Some methods I learned from Aspiration Tech for running in-person participatory events

What is Aspiration Tech? Aspiration Tech connects non-profit organizations with software firms and technologists with the aim of bringing tangible outcomes and collaborations post-event. Their style of facilitating in-person convening is unique and inspired by the Open Space Technology approach. Last week, I attended the Nonprofit Software Development Summit that they organized in Oakland, CA and here are a few methods (I’m familiar with a few already) that I learned:

Opening circle — Seating arrangement in a circular chair layout and a go-round for introductions at the beginning of the event sets an inclusive space for people to open up and talk about themselves. Each participant gets to share who they are, a word that would describe their mood of the day, where they are coming from and what brings them to the event. It gives them a sneak peek into the diverse set of people present in the room and make them familiar with how the rest of the event will unfold in a similar fashion seeking interaction and engagement from everyone.

Opening Circle

Nature walk 1:1 — Right after the opening circle, each participant goes out in the neighborhood area for a nature walk (~10ish minutes long) with one other person who they choose. For example, I met a woman who interns at the Aspiration Tech. We learned about each other’s work in detail, and were willing to support one another with any information relevant to our interests afterwards. I’ve also had the opportunity to have an engaging conversation with her (tweeted about it, see below). I think this is an excellent way to help spark deep, and memorable conversations.

Categorization of session topics

Agenda building in a mosh-pit style — One of the key or unique components of a participatory event is the agenda building. Besides encouraging participants to propose session topics (like how unconferences usually do), what was different was the specific ask from members to introduce a few topics which they wanted to learn and a few which they could share with the larger group. Another ask was to group the session topics into categories, thereby making the topic definition process a collective exercise rather than an individual one. Later, the sessions which were of most interests to the audience were curated by the event facilitator and announced in the room. This style of encouraging participants to contribute to agenda brought a vast array of topics from the crowd and helped build conversations around them at the mosh-pit (in front of the stage).

Skillshare

Skillshare — People willing to share were encouraged to stand up, and hold signs for the skills they could teach others. Others desiring to learn were asked to walk around in the room, and find a skillshare buddy. It worked quite smoothly in such a large group for pairing up learners for peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing.

Concluding unconference sessions — There were three role players at each unconference session — facilitator (lead the session), notetaker (took notes during the session on their laptop), and summarizer (share what was discussed during the storytelling phase post each unconference round). Summary of each session is on the event wiki, content for which seems to be contributed by the organizers.

Unconference session in the open

Some other logistics that worked well — no laptops, use of hashtags on Twitter (got connected with an interesting bunch), use of gender pronouns on name tags setting a friendly space, a welcoming email a day before the event explaining the logistics really well! :)