Making our circles bigger

By Rob Wipond, May 2011

A plethora of young groups are bringing extremely diverse people together to share knowledge, ideas and perspectives. Can getting us out of our silos lead to new types of collaboration, community building and social solutions?

I arrive at the Victoria Event Centre not knowing exactly what to expect at a “PechaKucha.” I leave a couple hours later having had a great time—but still not knowing exactly what I’ve experienced. However, I’m becoming increasingly sure it’s part of a growing local and international social movement of immense vitality, astonishing creative breadth, and intriguing political possibilities. 

PechaKucha nights, I’ve discovered, are just one of a growing number of unusual ways that diverse Victorians are being brought together to share ideas and explore collaborative possibilities through relaxed, open processes. Some are even trying to generate new approaches to tackling serious social problems.

At a later meeting at the Event Centre, PechaKucha co-organizer Aleya Samji, who’s worked in advertising for ten years, concedes, “It’s not an easy thing to promote, because it’s really hard to explain what it is.”

“Everyone gets a giggle even trying to say it the right way,” adds Centre general manager Amanda Smith.

Nevertheless, thanks largely to (albeit stumbling) word-of-mouth, all five Victoria PechaKucha nights this past year have been standing- room only. (The next one is June 2nd. And for the record, it’s spoken rapidly with emphasis on the second and fourth syllables, “p-cha-k-cha,” meaning “chit chat” in Japanese.) 

What literally happens? A presenter displays exactly 20 pictures in a projected slideshow, and talks as those pictures change exactly every 20 seconds. 

Developed in 2003 by two Tokyo architects who wanted to help designers share their work and ideas in a casual atmosphere but succinct manner, PechaKucha caught on virally and now occurs in pubs, theatres, lecture halls and other spaces in hundreds of cities worldwide. At Victoria’s February event, I watched 12 local folk present their personal stories about things like a master’s thesis on body scars, a proposed documentary exploring elephant-human relations, innovative container house construction, a drive to make a landscape painting out of 30,000 dots, and award-winning photography of origami. Some were less than stellar “performers,” but it hardly mattered—their intriguing subject matter and their obvious passion for it won the audience over.

Nevertheless, clarifies Samji, “The whole night is kind of the set-up for what it’s really about and what really happens...”

“It’s about creating a platform to open up dialogue between people, and a place where people can go to share ideas and find inspiration and make connections,” explains Smith. “For me, and I think for others, it feels like a massive infusion, almost like you’ve been bombarded. Like going to see a movie and then you go for a drink afterwards, it’s like that, but...”

“But times twelve, amped,” intervenes Samji. “The aftermath of it...it’s huge...”

And indeed, after the event, the sense of wonder about the wealth of creativity in our community, and the vibrancy of discussions in the room, were palpable. Who knew origami could be so subversive and hilarious? Some of those elephant photos were too painful to look at! Could those containers really end homelessness?

Samji adds that our society’s growing legions of self-employed professionals have no ready-made “infrastructure” for them to advertise their services. Therefore, aside from just being fantastic explosions of mental fireworks, PechaKucha events also provide important networking opportunities. “I think that has something to do with why this particular type of event is really well appreciated by those people.”

And she’s right. Patricia Sims says her presentation was “enormously successful” at gathering “collaborators and volunteers” for her Elephants Never Forget documentary project. Sammie Gough of Intrepid Theatre watched Matt Salik’s slideshow of artwork, and Salik was promptly hired to design Intrepid’s UnoFest poster. 

Samji says her own advertising firm, which works with the CRD and the Victoria Film Festival, has profited immensely. “There’s been a huge difference in the energy and the inspiration in the work that we’ve produced since we started this, because we’ve drawn on the resources and the creative people that we’ve met through this—people who there’s just absolutely no way we would have ever known about otherwise.”

Smith agrees that PechaKucha events can help break down some of the small, fragmented enclaves many of us travel in, professionally or personally. “What this does is, it makes the circle bigger and broader and sort of invites everybody in to form a bigger community.” 

 

IdeaWave’s expanding wake

Another person bringing diverse, local minds together for fun, inspiration and productive collaboration is Kris Constable. He’s a privacy and information security specialist by day, but by night (and frequently throughout the days, too, if you follow him on Twitter or Facebook), he’s constantly experimenting with new ways of prying open portals for community bridge-building.  

One of Constable’s most renowned local projects has been IdeaWave. 

“Most conferences you go to have a theme of some kind: environment, technology, media,” says Constable. “I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to get as many critical thinkers in a room as possible?”

So he modelled IdeaWave after other conferences with widely varied topics, like TED and Toronto’s IdeaCity. However, those have speakers who are almost exclusively rich, powerful, famous, and highly expert, and cost thousands of dollars to attend. Constable wanted something more rooted in the community, more culturally diverse, and more affordable. So IdeaWave, he decided, would have no limits on subject matter, no hard rules about speaker qualifications, and would cost just $50 for the entire two days.

At this year’s IdeaWave at the Comfort Hotel, we heard ten-minute talks on topics as varied as artisan bread-making, social media’s popularity amongst people with autism, redesigning how police operate, and the likelihood of life on Titan. 

The presentations are always divided by ample time for people to mingle, question and share, and for Constable, one break-time conversation at last year’s conference epitomized what IdeaWave is all about. 

Margaret Pulton had spoken about the pain of watching her sister struggle with lymphedema following treatment for breast cancer—lymphedema is a debilitating condition that requires frequent monitoring and self-massage and affects hundreds of thousands of North Americans. She’d wondered aloud if somebody couldn’t design a wearable, electronic massage device to do the work instead.

Over lunch, Constable and others started discussing Pulton’s moving talk. A nurse next to him reinforced the dire need for such a device. Then an engineering student across from Constable said he could design a prototype. Then an investor at the table said he would fund it.

The hair on his back started tingling, says Constable. “This is where I realized the value of IdeaWave. If you had a themed conference, if you had something on nursing, you could get the nursing perspective. If you were at an investment forum, you’d get those people. If you’re at an engineering conference, that’s the kind of people you’re going to get, but that’s it. You don’t get the diversity. Because of having no limit on subject matter, this is the first time you would ever have those people in a room together. It would, I believe, never happen otherwise.”

A year later, Pulton says she’s working with a group that’s now near the patenting stage. She’d had even more motivation, she says, after a hematologist she’d bumped into at IdeaWave had told her lymphedema is also spread by mosquitoes and affects millions in tropical countries. 

“It was a great event,” says Pulton. “I’m so grateful to Kris for allowing me to speak at it.” For Constable, it’s just one part of a much bigger effort of reshaping our community.

 

Ideas that activate

Another project of Constable’s involving bringing together diverse people to discuss diverse ideas is just dubbed, aptly, “Ideas Meetings.” It began running monthly several years ago at the Canadian Pacific Lawn Bowling Club, but soon went weekly. 

“It’s the first organization I’ve ever been involved with where people actually want to meet more often, instead of less, so that’s kind of exciting,” comments Constable. “It’s the guaranteed time in your week where the wheels are going to be spinning and you get to challenge yourself mentally; the sky’s the limit.”

Anyone and everyone is encouraged to attend, as often or as little as they like, and no idea is out of scope. “The only thing that binds us all together is that we’re active minds and critical thinkers,” says Constable. “And I love that.”

At these informal meetings, you might walk in to find just a few techies arguing indignantly about Shaw’s block on email port 25, or 25 people discussing the provincial government’s latest anticrime initiative. Most often, someone’s pet project idea is being vetted—a process that can continue off and on for months if that person’s idea gains traction with others in the group.

“These aren’t just people who talk about ideas,” clarifies Constable. “These are people who, when they get energized about an idea, it’s like, ‘How do I help make that happen?’”

And in only a few years, for a group with no established rules of order, structure, mandate, funding or even clear common ground amongst members, it’s impressive how much they’ve indeed helped make happen in our community—and how diverse those accomplishments are.

The ultimately successful initiative to save the Lawn Bowling Club itself from developers began at an Ideas Meeting.

The unique concept of selling pixelated sections of the Mary Lake property online, to help raise money for the Save Mary Lake campaign to purchase the endangered Highlands gem, emerged from Ideas Meetings. 

The Victoria Makerspace, “a community-operated shared workshop,” also sprung from Ideas Meetings. For a small fee, people can join the Makerspace, store and share tools, and get in on collective purchases. Apart from a lathe, drill press and table saw, their Central Saanich facility has also become home to more exotic tools like a multi-material laser cutter and three-dimensional printer.

A project run by several Ideas Meetings members to bring free Wi-Fi to downtown—something both the City and Chamber of Commerce have long dreamed of—is expanding as it becomes known to local businesses.

Ideas Meetings also gave birth to the Awesome Shit Club, where 20 people donate $50 each and, after listening to pitches for everything from child care co-ops to “urban games” initiatives, award the pot of $1,000 to help kick-start their favourite local project idea. It’s an infectiously fun exercise in crowd-source funding that recently saw Missie Peters use her winnings to launch the first-ever Victoria Spoken Word Festival, and Mandy Leith receive help towards the purchase of a van for the cross-Canada “We Love Documentary” awareness-raising tour.

So what happens when something more controversial comes along? Constable notes that when an idea was recently proposed to publicly protest certain police abuses, early on, the discussion polarized because some members have strong interests in civil rights, while others strongly support or even work in law enforcement. However, says Constable, in the end, this diversity helped in the development of a consensus proposal for a creative public action that has never been done before (it’s still under wraps, though).

“Being willing to dialogue like that is very rare in my experience,” observes Constable. “It’s being an activist in a productive way.” Controversial proposals may be pushed back and forth in the discussions, but “eventually the flow is equal amongst everybody, and that’s now a force to be reckoned with.”

Camosun College communications student and fellow Ideas Meetings member Carol-Lynne Michaels points out that such a frank, constructive idea-vetting process amongst diverse people can have positive impacts in the other direction, too—it can open up and change the people engaged in the discussion. “You’re bringing an idea out onto the table and you’re asking people to find the holes, so that you can fill them. You’re asking them to show you your weaknesses that you can’t see yourself,” she explains. “So I think it encourages not only intellectual growth, but emotional growth.” 

She also believes these kinds of meetings of diverse minds can help precipitate broader social changes that we desperately need. That’s why she’s been inspired to organize a TEDx Victoria for November.  

 

TED’s conspiracy of friends

Launched in 1984 as an exclusive “Technology, Entertainment and Design” conference of high level scientists, executives, artists and others, one British journalist cleverly described TED today as a “shadowy, elite conference where masters of the universe converge in order to plot how to make the world a nicer, fairer, better place.”

Online TEDTalks videos from the conferences have collectively garnered hundreds of millions of views and spawned hundreds of similar (though usually community-oriented and much cheaper) “TEDx” conferences around the world. 

Math and engineering grad turned organic farmer John Mardlin has been organizing TEDx Juan de Fuca for April 30, where there’ll be a strong focus on creative ideas for social change, like talks on self-generated bionic energy, innovative small-scale farming techniques, and the virtues of becoming less efficient in daily tasks. And, says Mardlin, the whole purpose and point is inspiring through diversity, sharing and cross-pollination.

“TED especially is a very powerful brand,” says Mardlin. “So when you bring it local, it does help to bring together those diverse groups—the arts community, the tech community, the not-for-profit and socially-driven communities…It unites those very, very effectively.”

He concedes that regarding TEDx events as an effort in saving the world “sounds idealistic”—but then, that’s the whole point. “I think what we are doing is kind of idealistic,” he says. “We’re realists, but we feel like there’s potential for change when everybody gets together and collaborates.”

Carol-Lynne Michaels, whom I bumped into at practically every event related to this article, has a similar passion for the potential of getting us all out of our ivory towers, political silos and private belief systems for such cosmological pow-wows.

“We need to start talking,” she says, readily expressing her deep dissatisfaction with the dominant political systems that either polarize our discussions or disenfranchise us completely. “We need to start understanding each other, because miscommunication is the number one cause for any kind of disruption, on a small scale all the way up to war. If you don’t understand the other person or the other group, then there’s usually going to be a battle or some form of avoidance.”

 Indeed, that’s why Christopher Bowers, for his part, is trying to more proactively facilitate such discussions.

 

Your personal think tank

Bowers notes that one of the most vital aspects of TEDx, PechaKucha, and IdeaWave involves the “buzz” of discussion that happens afterwards. So why not try to strengthen that? “All of those things are about giving people a platform to share,” he comments. “What we do is, we’re giving you a platform to be engaged around.”

A retired teacher, Bowers manages the monthly entrepreneur and activist schmoozer Green Drinks, and runs ConversationWorks, a non-profit that brings successful local figures for school visits. He draws on these varied connections to put together small but diverse collaboration teams in a project he calls “What’s Gone Well Today?”

Bowers has developed various techniques to help guide the dialogues along positive, practical and self-reflective channels—hence the title, which he’d like to see replace “How are you?” in our daily lexicon. 

But essentially, you pose an issue or problem you’re grappling with professionally or personally, and then are queried and intently listened to by people with a wide array of different backgrounds, experiences and skills. Afterwards, there are opportunities for less formalized sharing of observations, ideas and suggestions. 

It’s a little like a personal-growth version of an Ideas Meeting, or having your own private think-tank.

“How often does it happen in life where you’re in a room and people are like, ‘How can I help you?’” comments Constable, who was in a What’s Gone Well Today group with me along with people with expertise in finance, public relations, golf, music, education, charitable fundraising and whales. “That’s a really powerful thing.”

The experience inspires me to open up two days later at an Ideas Meeting about one of my own long-frustrated visions, building a tool for helping non-profits for which I don’t have sufficient technical skill. A software developer offers to help build it for free.

My interview with Bowers comes back to mind: This type of opening up and sharing with each other is built “on a principle of empathy,” he’d suggested, and on a deep trust in our collective wisdom and community strength. “The answer’s often right beside you, separated by a conversation.”

So naturally I can’t help but start wondering if all these diverse groups uniting diverse people in diverse ways might ultimately be leading us to some sort of political common ground…with new-found unanimity...

 

Is this a movement?

“What’s changed in the last five years that all of a sudden these things are all coming out of the woodwork?” contemplates Constable, noting that like TED and PechaKucha, Ideas Meetings itself has inspired sister groups in other Canadian cities and is now spreading overseas. 

Samji suggests that, because it’s now the norm in social media, we’ve all become more open and comfortable regularly encountering and engaging with new people and new ideas.

Of course, it’s also difficult not to notice that many of these new groups are emerging to do work in areas where our increasingly negligent governments are leaving vacuums: environmental sustainability, poverty reduction, collaborative social initiatives, support for the arts, small business and non-profit sectors etc. So are we witnessing a burgeoning societal shift, where we’re all starting to recognize the vital value of bypassing top-down structures and partisanship of any stripe to share perspectives and forge solutions together at the grassroots level?

“I certainly do feel like there’s a movement going on,” declares Mardlin. “It’s rooted in the belief that by getting together and talking and working together and sharing our ideas, we can make things better.”

Michaels agrees and, like Bowers, notes that true sharing, learning and collaboration between strangers requires an “exchange of trust.” So to see so many more people every day willing to do that, she says, “gives me a lot of hope and it gives me a lot of energy.”

“They say the telephone was invented on two different sides of the planet around the same time,” Michaels adds. “It’s something that’s happening naturally for everybody, and it’s really empowering...I think it needs to happen more, and I want for that to happen in Victoria.”

 

Every person, group and project mentioned in this article can be found linked through at least one of the following links:

www.pecha-kucha.org/night/victoria/

www.ideawave.ca/

www.ideasmeetings.org/wiki/VictoriaChapter

www.awesomeshitclub.com/

www.tedxjuandefuca.com/

www.tedxvictoria.com/

www.conversationworks.ca/whats-gone-well-today/

Rob Wipond admits his bias—he has really enjoyed getting involved with these groups.