We’re launching a Citizen Engagement & Democratic Innovation Programme White Paper

August 23, 2021

If you’ve been following us for the last few years, you’ll know we’ve been developing our Citizen Engagement & Democratic Innovation programme. So it’s a well established hive of activity and expertise. Now The Cynefin Company is proud to announce we’re launching a white paper to explain the theory and thinking that underpins the programme. So right here, right now, we’re going to give you a little taster of what’s in store.

Or if you want to dive straight in, you can download the white paper here.

Our vision

In this white paper, we outline our ecosystem of methods that enable the collection of narrative, collective sensemaking, and insight to action design, at scale in the context of citizen engagement and democratic innovation. This is an approach that can create deeper, more inclusive, and more far-reaching engagement to advance our democracies. We use real-time feedback to create more strategic and evidence-informed decision-making, and we empower citizens and communities to co-create on a local scale so they can rewrite the global story.

One way we do this is through citizen sensor networks. Citizen sensor networks provide real time feedback—essential to managing complexity—which helps to identify many different potential solutions and micro-scenarios to be explored, tested and monitored. Stay tuned to this blog series for an explainer on how to create a citizen sensor network.

What is citizen engagement?

The underpinning philosophy of citizen engagement is that people are entitled to decision-making power regarding decisions that impact their lives beyond simply voting for a representative once every few years. A related concept, public participation, “describes the activities by which people’s concerns, needs, interests, and values are incorporated into decisions and actions on public matters and issues” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, pp. 14).

Why participate in citizen engagement? 

There are many benefits of engaging citizens and moving towards a deeper, more empowering form of engagement. It gives citizens a chance to raise their voices and be heard by each other and those who serve them. This can be an immensely empowering experience in and of itself, and sets citizens/community members up to continue being a proactive force for good in their communities.

The effectiveness of many public/community interventions and policies depends on the response of citizens and communities. If citizens/communities feel they have not been properly consulted or feel powerless to effect decisions which impact their lives, they will be disenfranchised and have no desire to make an intervention work (see Fisher & Hotchkiss, 2008; Uomoto, 1986).

Our approach not only connects citizens to each other but also institutions. Citizen engagement is essential to build citizens’ trust in institutions (Kumagai & Ilorio, 2020). Trust enables social cohesion and enables smooth policies and service implementation.

Collaboration between citizens, communities and decision-makers is essential to bolster our democracies and to create the society we want to live in; a more effective, democratic, and healthy society. This white paper details a myriad of ways to engage citizens and to share decision-making power based on three broad principles.

Democractic Innovation

This is the newest part of our plan so I want to shine a spotlight on it. Whatever other Cynefin methods you choose, you can further engage the community by sharing the stories in workshops and other deliberative processes.

Workshops can involve inviting either those who participated in the SenseMaker® or others within the community to a workshop in which they explore the stories collected and options to address the issues in their community. In workshops, participants consider ‘how can we create more stories like that and fewer like those?’. This enables communities to synthesise their own stories, and to generate solutions and to lead interventions which are a lot more likely to be successful. Check out some of our case studies, specifically Valley Stories and Community Resilience in Cape Town.

Not only can SenseMaker® be used to facilitate and stimulate discussion in many deliberative contexts, such as community workshops or conferences, it can also be used to serve a variety of different purposes. During a deliberative process, SenseMaker® could be used to map citizens’ beliefs, needs and feelings on a specific issue. It can be used for priority setting to bring focus to a deliberation, and for witness testimony on mass so that many people can have their voice heard on an issue that affects them. Synthesising arguments and proposals, and gathering real time feedback from the wider community can also be achieved using SenseMaker.

There’s much much more in the white paper, so make a cup of tea, set some time aside and dig in! We’ve got something for everyone from governments, institutions and organisations,  to citizens, community groups and activists and those in need of conflict resolution.

If you want to be part of a thriving community of change makers and citizen engagement enthusiasts and practitioners, join our thriving Citizen Engagement & Democratic Innovation community practice group in ‘Our Haunt’. It’s open to premium and centre members. If you are not already a premium member you can sign up here.


Fisher, G. S., & Hotchkiss, A. (2008). A model of occupational empowerment for marginalized populations in community environments. Occupational Therapy in Health Care, 22(1), 55-71.

Kumagai, S., & Ilorio, F. (2020). Building Trust in Government through Citizen Engagement. World Bank. https://doi.org/10.1596/33346

Nabatchi, T., & Leighninger, M. (2015). Public participation for 21st century democracy. John Wiley & Sons.

Uomoto, J. M. (1986). Examination of psychological distress in ethnic minorities from a learned helplessness framework. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 17(5), 448.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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