1 March 2007

A participatory conference model at NESTA, London

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Two days ago Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken was at the NESTA Uploading…Innovation event in London.

NESTA, which stands for National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, has beautiful well-equipped offices in the centre of London (no wonder, given their £ 350 million lottery-funded endowment), and is increasingly becoming a strategic player in informing the UK innovation policy, in part also due to the new leadership of Jonathan Kestenbaum (who was appointed chief executive of NESTA last November).

The event itself brought about a whole range of ideas (that you can read about here, here, here, here and here – and these are just a few). What I think was also really unique was the process itself.

NESTA organised this event “to learn from those people who have been at the forefront of the development of new participatory ways of working, those who have harnessed the network effects of emerging technologies of collaboration to create new business models, new products and services, to bring about culture change within organisations and disruptive innovation to their sectors.”

So they brought about 150 people together for an afternoon. How do you manage a participatory conference? How do you get 150 people to exchange their ideas and learn from it in the process?

The solution they came up with involved the collaboration of Steve Moore of Policy Unplugged, who created a bottom-up process. Simply said, the afternoon was divided in two blocks, with six to seven people making a 3 minute pitch for a particular topic and then breaking out into discussion groups to deepen it. Both the pitches and the discussion groups were open: if you felt like it you could make your own pitch, you joined the discussion group that you liked, and in the discussion group you contributed or listened as you felt like.

This approach was based on the premise that 5% of the people speaking 90% of the time is not the best way to stimulate knowledge sharing and that we are in many ways all experts. In other words, it functioned like a live version of a web forum.

Mark’s own group discussed the lack of a Europe-wide discourse on people-focused innovation (e.g. on experience design & innovation; sustainable & innovation; participation & innovation), with most of the discourse either being American or country-specific, and what can be done about it. Some good ideas came up and we are exploring a new online magazine on some best practices that he hopes to tell you more about soon. Any ideas and input are of course welcome.

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