By Douglas Deutsch, DCI Fellow
The spaces around us shape how we act in a variety of ways. This becomes immediately clear if you have ever been trying to concentrate in the same room as a toddler. The spaces in which we deliberate are particularly influential on how a deliberation occurs. Deliberative spaces differ from regular spaces in parallel to how deliberation differs from ordinary conversation.
Deliberative spaces should be carefully and thoughtfully designed. This may look like an environment that accommodates every participant and a division of time which is clearly structured. Is such a measured environment really necessary for deliberation? As a general answer, yes. The deliberation space is the main component that connects participants. The physical connection, whether it is the air between us or the screens between us, impacts the cognitive connection. A poorly structured deliberative space can lead to voices talking over each other.
Environmental Deliberative Space
Deliberative space can be designed very specifically to accommodate the deliberation topic. Since political discourse over environmental issues often occurs only between policymakers and scientists, finding room for citizens’ voices may be difficult. A well designed deliberation space can insert the citizen into the global environmental conversation.
A spectacular example of this is the World Wide Views Alliance (WWV). A study conducted by Rajiv Ghimire, Nathaniel Anbar and Netra B Chhetri titled “The Impact of Public Deliberations on Climate Change Opinions Among U.S. Citizens” refers to a world-wide deliberative gathering on climate and energy. The WWV on climate and energy involved 97 debates [bringing together] around 10,000 citizens in 76 countries spanning five continents” (1).
It is important to note that none of the participants held significant technical knowledge or stakes in the economic sector surrounding climate and energy (1). What is fascinating about this deliberation is how the role of space supplemented the massive scale of this operation. The participants were spread out around the world, and so each participant would meet for day long meetings in their respective countries. A mind-bending fact from this deliberation is simply how “The first meeting started at 9 am in Fiji and the last one ended 27 hours later with a meeting in Arizona” (1). While the deliberation for each participant was limited to those within their respective country, it is hard to imagine how there is not a psychological benefit to being aware of thousands across the globe simultaneously conversing about the same topics.
The parallel between projected environmental impacts and the scale of the WWV operation is noteworthy. Climate change is projected to affect humans as a species. A global deliberation on this topic needs to find the voices of humans, as a species. Making decisions on an international scale is no small task, but it is necessary in this case since no one part of the world can fix climate change all by itself.
Ok, but what about now?
Real life seldom meets the ideal of a perfectly calculated design. Real life includes barriers like Covid-19. Our spaces are very much outside of our control. As we find ourselves using Zoom for our deliberative space, we can look the resulting pros and cons. Cons may include more limited communicative interactions or even just more time on a screen. Pros may include greater outreach potential and increased Covid safety. These pros and cons will be different for everybody.
Ok, great, so if everyone has different opinions on what makes a deliberative space effective, then how can we ever find a space where we can be best connected to each other? In keeping with the thought that reality is just a shade more intricate than the ideal world, such a space will end up being a compromise, attempting to make do with the resources at hand. The participants will have to meet halfway, to where the deliberative space is lacking. On Zoom, this may look like using engaging activities planned by the facilitator and extra effort to engage by the participants.
A second aspect of deliberation arises once the meeting ends. Discussing issues in the outside world can seem a lot more chaotic compared to the measured space of a deliberation. The jarring difference between ‘the outside world’ and the deliberative space is what needs to be addressed for anything that we do in our deliberations to mean anything. It is the outside world we are trying to fix, after all. The conclusions and actions reached inside the bubble of a deliberative community require for people to be in that community. People will not know or be motivated to join deliberative action unless something pushes them into it.
The organizers and participants of deliberation then have a duty to spread awareness of the deliberative gathering. This can manifest in a variety of ways. Perhaps we internalize the guidelines that structure deliberation, telling people “I will approach this conversation with empathy and respect towards you, and would appreciate if you can do the same” before engaging in political discourse. The idea is to spread the spirit of deliberative discourse through day-to-day interactions, in order to encourage people to participate in organized deliberation. Essentially, we can create a deliberative space around us in our mundane day-to-day lives. This is a task that each of us can take on and see tangible success result.
- Ghimire, Rajiv, Nathaniel Anbar, and Netra B. Chhetri. 2021. “The Impact of Public Deliberation on Climate Change Opinions Among U.S. Citizens.” Frontiers in Political Science 3: 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpos.2021.606829.
- “WWViews Climate and Energy 2015 » Citizen Consultation on Climate Change.” n.d. Accessed October 13, 2021. http://climateandenergy.wwviews.org/.