In 2014–2015, the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities partnered with groups in Minden, Broken Bow and Lincoln in a program to help foster and facilitate targeted communication strategies and deliberative, democratic decision-making surrounding specific issues in each community. The two-year program, funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, was directed by Dr. Jay Leighter, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Creighton University and a member of the JISC board of directors.
The program was entirely collaborative, based on each community’s local stakeholders’ and leaders’ desire to investigate their typical communications processes—everyday interactions between citizens and their city government, for example—and to how communications strategies can lead to both improved communications and more sustainable conditions and outcomes. A PDF of the full report can be downloaded here.
Over the past ten years, JISC’s initiatives have focused on human communications with specific interests in enhanced communications for better results in community sustainable development. Each of these projects and investigations has led to the next effort in JISC’s mission to foster economic and social well-being within an environment of abundant and sustainable resources. Through these experiences and resources, JISC concluded that sustainable development and planning for sustainable futures requires special and distinctive communications among all stakeholders, if future generations are to continue a sustainable vision of Nebraska’s future environment.
Communication is the complex processes of human interactions necessary to address a problem/opportunity embedded in the interdependent systems of nature, public policy, economics, technology and local culture. Design is meant as an intentional and creative intervention and innovation in the making of something that was once problematic, needing conservation, or underutilized into something that efficiently and effectively serves the public good.
Through its work, JISC has realized that success with sustainable development projects requires holistic approaches and transparent community communications—Strategic Communications Design. Because most existing community communications are single-issue focused, they often miss the opportunity to understand related and interdependent issues. Understanding and addressing these relationships and interdependencies is integral to sustainable development, a large component of the Joslyn Institute’s mission. Dialogue among citizens is a critical first step for addressing any sustainability issue. Strategic Communications Design as a cornerstone of deliberative democracy has been a key component of the study.
Cultural Communication is the general term we use to describe a body of scholarship including the Ethnography of Communication, Speech Codes Theory, and Cultural Discourse Analysis. Taken together, these traditions highlight that communication is always culturally influenced and that wherever there is a unique culture, there are unique ways of speaking. The perspectives in this tradition reminded us that while many Nebraska communities share the same concerns and are, perhaps, suffering from some of the same environmental, economic and social difficulties, inquiry in each community must recognize that local identities, communication practices, and social relationships are unique. Moreover, these traditions provided guidance in our modes of inquiry because of their respective articulations of ethnographic methods and practices for the study of local terms, meanings, beliefs, and social norms.
Communication Design is a relatively new field developed first in the study of digital technology design but more recently applied to face-to-face interactions. The perspective takes for granted that all people are engaged in the design of communication in our everyday lives. For example, we plan and strategize for meetings, interpersonal interactions, job interviews, and the like. Communication Design foregrounds the intensive interest people have in the shaping of communication toward productive ends. What is unique about the perspective is simply the attention to the study of this interest. Additionally, communication design tries to understand how individuals or groups attempt to make possible forms of communication that seemed impossible or unimaginable. Communication design concepts were useful when working with our partners to strategize the design of communication interactions for furthering the projects.
Deliberative Democracy is both a tradition theorizing and improving the practice of democracy, particularly in the United States, and is a generally used term to describe a continually growing consortium of scholars and practitioners interested in enhancing and creating opportunities for citizens to engage in a more democratic political process. On the one hand, this body of scholarship reminds us to be mindful of principles important to citizen involvement in decision-making such as inclusion, equity, and transparency. On the other hand, it provides perspective and examples for the practice of deliberation among citizens in an effort to improve the quality of decisions. How do citizens name a problem, and is it the right name? How does the name affect attitudes toward the problem? How is the problem framed in terms of shared or competing values and beliefs? And, finally, what are the options on the table for addressing the problem and how should citizens make the choice?
Local Strategies Research
Local Strategies Research is a perspective that has roots in the Ethnography of Communication but moves from inquiry for description to inquiry-in-action. Recently, local strategies research has been applied in healthcare, digital design, and community planning. In each domain, the purpose is to appropriately and artfully design an intervention, some change in the present circumstances toward something new, to improve local conditions. We interpret local strategies research as raising the following questions for those who seek change in a community: What would someone need to know about a community, culturally and communicatively, in order to intervene toward some social betterment (in this case toward sustainable development)? And how would that knowledge shape the intervention to make it more effective? Thus, local strategies research in communication reaffirmed our commitment to learn deeply about our communities before presuming to be able to improve them. It places a burden on projects like ours by forcing development of local knowledge and, then, from this knowledge, applying principles of sustainability such that a given intervention will fit and flourish in that context.
FRAMEWORK FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS
The principal questions for planners and civic leaders intending to guide community conditions toward path of sustainable development are: Where, how, and when is it most effective to communicate with the citizens of a community about their value and life style choices and how their choices impact the sustainability of their community in the future? How do we as citizens in a democratic society come to understand (and love) the necessity of balancing the requirements of the natural systems, socio-cultural values, human technology, trade and commerce, and governmental regulations and policies necessary for true conservation to occur? How can we best grasp the complexity of a particular problem and the trade-offs implicit in the options available so that the best choice can be made? And, how will leaders know whether visions, goals, and strategies are leading to long-term progress or regression?
This framework is developed through data-driven observation, through intensive discussion with our collaborators, and application to the complex set of problem-opportunities we encountered in three Nebraska communities—Minden, Broken Bow, and Lincoln. The framework devised by Dr. Leighter includes the following components:
- Crafting Problem-Opportunity
- Discovering Local Socio-Cultural Beliefs and Practices
- Fostering Local Democratic Capacity
- Crafting Communication Interventions Toward Sustainable Conditions
And, finally, in order to supplement the framework, a community narrative for each collaboration should be formed by focusing attention on key moments of understanding, among collaborators. The narratives do not articulate the whole of the sustainability projects, but instead demonstrate the attention needed to crucial points about the local nature of communication and sustainability. In each narrative, answering the questions above, either as consultants, or in local partnerships creates the conditions to address some component of the problem-opportunity and move the community toward more sustainable conditions.
Other partners in the study included the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and WasteCap Nebraska.