Too busy.
Engagement fatigue.

All of these have been used to describe citizens and stakeholders in processes that we have been involved. In many communities, there is an increasing volume of engagement activities that are happening (this doesn’t mean they’re done well, but they’re still happening).

In these situations, the concept of “vuja de” can be very helpful.

We’ve all heard of “deja vu,” the feeling of having already experienced the situation that you are in. The idea of “vuja de” is the opposite, and we have comedian George Carlin to thank for the phrase….

As it applies to the design of community engagement processes, vuja de is a wonderful concept to consider – especially in situations where you’re engaging with people that have experienced many processes before.

“You’re in a situation that is very familiar, something you’ve seen or done countless times before, but you feel as if you’re experiencing something completely new.” – Warren Berger

When engaging communities, there is a risk of “been there, done that” over time. This is why surprise is such a valuable tool.

Situation: You’re about to start a workshop with a group that has “seen this all before.”

The participants have gathered. They are waiting for the same kind of process to unfold – a presentation, a facilitator with a flip chart capturing their ideas, a summary of the conversation, and a thank you to wrap things up. In this situation, participants often show up partially disengaged right from the start (this is certainly compounded by the age of smartphones).

How might you surprise the participants to get their attention, spur them to think about the problem in a new way and have some fun?

One exercise we have used in this situation is “forced analogy.” We present small groups with a seemingly random image and ask the group to come up with a variety of ways that the community/organization/issue is or is not like the image they have been given. For example:

How is our community like / not like Prince?


How is our organization like / not like a pizza?

In just five minutes, you can surprise participants in a way that disturbs their assumptions about the workshop, gets them to creatively and collaboratively work with their fellow participants and have a few laughs along the way.

Situation: You’re engaging the community in an area that people visit all the time and are used to what it looks like.

We use a number of different place-based engagement tools. These help engage people in the spaces that we are talking about – making the feedback more tangible and lowering barriers to participating. One of our best tools for this is our sounding board. While the physical design of the boards has evolved over time, they have always been designed and located to surprise people. We want to elicit the question: “What’s that thing?” to draw people in, learn about the project and share their ideas. By placing a new object in the landscape and using eye-catching designs of the structure and information, we can surprise people and leverage that into great feedback.

An example can be found in the ourWascana project in Regina, Saskatchewan. We wanted to capture people’s views about Wascana Centre while they were experiencing the space, so installed our sounding boards (the second iteration of the design of these) within the space itself. Using bold colours and strategic placement, we were able to obtain thousands of responses to our questions. The image below shows one of the sounding boards in action.

In addition to the board itself, we also used information design to inform people about Wascana Centre – an incredibly diverse and dynamic space in the city. The “Wascana at a Glance” infographic was bold enough to draw people from a distance, but interesting enough to keep people’s attention as they learned about the space and the project. This then inspired citizens to answer our three questions, which were posted on the board.

There are many other examples, big and small, of how we use surprise to create more compelling and effective engagement experiences. How might you use surprise to improve the quality of conversations in your community?