Public libraries are cornerstones of civil society. They form the “third places” where individual citizens meet and mingle, get informed, learn, as well as form and share opinions. Increasingly, however, public libraries are also seen as the meeting and co-working hubs of the many communities making up the rich fabric of urban society. Thus, public libraries are getting new, societal roles as city labs and social innovation catalysts.
The Tilburg Public Library is known for its groundbreaking library innovations, such as the recently opened LocHal, which is truly a “world-class urban living room for Tilburg in an iconic former locomotive shed of the Dutch National Railways”. More about that in a future post. Another one of its strategic innovations concerns the KnowledgeCloud, the “network in which persons, communities and organisations meet one another both online and offline to discuss current, societally relevant themes”. It has grown into a national library project, including several other Dutch public libraries as well as the Dutch Royal Library.
From 2013-2015, I was the project leader for developing the initial demonstrator of this KnowledgeCloud. In the project, I used my experience with knowledge sharing for social innovation to help conceptualize the KnowledgeCloud methodology, network, and platform. This rich experience has convinced me even more of the crucial role that public libraries all over the world (should) play in dealing with many of the complex, “wicked” problems playing out at the local and regional levels.
In the meantime – as you know if you have been following my work – the main focus of my fundamental R&D and practical consultancy has become the CommunitySensor methodology for participatory community network/collaboration mapping supported by online network visualization tool Kumu. Helping community networks visualize their common ground is essential in creating more effective collaboration between such a wide variety of stakeholders. Think of European cities sharing social innovation lessons learnt or Malawian farmers and other stakeholders jointly improving their agricultural governance practices.
A Czech connection: the CIDES project
These research and consultancy interests – public libraries, social innovation, and participatory community network mapping – have come together in the Czech Center for Social Innovation in Public Library and Information Services (CIDES) project. This major ESF-funded project – coordinated by the Division of Information and Library Studies of Masaryk University in Brno, the second-largest city of the Czech Republic – aims to strengthen the social innovation capabilities of the Czech public libaries. As the Czech Republic has the highest density public library network in the world (one library for every 1,971 Czech citizens!) , it is an ideal testing ground for developing new public library concepts.
Because of my relevant expertise, I was asked to participate as an external expert in the CIDES project. Since 2017, I have been on several working visits to Brno and Prague. It is a very inspiring project to be involved in, because of its scope and importance, as well as the professionalism and dedication (not to mention the great sense of Czech humor ;-)) of the library studies team involved.
CIDES focuses on (1) collecting and analyzing practical social innovation lessons learnt by public libraries across the country, (2) refining and extending the most promising of those lessons through a range of incubators and accelerators – and (3) disseminating these lessons nation-wide. Underlying the approach is a solid methodology, of which the CommunitySensor methodology is becoming an integral part.
One way we use CommunitySensor is to chart the local social innovation collaboration ecosystems around participating Czech public libraries. As we are using the same mapping language for all library maps, it also becomes easier to do cross-case analysis, integrate maps, and even see connections at the national level.
More Czech connections: mapping public library social innovation ecosystems together
We have also done several mapping experiments to test and validate the participatory aspects of the methodology. Two of these experiments – one in Prague and one in Brno – nicely demonstrate the gist of the approach:
Mapping the social innovation ecosystem around the Prague Public library
In March 2018, we conducted a mapping experiment with around 35 librarians of the Prague municipal library. In break out groups, the librarians were to come up with local social innovation themes, then select and map existing or proposed initiatives that would fit those themes. We then all together tried to make sense of the emerging bigger picture in the concluding plenary discussion. This process was considered very valuable by participants for building a joint sense of understanding and ownership. It also helped to validate and inform the CIDES methodology for collecting, connecting, and scaling up social innovation lessons learnt with public libraries. This visual impression should convey the spirit of the mapping session:
Mapping the collaboration ecosystem around the #Brno2050 common agenda
Another experiment took place in Brno in October 2018. The city of Brno has invested heavily in an ambitious public agenda setting process to ask local stakeholders what their city should look like in 2050: #Brno2050. By design it has been a very participatory process to come up with the themes that matter to and are co-owned the citizens of Brno:
However, how to make these themes work in practice? How to go from idea(l)s to working, aligned initatives, projects, and programmes with collective impact? How to pool resources that were already there, acknowledging that Brno is a truly smart city in terms of its large social capital formed by its many vibrant communities?
To support this common agenda setting process for the city, we explored if and how we could use our emerging participatory collaboration mapping approach for social innovation in and by public libaries.
To this purpose, we held an initial meeting to do a quickscan of the existing Brno collaboration ecosystem, using the #Brno2050 city themes as a starting point. About 30 participants – including many stakeholders representing various Brno social innovation initiatives – gathered at the Brno Jiří Mahen Library. We asked them to make a rough inventory of their own and other initiatives that they knew of. On the fly, we added as many of these initiatives as we could to the draft #Brno2050 ecosystem map, so that many of the hidden connections between the initiatives were made visible immediately. We then again had a lively plenary discussion in which the participants commented on the collaboration patterns they saw emerging. It was a very fruitful and spirited exchange of ideas. Participants indeed saw this approach as a way forward to keep building momentum on not just dreaming about the long term city strategy, but also making it actually work in the long run. Representatives of the municipality were enthusiastic and committed to investigate if this approach could become part of their urban planning process.
To conclude this post, a visual summary capturing the involvement of the workshop participants building (on) their common city agenda:
More details about our methodology and the experiments we conducted will be shared in future research papers. This blog at least should give you a sneak preview of the cutting edge work currently being done in the Czech Republic on making public libraries catalyze social innovation.