Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How Much for My Garden Gnome? How Stories Make Objects Significant

I won this gnome two years ago, a prize selected by my cousin who was organizing our annual Ohio family reunion. It was the gift for the family member who had travelled the furthest, and as I had come from central Europe, I easily won this award, and she knew I would. She had picked this piece of tchotchke for both me and for herself; our sensibilities were similar, and this Travelocity gnome reminded us of how far we had gone from our own farmtowns in the Midwest. She herself had lived in the UK for many years and had often contended for this title, and today...

If someone saw this gnome in a second hand shop, it would be no more than a piece of useless plastic, probably not weather proof so not even a garden variety gnome. However, with a story its value changes. But don't take my word for it.

I was fascinated recently by a Studio 360 piece called In Search of Significant Objects, which told of a social and anthropological project which "demonstrated that the effect of narrative on any given object's subjective value can be measured objectively". That is, that an object had more value when there was a story attached to it.

I have seen this myself at a recent house moving "giveaway" party, where a friend of mine was downsizing to a smaller apartment and laid out all the things, clothes, vases, belts, shoes and assorted stuff that she needed to give away. She invited a dozen or so friends and colleagues over to take things away. Initially some of the best things went; however, an enormous pile of objects was left until she started to pick things up one at a time and enthrall us all with their origins, with stories of travels to hard to reach places, special gifts from visiting dignitaries, traditional dresses worn at historic events, and made in secret moments of important meetings by the personal tailors of powerful people. Almost everything went, and with each item, the story of its origin and provenance which was now complemented by the new owner's own story of where she acquired it, from a remarkable woman who had already lived 40 lives.

The Significant Objects project proved this too. Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn conducted the experiment by buying unwanted objects at thrift stores, for an average of US$1.25 a piece, then invited writers to create new backstories for each object and then sold them all on Ebay, for over US$8000. You can see some of the objects - from candle holder, Fred Flintstone Pez dispenser, craft doll, to a jar of marbles -  and read the stories on the Significant Objects website. ( An odd and somehow beautiful little story about the jar of marbles that gives the artifact a completely different meaning increased its value for a new owner from $1 to $50 dollars.)

I am curious about these findings in terms of what they can bring to learning and my work, I am not quite sure yet. Will people find knowledge and information, or your work or ideas more valuable when there is a good story behind them? I guess the best speakers know that. Will people value and remember the things we give them (both physical and conceptual) when we join their well-crafted origin stories to them? If we stopped and thought about our own stuff and stories, would we throw away less/buy less meaningless stuff?

I'm not sure how much I would get for my garden gnome, but now, remembering its story, I want to keep it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TEDxGenevaChange - Katharina Samara Wickrama on "Accountable Aid"

Watch Katharina Samara Wickrama's talk on "Accountable Aid" recorded at the TEDxGenevaChange event.

Is humanitarian aid repeatedly failing to be accountable? To what extent should communities be involved in designing their own humanitarian aid programmes and measuring success? Should humanitarian responders hold themselves accountable for ensuring the delivery of quality assistance? How much money could be saved? And how many unwanted yoga mats???

If you have any comments on this talk, please share them on the talk's YouTube webpage, we would love to see a discussion going!


About the speaker: Katharina is an expert in the field of humanitarian accountability, particularly responding to sexual abuse and exploitation of beneficiaries by humanitarian workers. She began her career as a lawyer but has spent the last twenty years in the humanitarian field, first at UNHCR then as the Coordinator of Building Safer Organizations (BSO) project. In 2007, Katharina brought BSO to the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) and took on the responsibilities of Regulatory Services Director (managing social audits of humanitarian organizations) before being appointed HAP's Executive Director (interim) in 2010. She is presently NHRP Phase II Project Coordinator at ICVA, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies. The NHRP project is implementing practical ways to bring the national and international NGO voice to the UN-led humanitarian reform process, recognising that civil society has a key role in responding effectively to crisis.

Friday, April 13, 2012

For Fans of FishBanks: The Renewable Resources Management Computer Simulation Game

For those of you who are fans of the FishBanks game, originally developed by Dennis Meadows, there is a new online version that has been created by Dennis and John Sterman at MIT. In this free online version you can play as an individual or part of a class. It can be accessed here: FishBanks Online Version.

I recently ran it twice (in French no less) using the Board game version (in the photo above) and it remains one of my favorite games to play that provides profound lessons about common pool renewable resources management, using systems thinking, growth against limits, and collaboration vs competition.

If you want the Board Game version (which comes with software for your laptop, instructions and all the role descriptions and pieces), you can access it here: FishBanks Board Game Version.

This second link tells you more about the game, how to use it and what kind of learning objectives it reaches, as well as how to order it.

Let's go fishing (sustainably)!

Monday, April 09, 2012

Anatomy of a TEDxChange Event: The Intense Hours Before (in Pictures!)

We held the TEDxGVAChange event in Geneva last Thursday; it was one of the 200 live events around the world that connected to the central TEDxChange event in Berlin. The Berlin event was co-organized by the Gates Foundation and, as all the others including ours, focused on issues surrounding global health and development.

(above is the wordle we made from the participants' "About Me" registration statements.)

The TEDxGVAChange event was exhilarating! And it benefitted from an amazing volunteer team, particularly apparent in the intense days and hours just prior to our going live. After months of identifying and coaching speakers (with amazing support from a professional speaker coach Laura Penn), finding sponsors, meetings and conference calls, sourcing props for the stage, and on and on - you get to the day (or in our case the day before and the day of...) and it all has to come together.

Here is a snapshot (literally) of what you have to do, after all the ephemeral talking and email, to the roll-up-your-sleeves set up a TEDx event like ours...

Let's start the day before:

You have to pack up all your props to take them to the venue, because usually you are using a space that, for 99.9% of its time, is a square empty meeting room in a building. As a result it won't necessarily have the quirky items you want to create a stage (or even a stage for that matter! We built our own stage, borrowed from the World Health Organization across the street). One of our team members, Christine Carey, was both a speaker liaison and our set designer. Here she is below with Lizzie packing up her carefully sourced props (budget: nearly zero) for one of the many trips to UNAIDS, which provided our excellent venue.

There, we worked with the tenacious UNAIDS team to create our perfect TEDxGVAChange space, and that included creating a black backdrop so that the video would look great, and maintain the TED black, red, and white theme.  Christine and Jean-Charles from UNAIDS had to figure out how to create that dark space in the light wood paneled room; the clever solution was to hang black fabric using velcro hidden in the corner seams in the ceiling...

Of course all that fabric had to be ironed first (we had a team of perfectionists!), and while that was going on, others were getting on top of other things, like the social media side. Sharon Bylenga, below, also one of our speaker liaisons, was setting up and testing the TEDxGVAChange Twitter feed and sending through some early tweets.

Also tweeting from #TEDxGVAChange was Sarah Bomkapre (below), a journalist from Sierra Leone who joined us to help with social media for the day, along with the creative team from UNAIDS including Mikaela Hildebrand.

Once the curtain was up, the stage was set up and the props placed. We went for minimalist, and wanted it to look like someone was sitting at their desk reading a fascinating article and just got up to tell you about it (e.g. our speakers).

You can't imagine how many opinions there can be on the correct angle of the table, which direction the wine boxes should face (shouldn't the Italian wine box be at the back, this is Switzerland after all!), and so on. We put up our meter high red TEDx letters, and in front the "sweet spot" carpet where the speakers would stand to talk. The round carpet is important to centre the speakers on the stage for the audience and video, to dampen noisy heals while they walk, and to keep them from falling off the back of the stage!

Of course we also needed our own sign, which was fixed onto white foam board (the kind architects use to make models) and after a 50cm "lip" was scored so it would hang perfectly straight, it was attached to the table under the TEDx letters, and the table covered with black card stock paper. (I must admit, none of this had ever crossed my mind before, but Christine in her day job is a voluntary environmental and social standards systems expert, and has some of the highest standards for everything I know, and indeed, it looked fantastic!)

In the rest of the room, lots of other things were going on. Lighting, for example, is very important for the video, and also for ambience and drama. We borrowed a set of lights for our visual facilitators, Sarah Clark, Raj Rana and Elizabeth Auzan,  to use in the back of the room where they would be working, drawing a 90cm wide and 133cm high panel for each of our speakers' talks. We also rented some brighter spots from a DJ sound and light distributor for the stage (everything but the mirror ball - that's me below!).

Our biggest budget item was the video team - their time filming, and post-production - because we wanted the video quality to be excellent - all the videos go onto where they can be viewed after the event (some of the best even get to The film crew flew in from the UK to set up the day before and run tests during all our rehearsals on the morning of the event.

Here are Alasdair and Chris at the start of their set up - we used three cameras for filming, and one additional camera was connected to a computer for our livestreaming (we had over 500 people joining us virtually).

Once the room was set up with stage, lights, camera and sound, there was one PPT presentation to create with all the images of the talks in sequence with black slides in between (so we didn't have to fiddle around with changing files). We waited until just before the event to prepare this, as the speaker order was only set on the day of the event, after the rehearsals. We did this to have the most logical and the most interesting sequence of talks. Once the order was set, Lizzie and I as the hosts, wrote up the connections in between the talks - we would be on stage together for the opening and closing, and otherwise would take it in turns connecting the talks and introducing our speakers. We wrote the script based on the speaker order, in the final hour(s) before the event started. Here is Lizzie working on the slides...

Our event was scheduled to start at 15:00, first with our local speakers for 90 minutes, and then after a tea break, we would cut to the TEDxChange simulcast in Berlin. To prepare on the day, each speaker had 1 hour of rehearsal on stage and we practiced everything from coming up and down the steps, waiting for the applause (human nature seems to be to bolt as soon as you are done talking), and going through each talk at least 3 times with Laura, our speaker coach. Repetition came along with some breathing exercises, little walks to warm up muscles, and pep talks (being a TEDx speaker can be rather terrifying - at least I thought so when I was a speaker at the last TEDxGVAChange event!)

Here is Laura rehearsing with Tjeerd Royaards, one of our five local speakers, who is co-founder of the Cartoon Movement - a network of cartoonists who do investigative cartoon journalism:

  • once the rehearsals were done,
  • the equipment all warmed up and tested (UNAIDS New York helped us test the livestream),
  • script written,
  • the float acquired (we charged a minimal 15CHF per person to help defray some of the food and beverages costs),
  • name badges stuffed, including the "talk to me about" three words selected by participants,
  • all the food and beverage set up and ready for our tea break (brown bread and homemade jams) and aperitif (organic wines and juices and locally farmed vegetables, meats and cheeses) under the careful and capable supervision of Matthew Crudgington and three hospitality students from the EHL in Lausanne),
  • the double bass moved into the reception area (our team member, David Cooke, who worked with us on sponsorship also brought his 3 piece jazz ensemble),
  • the outer space arranged with a display of Cartoon Movement's Haiti cartoons, and a space for three practitioners of the Grinberg Method (who in the pauses would look after our health), with help for set up from volunteer Claire Hugo,
  • and the room ready to go (thanks again to the UNAIDS team under the leadership of Susie Bolvenkel-Prior, Buildings Manager, and Sophie Barton-Knott, Global Communications Manager)...
... only THEN we were ready to welcome our participants and start the event!

Everything after the doors opened, for me, is a bit of a blur, and seemed to go so quickly. Thankfully, however, you can see more photos of our event on the TEDxGVAChange FaceBook album that our terrific photographer from UNAIDs, Olivier Borgognon, took, including photos of all of our speakers and the final drawings from the visual facilitation team. It was an exciting day!

(photo credit for the group photo: Sharon Bylenga)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

TEDxGenevaChange Event Today - Watch the Live Stream

Today, 5 April 2012, Lizzie and I are hosting one of the 200 global TEDxChange events at UNAIDS premises in Geneva. On the live stage, we have 5 speakers who will be exploring, in some surprising and provocative ways, different angles on health and development. You can read more about our speakers on our websie.

We will be livestreaming our event, which will take place from 15:00 - 17:00 Central European Time. You can connect to the event through our Facebook Page and watch the Livestream if you are interested to hear more about how all disasters are preventable, why investigative cartoon journalism works in places where the mainstream media has left, what the Monkey God and the postal service can teach us about eradicating AIDs, and more...

The videos will be up on the TEDx website in a few weeks, we will announce them then - hope to see you on the livestream!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Building Peer Learning Into Mega-Events and Conferences

When Conferences focus on plenary speakers and traditional panel sessions these days, some of us might feel that our experience could be better if we wait until they are available on YouTube. Any ticks or flubs are edited out, and the video camera inevitably has a better seat and vantage point than we do in the audience. And you know exactly how long each intervention will be -and we can pause, repeat or even skip those that are not quite what we're looking for (of course we need to be open to surprises too).

But when Conferences have exciting peer learning and interactivity built in, then no longer are you are just one person watching a string of speeches from a relatively uncomfortable chair, knowing that you are shoulder to shoulder with probably some of the most interesting people in the world in your field - although due to this format there's no way to know it. What if you were a part of the Conference? Or even, you were the Conference!

Running World Cafe's, Open Space Technology Sessions, Peer Assists and Carousel Discussions, and Fishbowls are some of the activities we recently ran at a large conference of some 16,000 people. Those took facilitation. However, there are lots of things you can do that don't take that kind of support and still build up the peer-learning opportunities at a large-scale event.

So, what are some of the ways that big events help feature and build its participants into the Conference?

What if you ask people to pick a button that somehow illustrates how they are feeling at the moment?

Not only is that a conversation starter amongst participants wearing them, but imagine that the button dispensers are tubes that create a physical bar graph of how the whole body of participants (or at least those taking the cool buttons, which seemed to be everyone) feels?

What if there is a tablet built into the wall where particpiants can take a photo of themselves and write on a message about a commitment they will make?
and then use the images to make a wall of these...

What about a simple graffiti wall and lots of coloured chalk?

Or if there are a number of different thematic streams to the conference, what about producing different colour ribbons for each and letting people choose and wear them around their wrists or bags, so that in the thousands of participants, you might more easily bump into and recognize someone who is interested in the same theme as you are?

And then how can you know if you can actually speak that person's language at a large international event? What about language buttons that people can choose and display on their lanyards (we wrote about doing this at a conference of 8000 people - very popular initiative to support communication, and be surprised at what languages people speak - How to Start Conversations Among 8,000 people.)

What interesting interactive elements have you seen at Conferences that use their fascinating participants as a part of the overall learning experience?