It was a hot sticky ‘north of Auckland’ afternoon. We got out of the car, stretched, and looked around the Mahurangi School campus. Across the carpark on one of the non-descript buildings we saw a hastily drawn sign signaling the location of the registration desk. Kiwifoo 08 had begun.
Many people have already done a fantastic job of summarising the event in terms of who spoke and what happened. I’d like to focus instead on the process – how it worked from a sense making perspective, how it was similar/different to other conferences (‘un’ or not) I’ve been to.
As with all foo/bar/baa camps, the programme was self organised. On the first night an empty schedule was drawn up on big sheets of paper (in this case with 6 rooms and 10 timeslots over three days making 60 sessions). People who wanted to run a session used a marker to write their session title in a slot, until all the slots were filled (which took about 15 minutes). This meant that out of the 150 attendees a bit under half led a session (given some were run by two or three people). Topics varied from usability, narrative, and cognition, to open source rendering engines, using augmented reality with robots, innovation in corporates, OpenID, the copyright amendment bill, electric cars, teaching kids programming, and an IE8 metatag smackdown. The process felt a little different from the e-govt barcamp last year, where post-it notes were used for presentation titles. With the ability to move sessions on the schedule at that event, a fair amount of clustering of like topics occurred over time.
The sessions were held in classrooms, most in large round table style, and a few in lecture style. All the sessions I went to were either fairly interactive presentation/Q&A format, or loosely facilitated (and often heated) discussions, a stark contrast to the dominant lecture format at typical conferences. One of the guidelines for Kiwifoo was that discussions were basically ‘off the record’, or under the Chatham House Rule. This seemed to allow for greater than normal levels of free discussion, in particular around politically or commercially sensitive topics. People were largely respectful of each other, but didn’t shy away from expressing their opinions vehemently, or from asking challenging questions.
Unlike many conferences there was a large social room with comfortable chairs and free Wifi. Tea, coffee and dishes were all self organised. Often people choose to skip sessions and carry on coffee break conversations, and there was no perceived pressure to do otherwise. Many people took time out to tinker on their laptops. I imagine it was for others, much as it was for me, a matter of dynamically prioritising between fascinating sessions, serendipitous conversations, and managing energy levels. It was good to feel that whatever I chose to do was entirely appropriate and wouldn’t be frowned upon.
Kiwifoo was unusual in that it was free (as in beer), and attendance was by invite only. People were invited by reputation (for having done something really leading edge), or through their social networks (for being interesting, good at playing nicely together, or both). This seemed to mean most people were determined to give as much as they got, already knew several people, were generally very open to meeting new people (who knows what cool thing they might have done…), and there was none of the slight stand-off-ishness you see at more structured conferences. The fact that it was ‘live-in’ perhaps made a difference here too. People stayed up late drinking, talking and playing music, camped or slept on the marae, ate together sitting down at long tables, and wore casual clothes.
All of these aspects served to somehow dynamically balance the best of a) informality – which breeds openness, social risk taking, and serendipity, with b) intensity – which gives focus, productivity and a sense of having created/gotten a lot of value. To me this lends a lot of strength to the rationale for the fully fledged incarnation of the World Cafe method, and other such approaches which very consciously take people out of the often constrained business environment to more effectively collaborate around a shared context.
In the closing session there were a number of suggestions for enhancing the process. These included:
- Lightning talks – having an early session where people have 5 minutes to pitch what they’re planning on doing a session about
- Themed streams
- Leaving last day sessions free for things of major collective interest that emerge during the event
- Post-its for session titles
Other things I’d also suggest would be doing more interactive introduction exercises (physical sociograms etc), as well as the three word intros, and doing three word outros at the end.
Aside from the tiredness of staying up too late, I’d say the format of this event left me more energised, feeling like I’d connected with many more people, and learned much more of use to me than traditional style conferences. A huge thanks to Nat, Jennie and Russell for organising the event and setting the tone that enabled this all to happen.