Dialogue Cafe: Crossing oceans without flying

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This is the second of two posts from SIX Spring School in Amsterdam, by Corline van Es and Anthony Zacharzewski. The first post is here.

Remember the first time you used Skype? Remember how it felt to see your loved ones far away and how much it added to the conversation to see facial expressions, responses to your remarks? It made being far away so much more bearable. It’s almost like you are there … The people of Dialogue Cafe in Amsterdam found that too. CISCO have opened their system beyond the happy corporate few, and designed a special system for social innovators, aiming to bring about a revolution in communication between an international creative and social target group.

Dialogue Cafe started early this year and now has been set up in Rio, Lisbon and Amsterdam, with openings in London, Florence, New York, Toronto, Ramallah, Istanbul within short notice. Connection can also be made through CISCO offices, but the eventual aim is to have easily accessible cafes where people can tune in and work together from a distance.

In the morning of the second day of the SIX Spring School in Amsterdam, we sat in a Dialogue Cafe discussion at Waag Society, listening to people from Doha and Cairo talking about their experience of and hopes for the Arab Spring. Being able to tap in and connect was on the one hand exciting. It had the sensation of your the first Skype session combined with the excitement of going to a great lecture.

As for content, maybe we weren’t ready yet to discuss the “co-creation of democracy”, the theme of the complete conference. In Egypt democracy, human rights and the rule of law still have to be fought for, and the ultimate emergence of a strong liberal democracy is still not assured. The contributions from Egypt and Dubai taught us that, for all the hope and expectation, no-one knows the form and process through which a new political system, fitted to recent developments in the Arab world, can evolve. But the contributions by different speakers were strong and brought us up close to personal experiences and opinions on issues we previously had been following on the news. It was a very powerful experience. We were hardly aware we were sitting with glasses of coffee next to a disassembled server rack in central Amsterdam, the discussion with the participants from (particularly) Cairo and Dubai was made more real by the knowledge that just off-screen was the environment they were discussing, rather than the Nieuwmarkt.

What’s more, the technology was impressive, and mostly worked. Other than a moment of “turning it off and turning it back on again”, surely compulsory at every tech event, the connexions on the second day were excellent, and although a connexion failed during the first day’s session, there were no lags in responses, or problems in picture synchronisation, for which credit to Cisco. Credit also to the Dialogue Cafe organisers, who arranged for informed and interesting guests Dr. Tarik M. Yousef, Loula Zaklama, Dina Wafa, Adolfo Mesquita Nunes, Illidop Nunes, Dr Ahmed Younis, Maartje Nevejan and Diego Vasconcelos (moderator).

There seems to be room for experiment with different forms of dialogues in the dialogue Cafe. The high level of the participants had the inevitable consequence that they were also :elite participants” (one (Yousef) with his own Wikipedia entry). Given the wealth and education profile of those on the other side of the table, it’s not surprising that the conversation was held at a relatively high theoretical and social level. Dialogue at that level is fascinating, but the technology could also broaden conversations.

There is potential of involving the audience more in the discussion. The only true participants at the Amsterdam end were the five people sat around the table. This gave it the feel of a panel discussion at a conference: a particularly good and interesting panel discussion, but nonetheless one where the audience were spectators rather than participants. We and others were tweeting on the backchannel, and there is certainly potential in involving fervent tweeters like us!

It was occasionally hard to put out of your mind the idea that you were at a good dinner party. The guests were good, the conversation flowed easily, we all went away feeling much better informed, and parted with calls of “we must do this again”. Also, when people made outrageous or plainly incorrect statements (Facebook was a CIA front, said one – Dutch – participant), it seemed impolite to challenge them. The Dialogue Cafe could be well used as not just a listening session, but an inspiration to action. As Diego Vasconcelos said afterwards at lunch, action is not the point of the Dialogue Cafe, and listening is. Of course that’s true, on one level, but if we are left with nothing but listening, the change will be limited to the people in the room – the next step for Dialogue is surely to go beyond small groups to large groups, and beyond words alone to actions inspired by them.

We felt we were part of something with quite big potential at the Dialogue Cafe, with much more exciting and daring forms of interaction to be discovered. We would love to take part in future sessions and have some suggestions:

  • Taking Dialogue Cafe on the road – using a different set of technology to provide portable connectivity and cafes that can be set up and taken down quickly, to enable conversations to take place outside static city-centre surroundings
  • Action learning set – rather than focusing on conversation, use the technology for an internationally-distributed learning set that supports common issues, such as access to public services or democratisation
  • Dialogue Cafe lectures – a relatively simple brand extension, but something similar to TED talks delivered through the Dialogue Cafe vehicle
  • Dialogue Cafe live streams, with twitter application. Linked in to web and live commenting, interact with live tweeting – it might be worth looking at what companies such as the UK’s Public-i are doing to extend webcasting of council meetings through live commenting and video response. Dialogue Cafe could use similar techniques to make conversations more interactive, and to broaden the scope of discussions. Online archiving would also allow for cafe discussions to be used as references later on.
  • One to one interviews (use it as a talkshow, for news items) could offer more in depth views of individuals about current topics.

We are looking forward to hearing of and being part of more Dialogue Cafe. Exciting times are coming and DC is part of it

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