Permission to… (meaningful) conversation

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Permission to enter into (meaningful) conversation

Recently, a (successful) Kickstarter project caught my eye: the Umbrella Here project was soliciting money from the crowd to develop ‘smart’ umbrellas that light up when owners are up for sharing their cover with strangers.

This ‘permission to interact with strangers’ has always fascinated me, especially considering the unwritten rule of major urban centres to not make eye contact with strangers, nor to enter into conversation with them unless there’s an extraordinary reason to do so. Given our intrinsic need to communicate, express ourselves, and be understood by our fellow humans, it makes sense that technology based-projects like Umbrella Here, or Switzerland’s Pumpipumpe – which facilitates neighbourhood interaction by getting homeowners to display the goods they wish to share through mailbox stickers – will allow for increasingly sophisticated layers of permission in various aspects of our lives.

Technology has both created new ways to connect people, and new ways to filter our interactions. It also shifts how we talk to each other about things we have all agreed are important to discuss as a nation. A recent Ipsos poll found that Canadians see the following as their top national issues: health care (40%), unemployment and jobs (38%), followed closely by taxes (36%) and corruption (31%). Yet what are the avenues at our disposal that allow us to discuss these big ticket items we clearly say are on our mind?

While some of these conversations have clearly moved from the physical realm to the virtual, in, for example, sub-threads on reddit.com, or hashtags on twitter, I would argue that our capacity to have national conversations about the very things we say matter most to us is eroding.

The causes are many: from a sense of information overload and the need for better curators; to the reduction of our media landscape to sound bites; to subtle or direct hints that topics such as ‘the economy’ are too vast, too complex, and ultimately too impenetrable.

As such, we need new avenues that give people back the permission to discuss big issues in an impartial, well-informed, affordable, jargon-free, safe, space. We need mechanisms that create entry-points into ‘complex’ topics such as the state of our democracy.

On a local level, 2014 was a good year for Ottawa in terms of new initiatives that are taking a crack at creating such spaces. At the municipal level, Citizens Academy launched Citizen Chats to create places for people to listen, learn and understand issues that affect them and their city. The Ottawa edition of the Spur Festival sought to create opportunities for intimate conversations about place, politics and ideas, without pushing one particular perspective.  Our Ottawa (de)tours also had a successful beta-season, as Ottawans and other visitors alike proved there is room for critical-thinking initiatives in our city.

Such spaces are rare, and should be nurtured. Truly magical moments happen when we create places that give us permission to interact, critically think, be curious with, and maybe share a meal alongside people who are not just like us.

written by Dan Monafu