Hosting the Happy City Edmonton Resilience Festival

ERF workshop to co-create a Happy City

Hosting the Happy City Edmonton Resilience Festival
The space for the “Happy City” discussion in October 2015. Photo courtesy Wesley Andreas

The hosts of a Resilience Festival workshop on April 30 about Edmonton as a “Happy City” are counting on participants’ ideas to make it a great event.

Two Edmontonians, Wesley Andreas and Jill Robertson, will be showcasing a facilitation technique called the “Art of Hosting” around the topic of building social connections in the community.  

“That’s where the term hosting comes in. There’s a reason it’s called ‘Hosting’ the Happy City as opposed to ‘Facilitating’ the Happy City,” explains Andreas, an urban planner.

The pair is expanding on a project they partnered on last fall as the content for the discussion, however format is as important as substance for this conversation. It’s “talking about how we talk about things,” as Andreas puts it.

“It’s hard to teach this kind of work, in an authentic and meaningful way without doing,” he says. “You can stand up with a poster board and say, ‘This is what you do’ … but it’s much more useful to actually do it.”

For Robertson, a landscape architect, that authenticity is the most important outcome for participants to learn over the morning.  

“It’s about bringing people together in a meaningful process. A lot of that starts with capacity-building,” she says. “You have to help people have the base knowledge to participate in a conversation and then give them the space to contribute in a meaningful way: physical space, social and cultural space, where they feel that their voice will be heard and their opinion will be respected. Sometimes that part of the process is where we fail. We’re trying to be really intentional in creating a space where people can come together.”

Robertson and Andreas want to shed the top-down style of engagement that often accompanies city-building efforts. Preconceptions or lack of background information in these circumstances leave participants feeling like they can’t contribute, or that their contributions have no impact.  

There will be four components to the workshop:

  • The opening circle, where participants share why they’re here and what they want to get out of [the conversation];
  • The World Cafe, where everyone will form smaller groups for discussion;
  • “Open space” technology, where the goal is participant-driven ideas and inspiration; and
  • The closing circle, which signifies the end and lets people share what they got out of the process.

Andreas and Robertson say they see the principles of their work to be applicable not just to governments, but to companies, project managers and even in day-to-day life.

Happy City discussion principles
The principles for the Happy City conversation. Photo courtesy Wesley Andreas

“The techniques we’re looking at are good from five to 1,000 people; they’re very scalable,” Andreas says.

“It’s also good for ages five to 1,000,” Robertson adds. “I sometimes apply the concepts with my own family: being very intentional in conversations and creating space for everyone to have their say.”

Andreas and Robertson say they believe that empowering participation in the public sphere fits well with the ERF theme.

“The Resilience Festival poses this great opportunity to look at social connectivity as a skill,” Robertson says. “If we have stronger social and community connections we can become more resilient.”

To avoid any sense of top-down influence, the organizers are hesitant even to share their own view of what a ‘Happy City’ is, opting instead to wait until workshop participants build their own idea of what that means.

World Cafe participants
Participants at of the ‘World Cafe’ in October 2015. Photo courtesy Wesley Andreas

“Whoever’s in the room are the right people,” Andreas explains. “Whoever’s gathered in the room are the people who have the energy or wherewithal to want to have the conversation, and co-create the results together.” 

“Often the conversation goes in a different direction than what everyone expects, but you end up in this really amazing place,” Robertson says. “The Resilience Festival has given me the opportunity to host an urban dialogue and that makes me happy. 

“And that there’s a community in Edmonton who are passionate and engaged, who want to learn about this. That to me is an aspect of urban happiness.”

While anyone is welcome to drop in at 9 a.m. on April 30, 2016, Andreas and Robertson are hoping participants will register so that they can optimize the discussion