July 2, 2012

The Two World Views of Squares & Blobs

It is so easy to make things so hard - and so hard to make things easy.  That's what I love the video that I'm sharing here today, No More Throw Away People, by Edward Cahn (author of the book, No More Throw Away People: The Co-Production Imperative). This ingenious video uses cartoon-like blobs and squares to illustrate the different contributions that institutions and people can make in solving problems, and - most interesting to me - paints a good picture of the relationship that I see most frequently when institutions try to solve problems through the most typical paths of community engagement.

In my experience, community engagement for most institutions (governments, foundations, established non-profits) involves people in institutions (squares) talking to people (blobs) to understand a problem and get their advice on how they should solve the problem.  Institutions talk to people individually (surveys) or collectively (focus groups or forums or via other community engagement processes.  They sometimes ask the most enlighted people they find to serve on a committee or even their board so that they can get a continuous stream of problem-interpretation or advice.  And sometimes, they might even give grants to community groups so that they can work on the problems directly.  Too often, when they give grants to community groups, they do that without understanding what they are doing to them by forcing them into a non-profit organization mold by their requirements or expectations.

It also shows what happens to the grassroots groups that people in a community form for mutual aid and collective action become more like squares than blobs - most often, when they are trying to gain legitimacy or find resources in their quest to get something done about a big problem in their community.  They gain something (capacity to do things that squares are good at doing) but they lose something (capacity to do what blobs are good at doing).

This video, like Cahn's book, calls for co-production - a way of working together that allows squares to do what they do well and blobs to bring their unique gifts, perspectives and talents to the table.  This is one of those things that sounds easy but apparently (because it happens so rarely) is really hard.  I think that one of the things that makes it hard is that we - all of us - have a love-affair with squares and a dismissive attitude about blobs.  Our love affair with squares has made us forget that we all are also blobs in some hours of our day or that the world of blobs even exists.

Check out this video, but do more than that. Begin your love-affair with blobs by using this video to launch a conversation that includes both squares and blobs about how people and institutions connect to get things done in your community.  And let me know how it goes.

The Parable of the Blobs and Squares from James Mackie on Vimeo.