Alicja Peszkowska, IOVIA’s Community Strategist, talked to Emma Skipper about the process of designing an online space for a community to thrive, how the current pandemic changed the way communities form and grow, and what to keep in mind to ensure high levels of inclusivity in diverse communities.
Emma is a community architect, strategist and writer. Emma’s designs impactful human interactions and experiences. She currently acts as a Global Community Lead for WIN: Women In Innovation and collaborates to accelerate scientific innovation with the team at KnowInnovation.
What is a community architect and how did you become one?
It’s safe to say that my journey here has certainly not been a linear one. However from the early days as a makeup artist, to my travels through web design, marketing, social networks, writing children’s fiction and designing innovation pipelines; my career path has always been paved by two fundamental obsessions :i.) the human condition and ii). connecting people to ideas, and each other.
Four years ago I was fortunate enough to step into a role that required both. My position as Network Lead at The Sense Network had me managing a large global network of creatives and innovators; all from different backgrounds, but who worked together to solve real world problems for people, planet and business. If there was one thing I took from my time at Sense, it was a burning question that still lingers now… Why are there not more spaces for people unlike each other to come together, share experiences and ultimately collaborate to build better?
I decided to make it my mission to help create and cultivate these spaces and conversations for matters close to my heart (right now, closing the gender gap in innovation and accelerating scientific innovation) and my role as community architect was forged.
I’m always learning but currently specialise in designing the strategic scaffolding for connections to thrive. And I say scaffolding as these spaces (whether they are physical or digital) are often most rewarding and productive when the communities themselves have a hand in the design. It’s my job to provide a relevant and engaging framework and encourage individuals to play with its future; ultimately unlocking everyone’s unique potential along the way.
Do you have a favorite community you are a part of just as a participant? What is your favorite thing about it?
I’m currently part of a small but glorious collection of humans that call themselves Thirdness Network. We’re all from such varied backgrounds that I can’t keep up with all of them, but we come together weekly to talk about design, philosophy and the future. My favorite part about it is its fluidity. It’s never a space that feels stale. Looking back at lockdown here in the UK, I’d have been all the poorer for not having the mind-bending stimulus and support that it gave me access to. I also (honestly) love that I don’t have to run this one and can just be an active participant!
Throughout your career you worked both with on-line and off-line communities. What are the overlaps between on-line and off-line and how did it all change with the recent pandemic?
This really excellent question. Perhaps join me back at my architect analogy for a moment… It’s rare that you would only use one room in your house, and each room tends to have a specific function; you relax in the garden, sleep in your bedroom and eat in your dining room (well pre-COVID anyway!). Each space’s function is specific and valued.
The same can be applied in community ecosystems. They have the potential to house a variety of functions and experiences. For example, the benefits you get from an online experience vs offline are bound to be different, but that doesn’t mean there is more or less value in either. An ideal community structure would allow a member to choose how they use and interact with the space you’ve created. For example, at WIN we’re a global community and are about to launch our new global online community platform for women (and anyone identifying as a woman) to connect, wherever they are in the world. However as a member I can also go connect locally and look to forge deeper ties with those near me in my Chapter (who, pre-COVID, would also meet in person). These two spaces essentially feed each other, as experiences from one permeate and evolve the other.
To the point around how the pandemic has changed this relationship, the digital realm has had an intense spotlight cast on it this year. The positive side of this is that in a world that’s encouraging populations to isolate, digital communities can offer crucial solace and connection where we’ve been starved of it physically. From an innovation point of view, it’s also lowered people’s expectations as they adopt new technologies, so platforms and services have been able to experiment faster and harder with how they go about facilitating these connections (take Zoom or Mighty Networks as an example).
On the flip side, the platforms that make these connections possible have made our digital personas relentlessly accessible and the pandemic has meant we’re not even able to physically step away (most of us are no stranger to the 8 hour zoom). With the reduction in the variety of day-to-day stimuli outside our rectangular screens and the all but removal of chance and serendipity in our locked-down lives, I worry about our collective ability to be inspired and create as only we can.
So, as much as digital communities can provide a lifeline, if they are the only thing we rely on for human connection I worry somewhat they can also distract us for our own existence.
It seems like we are all stuck with online, for now. What are the tools and platforms you’d recommend to other community strategists and the online communities they lead? Why those?
Oh I’ve found so many over the last few months.
- Mighty Networks: the SAAS platform we’ll be launching WIN on and by far the best function vs cost solution. It could do with a few more customisable features but given they integrate with Zapier it’s great. Their support team is also fantastic and they practise what they preach, running a community of their own for other community creators to share tips and tricks. I wouldn’t recommend it to all, but for us it’s a great solution that ticked so many of our boxes.
- Zapier: Speaking of Zapier, you must check it out. It’s an automation dream if you can invest the time in set up and allow you to sync multiple apps and processes that would never normally talk to each other by design.
- Mmhmm: If you ever present or produce events on zoom you need this in your life. Currently in Beta (and many features already stolen by Zoom) it works to enhance both your and your guests experience of video conferences. Definitely worth checking out.
- MindNode: A nifty little tool that helps map mind maps. I used it to great success to map our community member experience at WIN.
- GetToby: If you manage multiple communities and use your browser tabs like a to-do-list like me, try the bookmark extension Get Toby which allows you to organise and access them with one click.
- RandomCoffee: this is a handy slack integration tool to inject a touch of serendipity into users lives. I’ve used it alot on and off and value the prompt.
Women in Innovation is a global network. What are the benefits and what are the drawbacks of running a global community? How do you work across all the time zones?
The benefits far outweigh the challenges. Being a woman in the workplace comes with its unique challenges wherever you are in the world. If we can’t collectively appreciate and understand the complexities and nuances of this experience, and share this with those that benefit from the current system, we have no way of changing it. So the global nature is invaluable for us to access and learn from as diverse a set of experiences as possible and ensure that all voices are heard as we design for the future.
The challenges of course come when you have to manage the logistics and culture of a fully decentralised team of volunteers across leadership, design across various local non-profit laws and juggle some pretty temperamental time zones for managing global meetings. In this regard flexibility, kindness of spirit and being OK to donate the odd weekend to the cause are essential.
What are your few favorite books, publications, and thinkers in the Community Building space? We’d love to follow them.
- The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker: as relevant for offline community gatherings as it is for online and forces you to question why and how you’re asking people to gather around an idea.
- Rebecca Solnit: is brilliant and she’s fundamentally changed the way I think about storytelling around communities (and who I’m telling them to from a growth perspective). This is a particular gem on ‘When the Hero is the Problem: On Robert Mueller, Greta Thunberg, and Finding Strength in Numbers”. As a fantasy writer it also fundamentally challenged my world view on our obsession with the Hero’s Journey monomyth in all our storytelling.
- Linda Sweeney: Linda is a remarkable leader in the systems thinking space. Her ability to make complex systems and ideas accessible is so impressive. When it comes to growing and maintaining communities, I find it helps to keep the principles of systems thinking to hand to keep you connected, grounded and always curious; they are, quite literally, living systems at the end of the day!
→ Have more questions for Emma? You can reach out to her by sending her a message on Linkedin here.