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Inviting Constructive Controversy

Bellagio Group Picture

One of the twentieth century’s most original thinkers, Marcel Duchamp, once said, “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”

The value of getting out of our own heads and challenging our preconceived notions has been part of the ethos and modus operandi of The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center since its founding nearly 60 years ago. Creating a safe space for people with different worldviews, areas of expertise, and methodologies invites “constructive controversy,” opening the door for transformative thinking and new ideas.

In the field of psychology, constructive controversy is when people with different points of view are comfortable critically discussing work and ideas. It is characterized by an environment in which non-overlapping knowledge is valued, and productive attention is brought to differences in thinking, beliefs, and experiences. This kind of interaction is often considered a critical precursor to creativity.

Picture a room containing an economist from Cape Town, a performance artist from Memphis, an engineer from Shanghai, and a heart surgeon from Istanbul. What would they talk about? How would exposure to one another’s experience and viewpoint impact their respective work? What’s particularly exciting is that the answers to these questions become increasingly unpredictable the more diverse the group.

Bringing diverse groups together broadens the scope of ideas, knowledge, and processes each individual can access… ultimately encouraging creativity and novel thinking.

The Bellagio Center fosters constructive controversy and interdisciplinary exchange through month-long residencies for leading academics, artists, and practitioners, and week-long convenings hosted by organizations from around the world. We have seen that bringing diverse groups together broadens the scope of ideas, knowledge, and processes each individual can access, such that, as expressed by a former resident, “instead of coasting with one’s core beliefs about important issues, one engages with serious and respectful challenges,” ultimately encouraging creativity and novel thinking.

In September, 2016, BBC radio program The Forum visited the Bellagio Center to record an episode that captures how the dynamics and conversations at the Center play out around a real topic—in this case, a diverse group of residents discussing ways to effectively reduce urban poverty. Panelists included Doug Rauch, former President of Trader Joe’s; Purnima Mane, former President and CEO of Pathfinder International; Francis Nyamnjoh, an anthropologist at the University of Cape Town; and Paula Daniels, founder of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.

Over the course of an hour, each panelist spoke to how they address the challenge of poverty in their own work and the areas where they see the most promise for meaningful change. Though the discussion covered a wide range of factors that contribute to poverty—from food and health care to girls’ education and cultural tradition—there were a number of common themes that arose throughout the conversation. The panel spoke to the necessity of connecting key stakeholders, harnessing the power of markets, and supporting long-term commitments in order to achieve change at scale.

To realize those types of goals—for stakeholders to truly connect, for the private and public sectors to work together to enable market-based solutions, and to build the kind of trust that supports long-term commitments—constructive controversy will be highly valuable. Global challenges today are increasingly complex, but given the opportunity, can bring together a diversity of perspectives to spur new thinking and unexpected solutions.

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