Bernelle Verster

Merah Mas Industrial Biotech, University of Cape Town, Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research - CeBER


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What can you do to engage your community with complex issues in a fun way to create a series of small, positive, informed, lasting changes?

With the world's challenges becoming more complex and more interdependent, quick fixes, or straightforward solutions are just not available.

TEDTalks are these nuggets of ideas, that are packaged like a complete story. Like a collection of facts, they can be considered as isolated from each other. This is good because watching a talk makes you confident that you understand the subject matter and inspires you to do something with it, but it is also bad because it makes it feel like the talk is the complete story. If action is taken using this incomplete story, it's more likely that that project will fail because the bigger context is missing.

On the other side of the story-telling spectrum is trying to understand too much complexity and overemphasizing that everything is connected, getting lost in the detail. Then you just end up confused, and feel powerless and don't do anything.

We need to encourage engagement with complex issues and then take informed action, even if this takes a long time. The question is how. TEDTalks are good at sharing information, let's try to connect them to illustrate the complexity. And once this is done, what can we do to share this complexity with our communities to inspire small, informed changes that change the world?

We will also be exploring this in a TEDxCapeTown conversation, using carbon offsetting as example:

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    May 26 2012: Bernelle, your question is an interesting one that I know is a great concern of local governments. Local governments seek to engage the citizenry in finding solutions, but social contexts are complex. Practitioners in local government (as well as other levels of public agency) include people who have a working grasp of the complexity of some of the issues they need to address. When I say a "working grasp" I mean an understanding of which variables are central and which have such a small effect that they may be ignored, practically speaking. Local governments also tend to want to engage the citizenry.
    But the problem then arises that people whose lives and work are in other areas not only do not typically have a grasp of most complex issues but also often believe that the ideas and issues are much simpler than they are. Even among those who discuss issues within the TED community, one might notice many people who believe important issues are quite simple- maybe even have a solution they think is obvious- and assume that the reason problems are not solved is entirely that those in power have self-interest that makes them not want to solve the problem.
    It is worth studying the various ways local governments undertake community engagement and outreach, as the problem of how to engage the community in a way that conveys the fundamental facts and analytical issues and taps the community's ideas has been of great interest in government for decades.
    In my experience, one key is to involve people who do understand the issues. have good conversation skills, are not inclined to adversarial relations, and who are not condescending. One also needs people who trust the "experts" to lay out ideas objectively and without concealing inconvenient information.
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    May 26 2012: Great question Bernelle! I believe this is a bit related to the writings of Virginia Held and her theory of social morality. Social morality has been pervasive in human interaction for thousands of years spanning religions, dynasties, and empires.

    Think of an unwritten code or law which is enforced by the collective code of ethics which is enforced by ostracizing a member of a group who has broken a cardinal rule.

    The reason I am relaying this idea is because to engage an entire community you must first fight apathy. the greatest way to do this is to in a community is to employ the human characteristic of social interaction.

    Start at the top and work your way down. Talk to the leaders of your community and sell your ideas. When you succeed in this everything else will fit into place. Trust me. Work from the top down.
  • May 26 2012: You shouldn't always try to understand the full context and plan too far ahead. It may happen, that when you're done studying and planning, everything you've learned will already be obsolete. Go ahead and make you're small changes. If they work, continue in the same manner. If not, fall a step back, evaluate and change you're tactics.
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    May 26 2012: Collaboration is powerful but nothing new. Community is also a term that is enjoying a comeback.

    The premise of a utopian society or perfect community requires the perfect individual as the foundation stone. I think it's safe to say that this is the flaw in the concept.

    Simplicity is the answer. The devil is in the details.

    My answer: lead by example and don't expect everyone to follow suit. Best you can do..
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    May 24 2012: First, a bit of a counter question - do you know of any good TED talks that complements this topic?