Appreciating PEI's "Africa's Scientific Independence"

This is what I liked best about the Planet Earth Institute's event "Africa's Scientific Independence; How do we get there?".

Panel + Open Plenary

I liked the way the "Panel + Open Plenary" gave us a shared focus. The panel members were impressive, with varied perspectives. They could all have spoken at length. However, all spoke only briefly, thanks to the humourous but firm guidance of the chair beforehand. Because they did speak briefly they gave us some excellent, memorable key points to take forward to the "Table working groups"

Table working groups, feedback

Arrangements for the groups worked well. We were seated at tables throughout the morning which, although it wasn't completely comfortable during the "Panel and Open Plenary", made for an excellent smooth transition into "table working group mode". The groups were small enough for everyone to speak, and there was sufficient time to get into reasonable depth.

Thanks to the panel we had key ideas in common within the group. On my table we'd all we'd all appreciated the idea that "African Science Independence" could refer to an approach to science that was culturally independent in some way. We liked the suggestion that it could be a science culture that was more collaborative, holistic and less separated from philosophy. This shared idea anchored our discussions and justified the directions we took.

After our discussions there was no tedious feedback from each group in turn. Instead the flip charts were all displayed and the chair skilfully pulled out main points and invited various people to expand on these points from the floor. To me there was a feeling of the ideas in the room having been captured and reflected on. I liked the chair's acceptance of the wide ranging interests while continuing to emphasise what the focus of the day needed to be.

Making suggestions

At lunch time we had the chance to suggest topics for discussion later in the day. It was a good time to make suggestions as we'd had time to be influenced by the morning's discussions. Writing to a whiteboard meant that ideas we emerge in a fluid way. People could make new suggestions or add more notes to suggestion that had been written, and so on. The organsisers took the ideas from the whiteboard and clustered them, so we had a handful of different group discussions to choose from for afternoon session 2.

Afternoon session 2, feedback and next steps

Afternoon session 2 was "simultaneous key issue workshops created by participants on the day". So this session gave us opportunities to discuss topic choices that we'd influenced. There was a feeling (certainly in our group) that the day was drawing to a close and so these discussions needed to be unfocussed and practical.

Straight after the discussion came feedback and next steps. Again the chair was refreshingly persistent. This was not just supposed to be a talking shop. It was supposed to be a day with suggestions for practical actions, so he wasn't satisfied with statements that didn't point to action.

Not just lip service

Unconferences aren't easy to arrange, because of the mixture of structure and uncertainty.

Sometimes events claim to be "unconferences", but aren't really. Sometimes they start off with good intentions and a minimal amount of speakers, but then they attract so many that they finish up being as top-down, and as platform-led as any other event - but this one ticked the boxes for me.

I've also been to lots of events that claim to be tapping into the wisdom in the room, or that give lip-service to looking for participation, but the reality is very different. 

I liked this event because it felt more genuine both in its desire to move forward by thinking-together and in its intention to come up with realistic ideas that could lead to practical action.

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