Civilization Needs to Make Sense

The very fact of 'civilization' requires a shared sense of the world. This shared sense reflects an underlying consensus of what is manifestly real and needs to be responded to, as held in common by a multiplicity of people.

Our civilization is faltering, at scale, because we are unable to make sense together, at scale. This is occurring because the most common platforms and processes (the things currently used by people in attempts to effectively navigate the world they live in) are quickly being rendered obsolete, ineffective, or incapable of helping us.

Exactly when our needs and demands for effective collective sensemaking are significantly increasing (due to ecological, technological, or political crisis) we also notice that our current techniques and methods of understanding our situation in the world are no longer working. We are increasingly unable to cope with the complexity and scale of emerging social problems, acute crises, and other critical situations.

Town halls, conferences, and other types of gatherings (and the online platforms, social media, and protocols that accompany them) do not adequately assist us. Far too often, we come away from our meetings not even knowing what questions are important to ask about what transpired and what comes next. This is important, for it is questioning that leads to sensemaking.  

These emergent conditions call for a new approach to catalyzing, harvesting, and making use of collective insights. The goal of Ephemeral Group Process (EGP) is to upgrade the shared platform of our collective sensemaking capabilities.



EGP in a Nutshell


EGP can be thought of as a large and well-organized brainstorm. A sizable collective is repeatedly broken into small, five person “ephemeral groups.” These small groups meet for a short time, typically about 40 minutes or so, and are each formed around a single question. These small groups have the task of “working over” their question, so as to create deeper and more meaningful questions - ones that better express the insights and experiences of group members. 

These small group 'breakout' conversations are facilitated by trained 'Inquiry Coaches' who lead each participant through a simple process that creates a space for the deepening of curiosity and questioning. An archivist captures the questions created by the group during their shared inquiry, recording them at the close of each small group. These recorded questions are, in real time, collected into an archive as part of an overall flow, so as to enable the formation of new small groups around the freshly created questions of earlier groups. This results in an iterative integration of all of the small group activity.

The deepening of inquiry from each of the completed small group conversations are available to all participants as the event unfolds, and afterwards, as the insights of the collective. The result is a day of fascinating meetings and customized conversations, all of which contribute to the creation of a novel artifact - a collective memory that reveals the depth and breadth of the collective inquiry.


1. Preparation

Here’s what to bring:
- Notebook and pen or pencil
- Comfortable clothing

2. Check-in

When you arrive you will check-in and receive a three digit PIN to use throughout the event.

3. Orientation

You will go through a short orientation to the experience and supporting technology.

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Imperatives, Intentions, and Outcomes

It is possible to distill down the insights that are behind EGP method design into four basic social imperatives for coherence and sensemaking.


1. Foster a shared curiosity and a spirit of deeper inquiry

EGP is based on the idea that solving a problem requires knowing the right questions to ask. Coherence follows from explicating all the most important questions that a group can raise about a certain problem or issue. Each small ephemeral group (five people each) is created around a question. The goal of interaction in this small group is to create new, more insightful questions. Participants in EGP learn to meet each other in a shared spirit of curiosity.


2. Raise the quality and level of conversation

Making good choices in groups requires reaching mutual understanding of the common context - the world we all live in. The basis of mutual understanding - sensemaking - is conversation. As such, an emphasis of EGP is for the participants in conversation to learn and improve their conversational skills simply by virtue of repeated immersion in small, well-structured inquires.

EGP is designed to create an engaging and safe space in which a wide range of deep conversations will take place among all participants. This is in contrast to the typical structure of conferences and 'town hall' meetings which allow only a small fraction of those participating and present to speak, and even fewer to engage in frank give-and-take conversations. In typical conferences, training seminars, large meetings, etc,, there are few opportunities for participants to actually explore and develop their engaged deep inquiry skills, let alone make realistic collective sense of the world. EGP flips the typical town hall meeting and conference structure on its head by defining a group process in which “broadcasts” to the whole group never occur, only small, five-person, question-driven, facilitated conversations. 


3. Build group coherence and community

Having small group conversations that steer participants toward co-creating common questions has been shown to enable the discovery of alignments and agreements between people who would otherwise mistakenly think that they disagree or remain only superficially engaged with each other. Group coherence and community is especially important when real engagement and actual agreement is immediately needed to respond to the larger world in a mutually effective way. EGP seeks to catalyze community and group alignment, and ultimately to create a kind of “group flow,” as a form of collective intelligence. Participants in EGP come to recognize and know their shared understandings, values, and interests. They are brought together in the possibility of real relationships and authentic future agreements.


4. Persist the artifacts that encode collective intelligence

Most groups cohere, create, and recognize insights briefly without actually capturing what transpires in the moment. Individual human memory is far too often fallible to reliably recall all that is important. Yet recording everything - as some groups do - creates an inundation of “content creation” in which the key insights are lost in an ocean of detail. 

EGP seeks to archive only the most essential and insightful questions created by the group. This means recording only the questions and related insights of each small group meeting. These questions and insights are collected and compiled into a shared database that becomes the collective artifact of the EGP event. This artifact, along with all other archived artifacts, are the seeds and bases of future EGP events of even higher quality. Participants also retain access to the artifact and archive, enabling further community research and design.



EGP Origins and Current Directions


EGP is based on years of research and design experimentation in the domains of group process, collective intelligence, group choice making, and collective coordinated action. The goal of this work is to isolate the core dynamics behind group coherence and sensemaking as part of a larger re-conception of what "good governance" means, and how it might be implemented.

Researchers from the Ronin Institute are undertaking a series of experimental uses of EGP in the Summer and Fall of 2018. Groups of between 30 and 80 people (from all ages and walks of life) are being asked to use EGP as a method of collective inquiry. The resulting shared understanding and mutual experience is formed into an archive of insightful questions, which represent an aspect of the group’s collective intelligence. This archive is used to inform future EGP events and enable other group sensemaking processes.

The overall research and design project is intended to prepare EGP for use as an aspect of collective choice making (governance and economics) at the scale of a small city, beginning in 2020.