problems, driving innovation, and leading breakthrough change.’ This is what we urgently need in order to address the difficult problems we face today.

Thank you to The Rockefeller Foundation for creating the place and space to inspire fresh thinking and spark innovative ideas.  By transporting my mind and body to this peaceful retreat on a steep hill overlooking Lake Como, I experienced first-hand Ferrucci’s principles:  that beauty opens and harmonizes the mind, and solitude is an effective means of unlearning old patterns. This was certainly one of the most stimulating and productive gatherings I’ve been part of, and one in which both the art and the science of convening was at play.

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The CDAC Network is a growing platform of more than 30 humanitarian, media development, social innovation, technology, and telecommunication organisations, dedicated to saving lives and making aid more effective through communication, information exchange and community engagement.

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