Kyla Williams Co-Presents Today at Philanthropy Ohio’s Annual Conference

Today, Leon Wilson, CIO of the Cleveland Foundation, and I will co-present at the Philanthropy Ohio’s annual conference with a theme this year of “Philanthropy Forward” and a concentrated discussion on Digital Civic Engagement & Community-Centered Design. Philanthropy Forward ’17 is set to inform practices, strategies and goals and connect peers in the field of philanthropy. The conference will also focus on the future of philanthropy with insight into the current state of the sector – fueled by recent research – addressing transitions, change and the leadership pipeline. With several networking and roundtable discussions, attendees will discover how to shift failures to successes, effectively fund advocacy and civic engagement and hear from  exceptional leaders across the state and country.

Leon and I also presented in April 2017 at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference “Leading Together” as part of a panel discussion with: Aaron Deacon, Managing Director, Kansas City Digital Drive; Elizabeth Reynoso, Assistant Director of Public Sector Innovation, Living Cities; and Lilly Weinberg, Program Director/Community Foundations, John S. & James L. Knight Foundation on “Supporting Civic Engagement through Technology and Community-Centered Design”. After finishing that presentation we decided more collaborative sharing between cities was necessary and lead to this opportunity at Philanthropy Ohio.

Community building in the digital era requires providing a space for the public sector and local communities to interact. Building solutions with peoplenot just for them – by using community-centered design can have profound social impact. This has been central to Smart Chicago’s work and has lead to the building of processes, products, services, and other lightweight tech solutions that have been helpful.

Our presentation today has the learning objectives:

  • To introduce different models developed in communities to address civic engagement digitally
  • To encourage the consideration of embedding support for digital civic engagement into existing grantmaking & advancement efforts

You can follow the happenings of the conference on Twitter @PhilanthropyOH and @SmartChgoKyla or by using the hashtag #PhilFWD17.


Good News!!! The Smart Chicago team is moving and now will be co-located with the City Digital Team at UI Labs. As such, our individual emails will be changing to:

Kyla Williams 

Sonja Marziano

Denise Linn     

Leslie Durr       

Our new mailing address is 1415 N. Cherry Avenue Chicago, IL 60642 and general phone number is 312.281.6900.

Please check our website at or follow us on twitter @smartchicago for more updates.

We appreciate your patience during this time of transition.

Human-Centered Design Are We Really Listening? Reflections from the 2017 Knight Media Learning Seminar

On Sunday, February 12th I embraced the opportunity to leave a cold, dreary Chicago behind and engage with some pretty amazing folks in Miami, Florida at the 10th Annual Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar. As a first time visitor to the Knight MLS I was excited to take in all that was ahead of me for the next day and a half.

As I sat in plenaries, break-out sessions, networking events and just plain hanging in the lobby a constant and recurring theme was emerging. Listen.

I don’t think the concept of listening is new to mainstream and new school media, I believe it has become a fading art as we become a “Nowist” (Amy Webb) society. We want information now. Sometimes at the cost of truth, yet we consume it wholly in whatever form it arrives as truth, particularly in the social media realm.

The Smart Chicago Collaborative is  frequently engaged with the media community at large in various aspects of our work and all of our work requires us to Listen. We listen to the voices of our communities as we work to continue to safeguard open data, and provide opportunities for skills and access to Chicagoans around technology. During the Knight Media Learning Seminar of the break-out sessions that stood out as it relates to how we listen was “Human Centered Design”.

A Novel Approach to Listening: Human-Centered Design

Judy Lee Haworth, human-centered design strategist discussed how this strategy can help us listen for our communities needs.

Human-centered design is a practical, repeatable approach to arriving at innovative solutions. Think of these Methods as a step-by-step guide to unleashing your creativity, putting the people you serve at the center of your design process to come up with new answers to difficult problems. Human-centered design consists of three phases. In the Inspiration Phase you learn directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs. In the Ideation Phase you make sense of what you learned, identify opportunities for design, and prototype possible solutions. And in the Implementation Phase you bring your solution to life, and eventually, to market. –

Judy shared how open ended conversations can lead to unexpected insights. Invariably when we are conversational with one another we discover things that would not ordinarily be uncovered or discovered through survey or other means of non-interactional information gathering. She also addressed the fact that we have to be “comfortable with ambiguity” in the initial information gathering stage and let it lead to inspiration. As I sat in this break-out I drew comparisons between Human Centered Design and the Chicago Community Trusts’ Social Lab, The Grove 3547

Social Labs As Model for Human Centered Work

Social Labs are intensive, experimental interventions. They bring together people from across the system to seek root causes behind their problems and then collaborate on devising and testing solutions aimed at key leverage points. This change work continues in the “lab” of the real world—over time and in context.

The idea for The Grove 3547 Social Lab came out of an initiative called “On the Table”an annual forum designed to elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships and inspire collaborative action, run by the Chicago Community Trust.  Some social labs last for years. The team repeatedly convenes to refine their ideas based on what they are learning, and then heads out again into their field of work for more learning, testing, and acting.

How They Work

Social labs are, first, social.

They require a team that reflects the diversity of people affected by and involved in the problem at hand, and the full multi-layered reality of the system. What does this social aspect accomplish? Among other things, you enable more creativity and avoid the tendency to impose top-down solutions, which rarely take advantage of the full range of knowledge—including local and informal knowledge—that can be brought to bear on the problem. Detailed knowledge of a system comes from living in it.

Social labs run experiments.

Complex problems are not amenable to monolithic, planned “solutions.” Social lab teams devise prototypal solutions and try them out in a cycle of consultation, experimentation, assessment, and revision. This agile process allows a portfolio of promising ideas to be tested and developed before too much time and money is spent on them. When, by trial and error, you have discovered what works, you can then grow it with confidence.

Social labs focus on causes.

What most of us refer to as “problems” are typically symptoms. When we focus on symptoms, we produce at best a temporary improvement. At worst, we inadvertently reinforce the dynamics that are the cause of the problem. Through the active participation of people from every level of the system, social labs identify and act on causes—thereby opening the door to real progress.

Social labs invite dissent.

Dissent can be uncomfortable, but we embrace it as an antidote to groupthink and inertia. The friction of argument and diverse positions unleashes tremendous energy. When skilfully managed, that energy is creative and productive. In addition, the free expression of competing and contested claims in the structured environment of the lab reduces the likelihood of confrontation outside it.

Community Input Is Essential

Processes like Human Centered Design and Social Labs are our opportunity to keep at the forefront the tenets that we espouse; inclusion and equity. If we are to truly impact the social issues that plague our communities is will be essential to continually have  discussion with those who are impacted daily. Here is where we will find ideas to implement, strategies to try and even answers  to  the problems we are facing. This  is how  we will embody of  theory of build with, not for. Listening, when we use this simple concept properly, the impact will be measured by “who” we  listened to.

For more information about The Grove 3547 contact Cheryl Hughes at or “On The Table” contact Jean Westrick at or visit




Surveillance in Chicago: an On The Table Event at the Burger King on South Pulaski Road

I have been a member of the On The Table Steering Committee since its inception. I am very proud of my connection to this central community engagement model for The Chicago Community Trust, my employer and the place where Smart Chicago is based.

I believe in the power of bringing regular Chicago residents together to plan our collective future. I also believe it’s easy to have easy conversations— to create a private space among friends to talk about and celebrate our shared work.

But we just can’t afford to do that in Chicago today. We are in the middle of a series of crises around policing, education, the use of public space, and how to pay for the things we need. On The Table is far too important a tool to use for discussions that don’t go to the core.

So we’re hosting a dinner at an important place to talk about important things. Here’s details: Surveillance in Chicago: A Conversation at the Burger King on S. Pulaski Road

The October 20, 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald at 4100 S. Pulaski was a seminal event in this city. The reverberations are still being felt in the publication of recommendations from the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, in the Pattern or Practice Investigation being conducted by the Department of Justice, and in continued protests in the streets and at the doors of power. This conversation will focus on one aspect of power: video surveillance. Our venue will be the Burger King where 86 minutes of recording went missing on the morning after McDonald’s death.

We hope you can join us. If this event fills up, we encourage you to host your own On The Table as well.

On The Table 2015

Meantime, here are some resources to help move the conversation along:

Questions, comments, additions? Write / call / tweet Daniel X. O’Neil (773) 960-6045 @smartchicago  @danxoneil.