How do you hold an open discussion about ‘open development’ in a theatre-style auditorium? That’s what we tried to explore at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki with an experimental ‘open panel’. Our goal was to combine input from experts and key contributors to the field, with a format that recognised that expertise and relevant insights were not just held by those on the pre-selected panel, but was also to be found amongst the audience in the room. The panel design we came up with draw upon ideas from ‘Fishbowl’ conversations, and involved creating space for members of the audience to join the panel after the initial inputs from pre-selected panelists.
Here’s a quick overview of the format we used:
1) We had six pre-selected panelists, each speaking for a maximum of five minutes without slides to introduce their views on the topic
2) We then opened the floor to inputs from the audience. The audience were told they could either come forward an ask a question, or could join the panel, taking a seat on stage to put forward their view. There were 10 seats on the stage overall, creating space for four at least four audience panelists.
3) There was the option of anyone (initial panelists, or those joining from the audience) leaving the panel if they felt they had said enough and wanted to create space for anyone else.
4) We also invite questions via Twitter, and ran a number of online polls to gather views. (We originally considered using handset voting, but decided against this for simplicity)
Instead of, as planned, having three podium microphones for panelists to come forward to, we passed a roving microphone along the panel.
How did it work?
Overall I believe it was a very successful panel: keeping inputs from panelists short kept the panel moving and let us cover a lot of ground. Listening back to the panel (LINK) it seems we had a reasonably good balance of voices. A number of points and themes were developed over the course of the session, although interwoven into one another – rather than as explicit threads.
When we opened the floor for audience contributions, initially contributions were just in the form of questions to the panel, rather than people taking up the empty seats on stage. It took some encouragement for people to ‘join’ the panel, although those participants who did join gave noticeably different contributions: being sat down alongside other panelists seems to really change the tone of the contribution someone makes – potentially bringing about much more relaxed and discursive contributions. With only four people choosing to take up the extra seats on the panel by the end of the session we didn’t get to see what would happen when space ran out, and if anyone would choose to leave.
The online voting and Twitter input in this case got relatively little traffic.
Learning points and reflection
I would experiment with this format again, although I would consider removing the option of just asking a question, and making the only ways for audience to input as either taking a seat on the panel, or asking questions via Twitter (getting people to take a seat and offer their input from being seated with the panel is I think the key; even if they focus on asking a question and leave immediately after it is answered).
We had aimed for a relatively diverse pre-selected panel of speakers. We need to think more about whether the format risks the overall inputs being less diverse, as the most confident may be more likely to choose to come and join the panel (with a bias greater than occurs with who choose to come forward and ask questions). The facilitator perhaps needs to have some control over the queues coming to contribute to ensure a balance of voices.
Having the roving microphone handed along the panel provided a good way of encouraging short contributions, and getting the panel to self-manage who was going to speak next. I stood outside the panel as facilitator, and at a number of points simply told the panelists how long they had to answer a question, and invited them to self-organise within that time to ensure everyone who wanted to go to speak. This appeared to be fairly effective, and to keep the conversation flowing.
Whilst we decided not to use keypad voting, I would consider doing this at a future session where keypads are available, if only as a good way to get people arriving early to come down and fill in rows at the front of the auditorium, rather than hanging around the back.
If you were involved in the panel, in the audience, or you’ve watched the recording – then I’d really welcome your feedback and reflections too… drop in a comment below…
There’s mileage in the open panel format, and it’s certainly something I’ll be looking to explore more in future.