"Where there is understanding there can be trust."
Robin Prest is the Program Manager and Civic Engage Practice Lead at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. He graduated in the fields of Engineering Physics from Simon Fraser University in 2006, and continues to enjoy applying systems thinking to the design of public engagement initiatives. As part of his studies, he gained a valuable foundation in dialogue and community engagement through SFU's Centre for Dialogue’s Semester in Dialogue program.
After completing his degree, Robin spent his early career working in the private sector as a part of the leadership team for a project management consulting firm. During this time, Robin gained an appreciation for stakeholder engagement, conflict resolution, and communicating with the public.
In 2011, Robin returned to SFU to pursue his passion for public engagement as a program manager with SFU’s Centre for Dialogue. In this role, he has worked on topics as diverse as citizen engagement, restorative justice, climate change and reconciliation with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
In mid-2014, Robin helped launch Civic Engage, an initiative that leverages the reputation of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue as an experienced, neutral facilitator and a globally-recognized centre for knowledge and practice in dialogue. Civic Engage aims to strengthen the democratic process by supporting more effective public engagement. The program accomplishes this goal by creating a home for public engagement knowledge and best practices, while also leading demonstration projects on behalf of government partners.
While performing research to develop Civic Engage, Robin received consistent feedback from practitioners that public engagement was not reaching its potential in BC due to an inconsistent culture of participation. This has resulted in barriers between public institutions and the general public, and a high level of public cynicism regarding public engagement.
To help overcome this mistrust, Civic Engage is leading by example by working with public institutions to host public dialogues. An example of this was when the district of North Vancouver hired Civic Engage to design a deliberative dialogue to resolve conflicts between residents, tourists and recreational users over parking access in Deep Cove.
The Importance of Dialogue
One challenge with dialogue that Robin has observes is that “the closer you are to a decision, the harder it is to have a real dialogue. You can’t have dialogue unless the people who are participating are willing to change and suspend judgment.” Despite this challenge, Robin’s hopes that Civic Engage will increase awareness and understanding of the importance of public engagement in both decision makers and the general public.
“You can’t have dialogue unless the people who are participating are willing to change and suspend judgment.”
Robin’s personal view on dialogue is “where there is understanding there can be trust. Where there is trust, we can learn to understand the other person’s needs and then reconcile these needs with our own.” He believes that dialogue is not the only important tool of civic engagement, but that it is vastly underused compared to traditional engagement processes, which often drive participants to polarized positions of “yes versus no.”