A new method for promoting dialogue results in collective wisdom.
Marco Visscher | May 2005 issue
How do you keep public participation high in a community where things are already running well? Once you’ve succeeded increasing public involvement in political decisions? When you’ve managed to scale back the role of experts? After all, it’s usually a crisis or scandal that keeps people engaged. Ed Everett, city manager in Redwood City, a municipality of 75,000 just south of San Francisco, struggled with this question. He saw that while the dynamic process of administrative reform was advancing in the town, the feeling of community was slipping away. “I wanted to make progress,” Everett says, “but I didn’t know how.”
Then he met up with Juanita Brown, who has developed a method to stimulate meaningful and constructive dialogues, which she calls “World Café.” The method is now being used in more than 30 countries: in living rooms with groups of 20, and in conference centers with audiences of 1,000 and more. The power of the World Cafés lies in the unique convergence of various perspectives and life experiences that create new insights into issues that are important to the participants; their work, their community, their lives.
And now Everett and Brown are standing at the front of a room with 25 round tables, each strewn with paper and decorated by a plant. The audience is comprised of at least 80 people—young and old, men and (mostly) women—who have one thing in common: they care about Redwood City, the city they live in. First they chat and get to know one another in groups of four, discussing the talents they can use to contribute to their community. They are then challenged by Brown, the MC, to voice their wishes for the city (better conditions for cyclists, better schools, more citizen involvement) and to formulate them into constructive questions. How can we make safe bike routes? How can we improve the schools? How do we stimulate our cynical neighbours to become constructive citizens?
The second round starts a half-hour later. After each table has expressed its most burning question, the guests switch to other tables where they discuss how that table’s key question can be answered. What are the most important approaches in arriving at solutions? Which organizations could be involved in the effort? When, 20 minutes later after the ideas already discussed have been summarized, the final round begins with another switch of tables.
The result is a pleasant kind of chaos in which participants are sometimes involved in heated discussions, but take care to listen to one another and continue to seek various ways to approach a problem.
These “café chats” do wonders for the creation of collective wisdom. And this is exactly what Juanita Brown wanted. During the 1960s she was an outspoken activist, convinced she was right. Later, she discovered that it’s more effective for folks to come together to create solutions to problems. Convinced of people’s internal wisdom, she sought—and found—a method to bring them together. Her book on the subject will soon be published: The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, ISBN 1576752585, which you can pre-order through Amazon.com). It contains numerous examples of how these dialogues have contributed to such things as organizational change processes or fresh initiatives within a community.
At the end of the World Café in Redwood City, Brown quips: “Getting people to join in conversation: ha-ha, how revolutionary can that really be?”
But Ed Everett is enthusiastic about the evening. “Did you hear that? Someone’s key question concerned what we can do about speeders. Fantastic! Not: what can the police do, or the politicians, but what can we do. It’s time we understood that citizens need to take responsibility for things that we politicians haven’t addressed for them in too long a time. Let them discuss it. People aren’t stupid.”