An Iterative Approach to Network Design and Development

We have recently had the pleasure of working with the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA) as they design a Great Neighborhoods Network. The Alliance’s Great Neighborhoods initiative seeks to build a movement to transform the built environment, creating great places around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Significant work has been done to create partnerships and goals in five diverse communities in Greater Boston, connecting them with MSGA resources, other partners, and each other. Now they are working to catalyze a broader Great Neighborhoods Network, enabling local leaders to share their experiences and tools, find information and resources, collaborate, and support each other. There are also opportunities to connect on-the-ground leaders with policy advocates to strengthen their respective work.

In developing the network design, we decided to use an iterative design process that embodies the principles of networks, where the participants lead in shaping the network priorities. This will be an experiment in navigating the tension in a network between those who want to get to action and do things together and the need to create clarity of shared purpose, build processes, and strengthen relationships. After agreeing on an initial statement of a network purpose and scope as a starting point, the network will hold several in-person events that will be an opportunity to:

  • Experience what the network can offer – e.g. make connections, learn with peers, and identify helpful resources for creating a Great Neighborhood
  • Gather input on what network activities, priorities and structure will be most valuable
  • Generate energy and enthusiasm for the network.

Over the course of this work, a design team and network members will clarify and define purpose and values, membership, structure, meeting plans, decision making process and leadership roles. This will be recorded in a “living” document, in that the evolving experience, needs and priorities of network members will lead to adjustments to network activities as needed to meet the goals.

Yesterday, we worked with a design team to agree on the purpose of the network and brainstorm a format for the initial event. Ina Anderson, MSGA’s Partnership Director, brought a great ice breaker to the meeting. Across the table, she put out cards from GroupWorks that each speak to an aspect of “bringing life to meetings and other gatherings.” Each person picked a card or two that resonated for them and we introduced ourselves by sharing how that theme related to what we hoped to accomplish in the network. Throughout the meeting, people kept referring back to these principles of networks as we discussed the network purpose.

The word cloud below illustrates the key themes people chose:

Network word cloud

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