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Building Sustainability Through Civic Dialogue

A Conversation with Dr. Ann Dale

In 2013, NBS’s Leadership Council identified civic dialogue as critical to sustainability. Civic dialogues are organized conversations that allow for joint learning, persuasion and consensus-building. They have been successful in achieving wide support for significant change.

This fall, NBS will produce a briefing report and host a forum on the topic. Ann Dale, recent winner of the Molson Prize for her sustainability work, is a leader in the area and will be speaking at the forum. Here, she and her colleague Rob Newell describe how dialogue can spur innovation.

Sustainability challenges are beyond the ability of any single government, sector or expert to solve, says Dr. Ann Dale, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Development at Royal Roads University. “You have innovation among teams of people, not individuals.”

In her work, Dale brings together multiple perspectives to find solutions. Two recent projects are:

Connecting virtually

Dale often uses virtual dialogues, which are cheaper and easier for participants than meeting in person. “People sitting in their offices can [participate], with the conversations archived,” she says. The approach makes dialogues more accessible to busy people and facilitates distant connections.

Dale uses a custom-built e-Dialogues platform and the publicly-available Blue Jeans Network, which is a bridging program that connects various forms of communications such as telephone, Skype and videoconference.

Involving the public

Dialogues start with experts, but broad engagement is vital. “We’re really trying to connect with the public and encourage them to act in a local context,” says Rob Newell, research associate on the MC3 project. With MC3, expert exchanges were followed by a live chat with communities. “The public can listen in to the expert panel, talk amongst themselves, and ask questions of the panel.”

The MC3 team also makes dialogue outcomes publicly available, in a particularly powerful form. Because people respond strongly to visual information, the team has created animations and “mind-maps,” which blend notes with images. “These visual presentations speak much more quickly to people browsing the web than text-based items,” says Newell. “And because they get messages across quickly, they are easy to share on social media.”

Civic dialogue needed

Collaboration between business, researchers and practitioners, through sustained dialogue, is a way to “speed the exploitation of knowledge and innovation take-up,” says Dale. With sustainability issues so pressing, we need to “make those processes as fast as we can.”

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  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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