Aspiration Paper -- Creating Participatory Events

Aspiration has organized and facilitated almost 500 interactive and collaborative events in more than 40 countries across the globe. Our event practice is focused on knowledge sharing in support of nonprofits and activists applying technology for social change, and draws on our unique, road-tested Aspiration facilitation methodology.

Aspiration convenings share a common, participant-driven agenda format and philosophy that focus on maximizing collaboration and peer sharing, while making sparing use of one-to-many and several-to-many session formats such as presentations and panels. We believe the ultimate potential and power of any convening lie in the collective untapped knowledge and experience of the participants, and we strive to tap that vast store by maximizing dialog, creativity and idea exchange.

Shuttleworth Foundation has generously underwritten the creation of a paper documenting this approach to the creation of participatory events. The paper is divided into conceptual and practical sections; general guidelines and how-to's for participatory events are presented, followed by a case study based on the Open Education Track at the 2007 iSummit in Dubrovnik. We invite you to have a read, and share your reflections, reactions, and critique.

An executive summary is provided below.

Executive Summary

The internet era has ushered in a broad new panorama of collaborative tools and interaction opportunities in the virtual realm. But live “offline” events such as conferences, given their unique potential for connecting like minds and catalyzing relationships, have remained relatively non-collaborative affairs, employing dichotomous formats such as “keynotes”, slideware presentations, and panels to let one or several speakers relate across a veritable moat to silent and largely passive audiences. “Participatory event” refers to a gathering where participants shape the agenda before and during the event, instead of reading a fixed schedule beforehand and then shuffling between sessions that have been slotted weeks or months in advance. The focus in such events is placed on peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and network building instead of large group listening.

An event can made participatory through an well-defined sequence of steps. First, a vision must be cast, identifying event goals and outcomes that will tap the passion and needs of participants and draw them into participation. This is followed by an iterative outreach process, speaking to prospective participants, communicating the event vision and evolving it based on their feedback. Through the outreach process, one also identifies facilitators in the group: participants with an inclination towards sharing knowledge and supporting their peers. As the gathering is convened, organizers take care to review and stay focused on event goals while conveying a fun and festive tone, to get everyone's voice active in the dialog as quickly as possible, and to let those voices guide the course of the event. Listening to participant feedback on how the event is meeting their needs is critical, as is reflecting those inputs as much as possible in enhancing, pruning, and resequencing discussions. Through the course of the event, progress is tracked against desired outcomes and goals are refined based on that progress, steering towards demonstrable milestones and follow-up plans by the end of the in-person meeting.

Agendas for participant-driven events function more like scaffolding than script; they provide structure onto which participants can attach their ideas, interests and goals before and during the event. But letting participants drive the agenda requires a fundamental set of expectations and guidelines to encourage co-equal behavior; at the heart of such guidelines are three tenets of peer interaction: respect, listening, and inclusion. Facilitation in participatory gatherings is the art of doing less. Success is indicated by drawing out collective energy when participants meet as a large group, and then providing guidance to establish small, focused groups of collaboration and interaction where participants drive. Facilitation roles should be distributed, tapping participants who understand the community dynamics in play, and who strive to see the needs of fellow participants served. Not to be overlooked in participatory events is the essential nature of “little logistics”; keep things cozy, comfortable and well-fueled and the participants will carry the proceedings forward from there. Also know the risks of operating in an environment of less structure and more real-time improvisation, for there is indeed the potential for things to go less than well. But in the end, organizers of participatory events learn to trust their judgment, and make decisions based on sustaining a friendly, collaborative environment.

To help translate these general guidelines in to concrete examples, this paper includes a case study based on organizing and facilitating the Open Education Track at the 2007 iSummit. Starting from goal-setting and pre-event engagement of prospective participants, the case study details how participatory principles were translated into an agenda, describing the role of both facilitators and technology. Different processes and session formats are explained and compared in terms of benefits to participants. Challenges faced in delivering the event are enumerated and solutions described. And outcomes and post-event collaboration are described in the context of sustaining post-event momentum.

Participatory event design and delivery is a work in progress. The tradition of user-driven events goes back decades and generations, but the uptake of non-traditional agenda models in the NGO sector has been slow and uneven over the past decade. Much work remains to be done in educating stakeholders about the potential for alternative event formats, and in creating a larger community of practice among those who organize and facilitate participatory events.