With so much of the interaction online being centered around its social nature, I’ve been wondering ‘can you design a community?’ When we first designed OpenIDEO.com we began with some design principles to help steer our decisions. They included things like: optimism, being inclusive, etc. A big surprise to us was that, as time went by, those principles translated into community behaviour, which was immensely gratifying for us to see. Those principles informed how we designed the user experience, but also ended up being the beginnings of how we would recruit new team members, and informed our ongoing strategy as a team.

Building off those guiding principles and learning from some of the impact that the community has created – often spawning new physical communities like MiLES has done (transforming disused storefronts in New York and their neighbourhoods) here’s some initial thoughts on some principles for nurturing existing and designing new communities. My question for you: what’s missing? Do these translate to physical community creation as well as the online world?

Start by listening

With any community effort, or any design project, you get greater buy in and find more inspiration by starting by looking at what’s there already, what resources are available, and what people really need. You might find local experts or learn things that will help accelerate your efforts, like Mike did in Phoenix. By doing this and maintaining this network you can create greater support later on for your idea.

seek out the passion

Do you know what your community cares about? Understanding that is where success will lie, in understanding that passion and in nurturing it, in whatever kind of social change you’re trying to make. Lately at OpenIDEO we’ve begun to recognise that the passion is not always demonstrated in an online form. After spotting that there were sporadic offline meetups happening, we began to encourage more of these meetups and to get those organisers to share their learnings. For many of them, they found the online platform daunting until they had met in person and discussed the current challenge, for example ‘healthy ageing’ and many of them are now contributing online.

Be Bold/Brave

If you ask brides on their wedding day what the percentage chance of their marriage ending in divorce – they’d say 0%, when in fact it’s 42% in the UK. You have to be slightly naive or stupid to lead change … something good usually comes from starting something… Once you start it creates a snowball effect…

Focus on what you can change/ pick your battles

There’s no point trying to go for things you can’t alter, instead you’re best looking at what resources you can cheaply put your hands on and focussing on those. The quick wins you’ll achieve that way will build momentum and create a greater impact than you thought imaginable.

Enable Leadership

You’re creating the conditions not the community itself, so you need to learn to step back and become the enabler, not the dictator… let the community emerge, let it flourish – don’t try to control it. Like this example from Philadelphia, where Inner-City Students and a Wharton Professor developed a High School Business Curriculum, in order to enable a community to grow, the community must be supporting the emerging self-leadership so that it can create greater ownership and flourish. In a different fashion, Nathan Maton, a member of the core OpenIDEO team, who calls himself a ‘community designer’, has begun an experiment of community champions for OpenIDEO, working closely with the rest of our community management team.

Be inclusive

This follows on from the last principle. Accept new members of your community and focus on the value they can bring to your community. But like a great gardener, you need to ensure you’re guiding and nurturing that community towards the shared goals and being aware of when emergent qualities or directions may not benefit the core.

Spark Creativity

The thing with communities is they are never done. When we think about designing a new device or a chair, there’s a moment when we have to decide when to stop. Designing communities on the other hand requires a different approach, one that will sustain it beyond the original vision. One way to do this is to continue to use an agile approach to how you’re supporting the community, but another, and potentially more scaleable approach when done right, is to engage your community in its own direction. This is something we did a couple of years ago on OpenIDEO, by running a challenge to ask ‘How might we create greater impact with the platform?’ This challenge is still creating impact and providing ideas for us: we’ve implemented several of the winning ideas and you can check out the progress here. It’s in this kind of collective imagination of a community that lies the keys to its longevity and resilience.

We continue to follow these principles – and are inspired by the many other creative communities that are out there doing great things. What lessons or principles have you found useful in guiding your efforts to community building, whether inside your organisation, through engaging your customers in your brand, or in your local community?