Designing Conversations for Collaboration and Action

By Meriwether Hardie

Diverse perspectives, diverse landscapes

Grant running a land use planning charrette.

Grant running a land use planning charrette.

A landscape architect, a chef, an urban planner, a farmer, and a soil scientist all walk into a room and sit down at a table. They are each given a piece of paper and asked to draw or write out what their vision for a future planet looks like.

You may be wondering where this story is going. Is it the start of a joke? Is it a riddle? No, this scenario is very real and is a part of our daily work at Bio-Logical Capital.

Over the past 70 to 80 years, our civilization has repeatedly simplified, segregated, and centralized our systems for food, energy, housing, water management and economic mobility. Industries and businesses have grown increasingly specialized and siloed to the point where it is extremely rare to see cross-disciplinary integration or collaboration. The effects are obvious in our land use, where homes are often located in one spot, offices and restaurants in another, water systems in a third, and energy and food production in a fourth and fifth. One unintended consequence of this separation is that people and businesses miss out on opportunities to cross pollinate – to solve problems collectively and to enjoy the richness and resilience that comes with diversity. These segregated models have also clearly failed to adequately safeguard our health, quality of experience, natural systems, resource security and integrity as a global community.

If we go back to the five people sitting in the room - the landscape architect, the chef, the urban planner, the farmer, and the soil scientist – and we ask them to share their vision for the future, they will probably each have a very different vision. They are each experts in their field, and most likely would focus on areas that are somewhat related to their specific fields. They will each have different styles of explaining their vision, they will use different vocabulary, and some of them may talk louder than others.

The chef’s vision could be a world where everyone has access to nutritious food; the urban planner’s vision could be for a truly walkable city with mixed income housing; the farmer’s vision could be for the ability to charge for the true cost of food production; and the landscape architect’s vision could be to integrate ecosystem services into development projects.

Alone or segregated, all of these visions are important. However, when you organize, tweak and weave these visions together, they become powerful. Envision a community where residents are healthier because air is clear of particulates and toxins, food is rich in nutrients and minerals, and neighborhoods are safe to walk around in and play outdoors. A community where ecological systems are protected because they are more valuable as is other than when they are extracted or paved over. A vision where ultimately the quality of life rises for everyone.

Gary, the Hospitality Director for Hana Ranch, spends time in the field with farmers learning how to grow the crops he cooks and sells.

Gary, the Hospitality Director for Hana Ranch, spends time in the field with farmers learning how to grow the crops he cooks and sells.


Facilitating the exchange of ideas

The facilitation and organization of different perspectives and different ideas is easier said than done. Especially when you are attempting to facilitate diverse ideas and perspectives at the initial visioning level and then build those perspectives into an actual plan that can be implemented.  

Even people who come from similar experiences and backgrounds can struggle to communicate clearly and work together. Mix in people who are each experts in their fields, but who all come from drastically different life experiences and backgrounds, and it can be difficult to navigate how to work together to create land use design plans that are place and community appropriate, and innovative yet practical.

As Chief of Staff for Bio-Logical Capital, I spend a lot of time either designing or facilitating the exchange of ideas, team building, design strategy, and effective collaboration. I am far from having “it all figured out,” but people are the most interesting, challenging, exciting, and important part of my work, and I love my time spent working and thinking through these types of dynamics. Below are three tools that I use to facilitate successful design sessions.

1.) Create Connection

When bringing together a new group, I believe that it is essential to facilitate a scenario for everyone on the team to get a window into each other’s values, perspectives, and background.

If I only have the group of people for one meeting, I often use a quick ice breaker exercise. I have the team break up into groups of two and I then ask a question relevant to our meeting. In groups of two, each person takes a turn sharing their response and then listening to their partner’s response. After a set amount of time the small groups come back to the table and share interesting things that they learned from their partner with the larger group. The key is for each participant to explain what they heard from their partner clearly and to demonstrate deep listening and understanding, to “walk a mile” in someone else’s shoes.

If I have a longer period of time to work with a team, I prefer to hold each meeting in a different location, ideally in an area of each of the participants choosing. For example, going back to the group of experts we have sitting in the room, I would ask the city planner to take us on a walk through a community and share with us her observations about how the community was planned, sharing intentional design aspects that either contribute positively or negatively to the community’s well-being. During another meeting, I may ask the farmer to host us on his land, and walk out to the fields and share with the group what they are doing to build soil health and diversity, and what the cost (and benefit) of these practices are to their business.

Although this process takes time, the importance of it cannot be overlooked.

2) Establish Clear Goals

When you gather a group of big thinkers and experts, it can sometimes be hard to orient the conversation towards concrete outcomes and planning. Big thinkers are dreamers and often typically struggle with details, trivial conversations, processes, and decision flows. My key job as a facilitator of this process is to define clear goals for the outcome of each conversation. If I don’t have my goals clearly defined for the meeting, I can’t expect the participants to leave the meeting with clear outcomes.

3) Space for Creativity and Collaboration

Encourage wild ideas. Wild ideas can often give rise to creative leaps. Most innovations draw on many contributions – not just one big idea from one person. It is therefore important to create a space where ideas can be shared aloud by one person, and built off of by another.

A trick that I used from a friend of mine who works with Design Thinking at IDEO is that sticky notes are a great tool for getting ideas down quickly. Often I’ll start a meeting with a group conversation, during which people write down key words from the conversation on sticky notes as we talk. The conversation is generally freeform and popcorn style (unorganized and spontaneous). Then I pause the conversation and we look at the sticky notes and begin to organize our conversation more strategically around common themes that have emerged through the sticky notes. In thinking about ideas that are wacky or out there we tend to think about what we really want without the constraints of technology or materials.



Meriwether prepping beds with the farmers at Philo Ridge Farm.

Meriwether prepping beds with the farmers at Philo Ridge Farm.

Bio-Logical Capital’s philosophy is that diversity creates opportunity and resilience, and that our land use models should mirror that through what we create, how we assemble a project and the populations that we will serve. Into our projects we layer and integrate agriculture, energy, real estate, water, tourism, conservation, transportation, affordable and workforce housing. People often comment that what Bio-Logical Capital is doing is unusual. And I somewhat agree. Our model is distinctive in that we look at not only how businesses operate but also at landscapes and human settlement patterns. Now, that might seem new or unusual, but our model is also over 4.5 billion years old. Our model is inspired directly by nature.

Nature has had many millennia to test and improve different approaches, techniques, and tools. Throughout this evolutionary process, the primary driver has been resource efficiency. For example, monocultures are extremely rare in nature because they are highly susceptible to disturbance (changes in temperature, weather or pests) and they tend to leave behind available resources. In nature, nothing is wasted.  We are all part of one system and everything is a resource for something else. Bio-Logical Capital uses this perspective to look at landscapes and it is why you will never catch us designing a monoculture farm project.

Alongside using nature as design inspiration, people are the other key ingredient to our process. Into each project, we bring experts with diverse skillsets, experiences, and perspectives. As you think about developing your own complex and diverse project, consider bringing different experts into a room to foster collaboration and action.