Design Competition Stimulates Communication on Multiple Channels

Bill Nuttle ·
10 December 2013
Science Communication | 

The Changing Course competition will stimulate discussion about the future course of the Mississippi River near its mouth. Large areas of wetlands have converted to open water in the delta of the Mississippi over the past 30 years. A changing climate and accelerating sea level rise are expected to make the problem of land loss worse and increase impacts on coastal communities. With the 2012 Louisiana coastal master plan people started talking about how the Mississippi River might be managed differently to provide a new source of sediment for building land. The Changing Course competition moves this conversation along. Next year, two or three hand-picked teams of planners, ecologists, and engineers will be challenged to come up with specific plans of what to do to achieve four goals: capture and distribute the sediment carried by the river; maintain reliable navigation; protect against flooding; and meet the needs of coastal communities.

Map of Louisiana coast
Master plan to protect and restore Louisiana's coast. Credit: Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority

Organizers of the competition have spent a lot of time thinking about effective communication. The organizers are from the Environmental Defense Fund, the Van Alen Institute and Happold Consulting, and they are supported by the State of Louisiana and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A communications design firm was hired to design an overall strategy. The logo they designed deftly evokes the shifting courses of the Mississippi River that built the deltaic plain in its present form over past centuries. And, as a result of their efforts an activity that started out originally known as the “Lower Mississippi River Delta Design Initiative” was transformed into the much more engaging “Changing Course” competition.

I serve on a team that provides technical advice to the organizers. Our first task was to review statements of qualifications sent in by design teams interested in entering the competition. To succeed in the Changing Course competition a team must clear three hurdles.  The first hurdle is to be invited to compete; that’s where we are now. The advertisement for the competition asked interested teams to provide the qualifications of key team members, their experience and their expertise in important technical areas. Teams also were asked to describe how they will approach the problem of coordinating the work of a wide range of disciplines.

Reviewing this sort of information is part of the work that goes on all the time behind the scenes in scientific and technical studies; however my experience reviewing these files taught me a lesson in effective communication. Two weeks ago I downloaded materials provided by 21 teams vying for an invitation to participate. Each file was about 40 pages of very important but often mind-numbing information. As expected, some teams could be eliminated right off the bat because they lack some of the required experience and expertise. I carefully reviewed each of the remaining files, scoring and ranking them according how well they satisfied the requirements for the competition. What surprised me is that the eight files I ranked the highest were not only better; they also were different from the rest.

Changing Course logo
The logo for competition evokes past and possibly future changes in the river’s course.

What distinguished these top teams was that each succeeded to convey their own, distinctive approach to the challenge. The better teams designed their submissions to communicate through multiple channels. Many of the teams combined text, photos and color graphics, because doing so increases the amount of information that can be communicated within the page limit imposed by the organizers. However, the top teams used the additional channels of communication not only to amplify the information explicitly requested but also to establish a theme or organizing concept that set them apart.

Beyond providing visual appeal, pictures that teams chose to include in their files demonstrated their familiarity with the Mississippi River delta region and signaled what the team considered to be most important elements in the challenge. Even purely stylistic flourishes can be significant – the color scheme used by one team in their file deftly echoed the color palette of the Changing Course logo. Whether intentional or not, this team showed that it is capable of taking in information, as well as communicating it out on multiple channels, both literal and visual.

Teams that stood out demonstrated their competence more effectively in how well they communicated than by their lists of qualifications and past projects. These teams demonstrated a capacity for clear thinking and for conveying their thoughts to others. They showed that they already had a good grasp of the main problems at hand and that they were already well along in figuring out a solution. And, if this worked to gain the confidence of a skeptical technical reviewer, that’s a good start toward gaining the confidence of residents of the Louisiana coast, threatened by accelerating change and wondering what can be done.

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