by Ninad Bondre, Science Editor for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) Secretariat.
They say that sometimes you find what you are looking for in the places you least expect it to be. For more than a decade I have been yearning for the ambience of the outdoor canteen of the University of Pune, my alma mater in India. Imagine my most pleasant surprise, then, at stumbling upon it at a scientific mega-conference in London.
Back in Pune, while studying geology well over a decade ago, the most interesting discussions often took place outside the classroom and laboratory. It was over innumerable cups of tea at the canteen that my colleagues, professors and I engaged in free-flowing debates. Nothing, be it James Hutton’s uniformitarianism, Adam Smith’s economics or Judith Butler’s take on gender escaped our scrutiny. Somewhere down the line, though, the dynamism and openness of that setting was replaced by more formal and rigid structures. Lacking a gaggle to bounce ideas and thoughts off, my wife became the rather weary recipient of my rants.
It was perhaps the incipient gnawing of a growing vacuum at the core of my being that coaxed me into my first ever World Café on Whole System Solutions for Sustainable Development. That and some gentle persuasion from my colleague Reed Evans who strove hard to include such unconventional sessions in the Planet Under Pressure conference programme. I entered the room somewhat tentative and sceptical, I may add, a reminder that continued openness requires open spaces to nurture it. But soon my scepticism gave way to anticipation and then to inspiration. I needed no convincing to attend my next event of this ilk.
So why am I waxing eloquent about these sessions? How do they differ from the plenary or parallel sessions that are common components of big conferences? What struck me most was how easily hierarchies dissolved and barriers broke down simply by an unconventional use of space. For example, when small and diverse groups gathered around tables, spontaneously, there was no privileging of particular individuals simply because of who they were or where they came from. There is little scope to hog the limelight in such a setting. Leaders were not assigned in advance but emerged organically; these were fluid identifies, always provisional and open to negotiation. Listening became just as important as, if not more important than, speaking. Asking a question or expressing a doubt did not entail attracting the attention of tens to hundreds of people, nor did it involve texting, twittering or emailing. Being shy or unfamiliar with technology was thus no barrier.
The experience of participating in these events was not only empowering and inspiring, it was also humbling. At the Unconference, for example, I found myself to be the only individual interested in the agenda item that I proposed. For some time, I sat alone at the table designated to discuss my agenda, a mute observer to the thriving discussions at other tables with other agendas. It dawned on me that my agenda had no buyers in this marketplace, provoking some much-needed reflection. Was no one interested in my agenda? Was the framing not suitable for the audience? Had I failed to communicate it properly? Thankfully this was also a space where those on the margins did not go unnoticed: soon one person walked over to my table, then another and then yet another. By the end of the session, we had engaged in some serious intellectual churning.
The moderators of plenary panels and the overall conference moderator did a fabulous job and received much-deserved plaudits. But let us not underestimate the role played by the facilitators of the participatory sessions and their teams. It was a role that required remaining in the background despite being in the foreground, a task that requires more skill than we might imagine. The success of these sessions also owes itself to the rather sophisticated tools at the disposal of the facilitators and participants: pens, paper and post-it notes. Something shifts when we jot down ideas and draw sketches on paper in the presence of others around us, and when those others add to or contest these there and then.
One of the goals of World Cafes is to “help a community to surface and deepen its conversation to action.” That was precisely the goal of the conference too, at least in my understanding. Whether the conference has managed to reach that goal will become evident soon enough. Now, I know well the dangers of expectations that are too high and of putting all eggs in one basket. Participatory sessions are not going to save the world. But if it emerges that the conference took the first baby step towards reaching its stated goal, rest assured that such sessions had something to do with it.
Ninad Bondre is Science Editor for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) Secretariat. Among his jobs is putting together the Global Change magazine.