Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

ENGAGE | Empathy as an engagement strategy

We are currently designing an engagement strategy for a public art initiative in an emerging community. In the past we have worked with communities to facilitate creative engagement and cultural development. However, we are considering a more refined approach for this upcoming project so that empathy is the foundation of the engagement. What does this mean? We find that much engagement can be formulaic and prescriptive. Our research indicates that empathy – for others, place, community – can enable a socially creative and reflective approach to developing the public art as an articulation of community identity and public space. The process is drawn from design practice which focuses on user experience and feelings.

We will be developing engagement methods based on empathy mapping, storytelling and the like in order to reach a better understanding diverse perspectives and perceptions of place and community. These findings will inform the development of the artwork. However, it’s early days and for now we wanted to introduce our interest in working in this way – it’s less about applying the lovely design and community development principles by ensuring values are creatively embedded in the development of place and community. At its most fundamental, this means understanding people, their experience, their perspectives, their perceptions and engaging them in a process of shared meaning making. It requires empathic conversations.

According to author of Realising Empathy, Seung Chan Lim:

Design as empathic conversation does not aim to ‘fix,’ ‘change,’ or ‘get’ people to do things. It aims to provide a space in which we can empathize with all the participants involved in and affected by the design process, and to let the effects emerge as side effects. Side effects that include new knowledge, creativity, insight, innovation, maturation, connection, transformation, and beyond.

This applies to public art because of its relationship to design, creativity and development. We feel that this will enhance the artistic engagement with place and site by shifting focus to the lived experiences of residents. There’s a wealth of literature about empathy in design and we are gleaning methods and modalities that will facilitate the realisation of artworks that are meaningful to the local community.



  moiradeslandes wrote @

I look forward to hearing how this all goes. I think you are onto something with empathy and engagement. I have been musing on it in an incidental way and did write a little of it into blog earlier in the year http://letterstobiddy.com/2014/03/29/medicinal-purposes/ You might want to look up Keltner’s work if you haven’t already. All the best with your research.

  lcarroli wrote @

Thanks for the tip Moira. Some interesting reading so far.

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