In Summary

Elizabeth Dori TunstallSwinburne University of Technology

I recently concluded the Americas Cultures-Based Innovation (CBI) Symposium, co-hosted by the Banff Centre in Calgary, Canada. Being the third time that I have co-organised a CBI Symposium, I now know that the design of its structure effectively achieves its intention, namely, to build deep relationships among its 15-20 participants.

The undisputed fact of the love I feel for the last Symposium’s fifteen participants, all within five days, prompts me to ask the question:

Why are so many conferences based on the value of sharing ideas instead of deepening relationships among the participants?

TED and the ultimate sharing of ideas

Richard Saul Wurman’s TED Conference has become one of the most successful contemporary conference forms. There is the expensive elite TED conference, in which established and emerging individuals in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design present his or her ideas.

Under Chris Anderson’s leadership in 2001 and as a result of the viral popularity of the TED Talks videos, the more democratic TEDx was formed to extend TED’s reach as a conference brand.

Yet, TED explicitly states that it is about “spreading ideas that matter.” Presenters become rock stars on the conference circuit, but one does not build relationships with them.

In spite of its presentational and digital sexiness, TED still maintains the old form of a conference, which includes expert speakers sharing ideas on a stage, passive audience members, and curated agenda within a closed space. Another model for the conference is the UnConference.

UnConference model 

The UnConference is based on the Open Space Technology concept developed by Harrison Owen. In an UnConference, the agenda and presenters are co-constructed by all the participants within the first hour.

Then from a period of time ranging from a day to five days, the participants implement their own conference sessions and reporting mechanism. Kaliya Hamlin from provides a good description:

The term “unconference” arose as people in the technology industry started making conferences that stepped out of the traditional models, which had involved presentations selected months beforehand, panels of speakers, industry sponsors talking about their products, and “trade show” exhibits.

The Open Space Technology that under-girds the UnConference is focused on sharing ideas, but also has a deep commitment to building relationships. This derives from Owen’s inspiration from Indigenous knowledge systems of initiation ritual in Liberia and even the Talking Stick Ceremonies of Native Americans.

UnConferences seek to attain the objectives that Owen lays out in his system:

[To have the] time and space for participants to meet in whatever configuration seems appropriate in order to pursue the business at hand.

The “business at hand” in an UnConference often stems for the sharing of ideas that will help an organisation or company meet specific goals. In a relational conference, the business at hand is relationships.

Designs on a relational conference

The Cultures-Based Innovation Symposiums are designed as relational conferences, where the ultimate goal is the building of deep relationship among the participants. Thus, all the activities of the conference are structured to break down the barriers that keep people from presenting their authentic selves to others and to build up group solidarity.

For the Cultures-Based Innovation Symposiums, there are three design features that emphasise the relational over the transactional: 

  • Extended introductions,
  • Emergent ideation, and
  • Performative ceremony as outcome. 

Extended introductions

2015 CBI participants listening to extended introductions in a circle Elizabeth Tunstall

The extended introduction is the main design feature that emphasises a relational focus. Normally when one introduces oneself in a conference, one gives a name, job title, place of residence or country of origin, and maybe a short description of the reason for attending the event. The introduction might last one to three minutes. The main information that is communicated is the person’s potential status in the group.

The extended introduction lasts from 30 minutes to one hour. With 15-20 participants, the process takes up the first two days of a five-day symposium. The joy of the process is for a person to realise that the space is completely open to express him or herself because no one will interrupt the narrative. A typical scenario goes like this:

A woman shyly starts with the typical three-minute introduction of name, job, residence, and reason for attending, and pauses. Since she holds the metaphorical and sometimes real talking stick, no one says anything. To fill the silence, she begins to explain the origin of her name and its relationship to her grandmother with whom she was extreme close.

She spends the next fifteen minutes describing her relationship to her various family members and all the places she has lived, growing more relaxed each passing minute. She segues into a description of what she does for a living, her training or education that brought her there, and how her family still does not understand what she does. The laughter of the others encourages her.

Someone might now ask a question about where is the bliss in her life. She recounts the experiences that have most inflamed her passions, jumping across time and space, to interweave a narrative of what has the most meaning for her in her projects, travels, or daily interactions with people. Forty-five minutes or an hour in total duration, she closes her narrative by almost whispering, “I have never told anyone all of this before.”

The intention of the extended introduction is to locate the importance of the holistic person within the context of family, community, and the journey of life. By allowing a person to fill the space, the speaker feels truly heard, which then establishes a sense of trust and intimacy with the other participants that is not based on status, but his or her authentic self.

In the last two CBI Symposiums, my co-hosts and I have allowed people to do formal PowerPoint or multimedia presentations in order to show visual work. Yet, I believe the most effective design is the unscripted story told outdoors in a circle or over a meal.

The intensity of the sharing in the first two days of the relational conference requires time on the third day to reground the participants in nature. It is then on the fourth day when the group synthesises the themes of people lives into three common areas of reflection, interest, and potential action.

Emergent ideation

Community wall of resonate statements that form the themes Elizabeth Tunstall

The emergent ideation of a relational conference shares many of the same techniques of the UnConference and the World Café models. Public visualisation is important with the creation of a community wall. Clustered content, often written on Post-It Notes, forms the themes of the conference, around which people are organised.

The difference between those models and that of the relational conference is that the content derives directly from the narrative of participants’ lives. The speakers’ personal and professional journeys become the resonate points that the other participants capture and share as the themes of the conference.

The intentions of this design feature is to bond the participants and reduce the sense of isolation in his or her journey. Individually, the participant experiences how the collective group shares his or her passionate concerns.

Performative ceremony

Team members Darrell Brown, Carol Anne Hinton, Brian Calliou, and Maria Rogal performing their final outcomes. Elizabeth Tunstall

The final outcomes of the relational conference are performances of future scenarios. This takes place on the fifth and final day.

In the first CBI Symposium, the participants performed skits and ceremonial orations. In the second CBI Symposium, the participants created songs to reflect the Maori beliefs that you sing the world into being in Whakatane, NZ. This third symposium focused performed skits as ceremony based on the Medicine Wheel, drawing upon the knowledge of the First Nation participants in the Symposium.

Creative performances assist in the engaging audience members as empathic participants in the sharing of potential actions of collective concern. Ceremony emphasises the sacredness of the individuals and the relationships established during conference.

Each individual leaves feeling highly valued and worthy of respect, not because of their accomplishments, but for their journey through life and the other participants’ recognition of that journey.

How to scale

So now you might be thinking how nice this is with just 15-20 people. What about a conference of 100s or 1000s of people? Like the UnConference, the relational conference is also nodal, which allows it to scale. Five groups of twenty people or 50 groups of twenty people each represent their own node of potential deep relationships.

This is powerful because in the clichéd but true words of anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

Relational conferences, like those of the Cultures-Based Innovation Symposiums, design the conditions for those small groups to emerge. 

Thank you to CBI 2015: Manuela Aguirre, Mahlikah Aweri, Darrell Brown, Brian Calliou, Amber Dion, Carol Anne Hinton, Renata Marques Leitao, Matt Munoz, Garry Oker, Sonia Ospina, Maria Rogal, Graciela Tiscareno-Sato, Cora Voyageur, Zinzi Samuels, and Cowboy Smithx.The Conversation

Elizabeth Dori Tunstall is Associate Professor, Design Anthropology at Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.