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Festival of Ideas: Talking New York at the ‘World Cafe’

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, May 10th, 2011
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A discussion group at the Festival of Ideas in the Lower East Side.

On Saturday morning, more than 40 New Yorkers managed to sit down for an hour and have conversations about some of the most contentious issues facing Downtown New York, including bar noise, bike lanes, gentrification.  The event, called a “World Café”  by organizers, was part of the Festival of Ideas for a New City, which took place in the Lower East Side this weekend. The point, as Rogan Kersh, an associate dean at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, explained, was to have an “engaging conversation” — ambitious at any time of day, much less at 10am on a weekend.

Which is probably why there were ground rules: There would be three sessions of twenty minutes each. We were to try for “and” statements that built on previous thoughts, instead of “buts” that blocked ideas.

“When New Yorkers begin to express opinions, they often go on and don’t stop,” Kersh said.

Most of the time, these issues get hashed out at endless community board meetings, where anyone who wants to speak must wait for hours for their allotted one or two or three minutes. The forum that Wagner set up offered a different, potentially more productive structure to have the same conversations.

At tables clothed with a sheet of blank butcher block paper, participants gathered to discuss one of four topics: community life, transportation, environment, and housing. There were two tables for community life and two for transportation, each with a different focus. One community life tabled discussed economic development and funding, and the other paid more attention to social welfare — education, arts, and health care. Transportation was divided between issues of public access and issues of infrastructure.

For the first session, participants chose one table and sat down. Each table had a moderator and scribe. After twenty minutes, the conversation paused, and the participants moved on to another topic. At the start of the next session, each moderator summed up the previous conversation, and the new discussants picked up where the first group left off, continuing, rather than restarting the conversation.

Wagner bills the world café as a method of “group-sourcing,” which, like more zeitgeisty crowdsourcing techniques, mines the brains of many individuals to come up with new and interesting ideas.

The instructions for the morning’s activities also drew from techniques that IDEO, a design consultancy, advocates. In particular, Kersh introduced the idea of asking “how might we” questions. As much as possible, he said, we should try to frame our desired end goals into questions that began with that phrase.

As the first session began, the participants divided up with enthusiasm among the tables. Like the crowd that tends to show up at community board meetings, these people were willing to give up hours of their life to talk about the issues facing New York. But as a group, the world cafe participants were younger than the average community board attendee. Many of them were creative-class professionals. They didn’t all live in the area under discussion, Downtown NYC, an area roughly defined to include neighborhoods like the East and Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown.

I began the hour at the table discussing housing and ended it at the table discussing bike lanes. At the housing table, the moderator, IDEO’s Albert Lee, had each participant share where they lived. We had come that morning from places the East Village, MacDougal Street, the Bowery, Bushwick, and in Staten Island. Within the first fifteen minutes, we had put on the table two problems, bar noise and the changing character of the neighborhood. When Kersh announced that we had just five minutes left in the session, Lee shifted the discussion to a more action-oriented direction.

“If you could change one thing about this area, what would you change?” he asked.

The table was silent. He changed tactics, asking us to think in terms of “how might we?” questions.

That was more productive: “How might we educate bar patrons about the impact they’re having on the neighborhood?” “How might we welcome outsiders into our neighborhood?” “How might we make visible the noise and stress that’s affecting residents?”

And then the 20 minutes was up. That was the kernel of a conversation another eight people would pick up and build on. Some tables had an easier time sticking to this principle. By the time I joined one of the transportation tables in the third round, the conversation about bike lanes had wheeled itself out, and instead of asking us to continue building on the previous conversations, the moderator proposed switching angles, away from bike lanes, and towards problems with congestion.

At the end of the hour, the paper covering the tables swirled with ideas jotted in pink or orange or blue marker. In turn, the moderators reported on the results of each table’s conversation. At the housing table, those initial “how might we” questions had developed into a few of specific ideas. One that stood out: Just as a speedometer posted by a highway tells drivers how fast they’re going, a decibel meter on a noisy street at night could show bar patrons how loud they were being.

Not all of the ideas that came out of the one-hour conversation were as original. One table focused on possible uses for roofs, and although the way they ended up talking about the city’s rooftops, as a public space, almost like street-level sidewalks, felt new and exciting, the uses they suggested for roofs (green spaces, solar panels, farms, rainwater collection) sounded more familiar.

The conveners of the world café discussion have promised to follow up on the Saturday session. Kersh, the Wagner dean, said that he was hoping at least one white paper might grow out of it, and that at least one idea will become a challenge on OpenIDEO, a crowdsourcing platform that IDEO runs. A particular promising candidate that came out of the world café began with the premise that transit experiences aren’t separate from each other: From a user’s point of view, the subway system, a bike lane, and the sidewalk are all part of one network that leads from home to work, or from work to a bar to a friend’s house. An OpenIDEO challenge could be: “How might we improve the transit hubs where people switch from one mode of transport to another?”

As energized as the participants in Saturday’s session were by its end, it’s still an open question how policy students and planners can continue to build on experiments like this one. The downtown policy world café provided Kersh which what he called, his “own personal “how might we” question”: “How might we keep this conversation going?”