Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Designing a Public Conversation Using the World Café Method

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Designing a Public Conversation Using the World Café Method

Article excerpt

Leaders talk about holding large-scale public conversations, but they won't succeed if the methods are unsatisfying for participants, if an authentic conversation occurs at all. In this paper, I present the World Café method, a viable way of involving large numbers of people in a meaningful, conversational exchange. I describe how a particular World Café event was designed, and then explore the value of the World Café method as a means to achieve social change.


Increasingly, we hear political and economic leaders talk about having a 'conversation' with stakeholders, or shareholders and the large communities that they serve. In practice, the talk usually goes in one direction. Opinion polls, focus groups and stage-managed public consultations do not afford citizens much decisive influence.

More and more government and non-government organisations (NGOs) with a genuine desire for democratic public engagement are convening public meetings. However, even with the best of intentions, the default 'town hall' forum usually degenerates into an angry tussle between polarised groups committed to winning their arguments at the expense of others. This occurs because most people are grouped with friends, family, colleagues or neighbours who are like-minded in their values and beliefs, which in their local conversations they reinforce and defend. The adversarial question-answer format is inevitably dominated by familiar participants, typically those who are incensed and articulate, with comperes raising the temperature with provocative rather than conciliatory comments.

So how can we have a large-scale conversation that draws on the rich diversity of public opinion? If the public are to be engaged constructively, they too need to be exposed to that broad range of perspectives, and appreciate them with respect. This 'appreciative' approach lies at the heart of new thinking in the structured design of influential public conversations.

World Café, an Exploration in Happiness

This paper describes a dialogic method called The World Café (W/Café), first trialled experimentally in 1995 by Juanita Brown and Chris Isaacs. The 'café' metaphor describes the informal seating at multiple small tables to encourage conversation. 'The world' symbolises how the format is scaled up to include dozens, even hundreds of people at a time. There is also hope that W/Café will gain global popularity as an accepted method to publicly address social and political issues.

I have designed and facilitated many W/Café events over the past decade around important issues like climate policy and regulatory frameworks. Rather than get caught up in the intricacies of such topics, in this paper I describe a light-hearted event that I was commissioned to design for the Sydney Festival in early 2010. The W/Café was designed to explore the meaning of happiness, which was the theme of the festival (hereafter called the Happiness Café). The originators of the W/Café format encourage us to 'explore questions that matter': the pursuit of happiness certainly satisfies that criterion.

While there are features that are the same for all W/Cafés, there is flexibility to adapt the format to the occasion. Usually I design the process and then facilitate or cofacilitate it from the stage. Drawing from colleagues and associates, we assembled a small team of volunteers to help run the event. Larger events require event management and a detailed running sheet. During each event challenges arise that provide opportunities to learn and to modify and improve my skills. The originators of the W/Café format describe a sequence of seven design principles (used as headings below) that still guide my design process, although perhaps less prescriptively now that I have gained confidence and experience.

1. Set the context: clarify the purpose and broad parameters within which the dialogue will unfold

For most W/Cafés, it is the designer/facilitator who directs all the initial work to create compelling invitations and promotion to gain a diversity of participants, often with little funding support. …

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