Liberating Structures for Pluriversal World-Making
COVID-19 has disrupted how we connect. It revealed the value of convenings, even though we often complained of boring meetings! One-way lectures, status reports, brainstorming, and open and managed discussions can all be tedious, alienating and demoralizing exercises of power. Therefore, we see opportunities to rethink in-person and online interactions across spheres – the workplace, classroom, city hall, and social movement conferences. We share essential principles of Liberating Structures (LS), a set of 33+ open-source methods for more fun and inclusive gatherings. We offer visual illustrations, practical examples, and insights from our experiences using LS for teaching and practice. LS, named by action researcher William Torbert and elaborated by Henri Lipmanowicz, Keith McCandless and others, are grounded in complexity thinking (vs. linear machine models), observing that innovation emerges from interconnectedness and non-linear feedback. LS thus attend to “micro-structures” of convenings: the invitation, participant distribution, timing and steps, group configurations and space arrangements. Methods like Open Space, Troika, Drawing Together, Celebrity fishbowl can be adapted, combined sequentially, and repeated in groups of any size. We believe LS can ease the work of dismantling oppression and reassembling the new pluriversal worlds we seek, by supporting dynamic communities of learning, design and social change.
Keywords: liberating structures; complexity thinking; convenings; inclusion
Laura Murphy: I am fascinated by human-environment-technology interactions and the pursuit of transdisciplinary solutions to wicked problems. My research and teaching are shaped by living, playing, and working around the world. I began unpacking my socio-cultural baggage in Jakarta back in the 1980s. I gained respect for small-scale farmers as ‘aid worker’ in Kenya. I felt that I missed the lives of real people behind the statistical analysis of Ecuadorian Amazon deforestation I did for my 1990s dissertation in a regional planning department; that has led me to continue exploring methods for knowledge creation and learning. I am a middle-class, able-bodied, non-straight, white woman, born and raised in the western USA. I am (still) holding an American passport and recognize my privilege in being able to travel and live around the world. I am a delighted parent to a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic global citizen.
Máille Faughnan: I am a white, cishet and neurodivergent American woman who grew up in a big, upper-middle-class, Irish-descendent family in Northern California. I have lived and worked in New Orleans for over 15 years, where I received my doctorate in International Development. My scholarly work is interdisciplinary and action-oriented, with a focus on the socio-cultural dimensions of development institutions and organizations. My field research in New Orleans, Central America, and East Africa spans topics such as gender and social entrepreneurship, cultural development programs, design thinking for reproductive health, the diffusion of design thinking, and most recently, university-community engagement. As a lecturer and research fellow in Social Innovation, I focus on capacity-building in design, systems and multicultural practice for changemakers, whether they be individuals or organizations and networks. I believe social innovation emerges from constant interplay of praxis and inquiry at personal, interpersonal, and community levels. Therefore, I often reflect on how my historically included identities shape my lens on social problems, my desire to solve them and my role in doing so. My teaching and facilitation likewise aim to cultivate changemakers’ command of their embedded and developing strategies and mental models for social change.