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‘GovJam’ takes creative aim at Charlotte problems

Katrina Dietz, left, and Lauren Bell, two of the participants in #GovJamCLT, sit behind a model designed to illustrate their ideas for making the roads safer for cycylists. Their proposal includes making bikes lanes a different color so it’s clear to drivers that bicyclists belong there.
Katrina Dietz, left, and Lauren Bell, two of the participants in #GovJamCLT, sit behind a model designed to illustrate their ideas for making the roads safer for cycylists. Their proposal includes making bikes lanes a different color so it’s clear to drivers that bicyclists belong there.

You might not be accustomed to civic planning meetings where the facilitators wear pirate hats and wield rubber chickens.

But at a GovJam event, like the one that just unfolded in Charlotte, that’s business as usual.

Behind the silliness is a serious notion: Cities like Charlotte need more collaborative and creative ways to solve their most pressing problems.

From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, more than 30 everyday Charlotteans broke out Legos, sticky notes and their imaginations to participate in #GovJamCLT, an event billed as “48 hours to change the world.”

They were tasked with brainstorming solutions to “access” but were given little definition beyond that.

The GovJam movement, which began in Australia in 2012, grew out of an increasingly popular school of problem solving called “design thinking” – an approach that has been embraced by a number of highly successful companies including Apple and Google. The idea: find innovative solutions through collaboration, brainstorming and quick prototypes.

And in the process, the jammers often have a blast.

The participants in the Charlotte event worked to music and occasionally broke out into song. They built models from many of the materials you’d find in a child’s toy chest.

“The reason we have the funky hats and the rubber chickens is it’s an invitation to play,” said Kendra Shillington, a consultant who helped organize the event. “There are no experts. It kind of levels the playing field.”

Said Eric Gorman, one of the event’s facilitators: “Everyone is telling you, ‘Don’t take a risk. You’re going to fail.’ This is shaking people out of that way of thinking. It’s serious play.”

‘Different struggles’

The participants came from many walks of life. Some were teachers, some were students and some were homeless. Many, the organizers said, were people who didn’t ordinarily have a voice in civic planning.

“I wanted people I didn’t know,” event chairman David Jessup Jr. said. “I wanted people with different struggles than I was dealing with.”

But they all had something in common: a commitment to change things and a willingness to think in unconventional ways.

The theme of their challenge was “access,” but they didn’t learn that until after they’d arrived at Charlotte’s Junior League building Friday evening.

They began their work by creating a wall full of notes denoting areas in which they saw problems with access: everything from healthcare and housing to “peace of mind” and “fresh fruits and veggies.”

Teams formed around people with six big ideas. After lots of interviews, model-building and collaboration, those teams came up with what they hope are six big solutions. Among them:

▪ “Cycle Charlotte Initiative,” an innovative approach to improving bike safety. The participants proposed making bikes lanes a different color so it’s clear to drivers that bicyclists belong there.

▪ “Modern village,” an attempt to create a more vibrant community where neighbors are more likely to get together. The idea would be to create multi-use smart parks, with “modules” that the community wants and needs. Among the possible components: a dog park, a career center, a lemonade stand and a community garden.

▪ “Fields of Food,” a network of nutritional hubs to provide residents in low-income neighborhoods easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables – at relatively low cost. The idea grew from a problem: Many low-income residents can’t easily get to supermarkets and can’t afford fresh produce.

A ‘refreshing’ approach

The event was timed to coincide with the end of Global Service Jam, an event that occurred from Tuesday through Thursday in 34 cities around the world.

Such events have taken off because the old problem-solving approaches – which typically rely on the decisions of a small group of government and community leaders – aren’t working any more, organizers said.

“Bottom-up interactions can make a big difference in shifting Charlotte,” said Shillington, who founded Shift, a Charlotte-based service design agency.

Among those who turned out for event was Charlotte assistant city manager Hyong Yi.

“It really forced me to be different than I am at work,” Yi said. “The way they interact is refreshing to me.”

It’s too soon to say whether the session will result in concrete changes. But Yi has promised to introduce representatives from each team to local government representatives so they can make their pitches.

“How do we engage with the next generation of future leaders?” Yi asked as he looked out on the crowd of participants, most of them in their 20s. “This is one way to do it.”

Alexander: 704-358-5060

More information

For more photos and more information, visit #GovJamCLT on Twitter.

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