Health Jam 2014: Lessons Learned for Knowledge Mobilization

Photograph of Upstream's prototype

A musical “jam” is improvised collaboration among musicians. Musical improvisation – creating something new without extensive preparation or practice – has been proposed as a model for innovation and social change (see for example the multi-disciplinary Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice project funded through the SSHRC Partnership program).

Happily, those of us who lack the skill for musical improvisation can still jam. The “rules’ of non-musical jamming come from design thinking methods and create a framework for rapidly developing prototypes of ideas designed to address a particular problem or issue. Design thinking is a “human-centred” approach to innovation – a form of structured brainstorming, testing, and iteration that repeatedly tests prototypes against the needs and attributes of end-users.

The global series of GovJam events are two day workshops aimed at building collaborative and innovative solutions to public sector problems. In turn, GovJam events were inspired by ongoing Global Service and Global Sustainability jams, with the tagline: “48 hours to save the world”. Jamming appears to be a rhizomatic practice, like the stem of a plant that grows through laterally spreading roots and shoots, with past Jam participants spreading outwards to create new Jam events in different places and with different areas of focus.

The May 2014 Guelph Health Jam event included representatives from local, provincial, and federal government, civil society organizations, and citizens, and was aimed at “breaking down barriers to healthy living”. This event was a “corner of the desk passion project” of some public servant attendees of GovMaker Day at MaRS (see Health Jam description, 2014 for more details).  During this two day session, we broke into self-selected small groups to develop a prototype service or model to address issues related to health and well-being in Guelph Wellington.

In this blog post, I report as a novice Jammer on some of my experiences at Health Jam 2014 in the City of Guelph, and reflect on how Jamming and other collaborative innovation techniques can be used to facilitate knowledge mobilization.

Iteration or repetition?

Guelph is a city that collaborates. A 2010 scan of collaborations in Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph found 48 collaborations working to address diverse social issues, including poverty, healthy eating and food security, the environment, and family supports. Many of the “Jammers” at the Health Jam event had worked together at workshops and events in the past. While similar past experiences can sometimes make the collaborative process easier, it can also lead to feelings of repetition, inefficiency, and frustration. At worst, repeated collaborative events can lead to perceptions of a seemingly endless cycle of consultation, with little implementation.   Indeed, a common tension raised at the Health Jam was about whether and how information collected would be used in the future.  A key takeaway for future Jammers (and for knowledge mobilizers) is that people need to feel that their hard work is being used in meaningful ways. Organizers should be ready to provide regular and substantive updates to participants, both before and after the event. In addition, organizers should consider asking Jammers to prototype iterative improvements to existing programs and services, rather than starting fresh in every session.

Diversity in language.

Like knowledge mobilization, the design field has its own particular set of jargon. For example: ideation creates prototypes, which are tested against personas of users and then judged through a pitch. When considering social determinants of health, words like “user” and “judge” may have different connotations. Some citizen participants at the Guelph Health Jam reported that they would prefer to design prototypes to assist “clients” of systems, as “users” meant something very negative from their perspective (e.g., “She is a user…[of the system/of drugs/of other people]).  Similarly, being “judged” at the end of the workshop sessions allowed the organizers to pick some ideas to move forward, but the word rankled with some participants. A key takeaway for future Jammers (and for knowledge mobilizers) is that language matters, and we shouldn’t assume that everyone has shared interpretations of words and meanings. Organizers should consult about language with stakeholder groups prior to the event, and be ready (and eager) to change wording based on the needs and concerns of those around the table.

Relationships and perspectives.

For me, one of the best things about the Health Jam session was being reminded about how spending time working with people from different organizations and with different lived experiences can build community change. At times, the Health Jam was a frustrating process. Our group spent a long time working out our prototype – so long, in fact, that we had to hurry over some of the design process steps. We felt rushed, we drank too much coffee, and we learned how to work together as a group. We were not from the same organization or the same neighbourhood, and we all brought different experiences to the table. Our prototype didn’t win, but each of us emerged a little different than we were before. We’re planning a get together later this week to talk about moving the idea forward. This meet-up isn’t part of the official Health Jam planning, but our little rhizome has budded off from the larger root structure, and we’re going to try and make it grow. A key takeaway for future Jammers (and for knowledge mobilizers) is that events that bring people together can create tangible benefits from concrete products, but they will also create intangible benefits that come from the transformative nature of relationships and collaboration. Organizers should remember to build in means of tracking impact through relationships by asking participants to report on new connections – both immediately after the event and after some time has passed.

By Anne Bergen (originally posted at