Transition Forest Row

A community in transition to a low carbon, sustainable, resilient life.

Intrigued by the term "unconference" that I read in a geeky article the other day, I've been reading more about processes and techniques for participatory action, sharing of information, and planning for the future. I suspect that we've all been to events that utilised some of these techniques, but I was amazed at the range of ideas people have had for having and sharing ideas, so this might initiate some thoughts locally about ways in which we can plan and facilitate events. It also has some resonances with the Participation and Communication Review that I did for Forest Row Parish Council last November.

Community-wise, I found the table on pages 5 and 6 of the document Models of Community Engagement very useful; it illustrates a classification of different types of empowerment and is suggestive of the positive benefits of a more empowered community. That document was prepared by Dundee City Council, whose accompanying Community Engagement Toolkit is also really valuable. A key book cited in the latter is Participation Works!, which was published by the New Economics Foundation back in 1995. It describes twenty-one different techniques for getting people to engage from parish maps to participatory theatre, drawing on the ideas of Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed.

But let's get back to the unconference. It is conceived as a participant-driven meeting around a single theme, but the agenda of which isn't set until the participants turn up. The BarCamp approach encourages everyone to facilitate or present a session, and also to disseminate and share the outcome, via blogging, social networking, or even talking to people.

For those meetings that may need slightly more formal presentations but which want to avoid heavy-duty and over-long powerpoint presentations, the Ignite concept requires just 20 slides, each of which can only be shown for 15 seconds. This forces events to move on quickly, and for people to make points succintly. This is similar to the Lightning Talk concept where the participant-generated "conference schedule" comprises presentations that must be under ten minutes, and are mostly about five.

I also liked the Fishbowl method as an alternative to a panel discussion, where a group of people sit in the middle of a circular space, and there is one extra chair. During the discussion, anyone from the audience can join the central group to take part, but if so, one of the existing participants must leave.

General approaches such as Open Space Technology have good resonances with the kinds of things we have been doing in the village, and I liked the idea of not having fixed times for discussions (the "it's over when it's over" idea), and encouraging people to move on from one discussion forum or topic to another as soon as they felt or recognised that they have no more to learn or contribute. (Though I also realise that this can feel a bit like the extremely long scene in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom set in 30s Spain where everyone is discussing the collectivisation of the land.) The Appreciative Inquiry technique can be useful too since it focuses on what already works well and builds on that rather than trying to fix things that are broken. May not work in all situations, but it could be a positive tool.

And finally, the FooCamp ethos has been to also get participants to nominate other interesting and useful people that could be invited to take part in future events, so extending and enriching the debate and helping to deliver action.

There is no "one size fits all" method for community engagement or for participatory meetings, but I'd be interested to know what experience of any of this you may have had, what you think might work locally, and what fires you up.

And, practically, (putting on my village hall trustee hat) when we come to put together a meeting to think about, imagine and plan how the village hall could be enhanced (it needs a new roof, so what else shall we aim for as well?), what form should that event take?

Views: 4

Comment by BradScott on June 8, 2009 at 15:32
Quote from a recent post on Chris Brogan's blog: "The difference between an audience and a community is which direction the chairs are pointing."

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