Food for thought on the menu

2008-10-29 00:00

Have you ever been to a workshop held in a theatre, where experts sit around a table with people from poor communities and they have spicy bunny chow for lunch? If you haven’t, welcome to the Knowledge Café.

For someone used to what Dr Jaqui Goldin calls “death by Powerpoint”, my introduction to the concept was exactly what it is designed to be: a stimulating and “out-of-the-box” change. Goldin is director of the African Water Issues Research Unit (AWIRU) at the University of Pretoria. She and AWIRU researcher Tiffany Gordon recently hosted Interlogue Durban ’08 at the Stable Theatre in the Durban CBD. The event brought together an unusual range of 60 people to “talk water”. On one hand there were end users from rural and urban communities and environmental NGOs such as Earthlife Africa and the GreenNetwork; and on the other, academics, consultants, and municipal and government officials.

This was the third such consultation in a process in which the originators are working to refine their method, building on the lessons learnt from previous events. The first was held at a Johannesburg restaurant and the second, attended by 120 people, at a night club in Cape Town, “an unusual space for a water dialogue” chosen deliberately.

Goldin explained that “the water sector is privileged to have one of the most enabling policy frameworks that has been applauded across the globe. However, despite political will, engineering excellence, exemplary community involvement and forums of debate, our sector is plagued with implementation problems. We need a new approach to knowledge generation in order to learn together about how to make our water sector the very best ever.”

Knowledge Cafés are that approach. Goldin and Gordon have adapted this concept to suit the local context and created “something very different from the original that we believe is unique. The Knowledge Café concept is based on an Appreciative Inquiry framework which documents positive experiences and draws on the strengths and opportunities of participants. We are using it because we want to find formats that work to stimulate public dialogue and allow people to share their knowledge to create solutions rather than just complaining about problems. We want to avoid allowing those with power and knowledge to dominate by taking people out of their comfort zone by choosing unusual venues, combining unusual groups of participants and using activities that get people talking and thinking creatively.”

The initiative is funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC) which has sponsored three events, with a fourth to be held early next year at an as yet undecided venue. Based on the success of the programme so far, Goldin intends to apply for further funding to hold a series of Interlogue consultations around the country.

Sabine Ernst, a hydrologist in the School of Bioresources Engineering and Environmental Hydrology at UKZN, said she found the concept “fantastic”. “Mixing people from different backgrounds in small groups, moving some people around and circulating the problems people identified really worked. It confronted us not only with other people’s problems, but also with other people’s ideas for solutions to our problems.

“Communication is one of the major problems related to water in that we are not implementing the legislation we have and we also have capacity and skills problems. Communication is critical to finding qualified solutions to these problems.”

Sizile Ndlovu, CEO of the Inkomati Catchment Management Association (CMA) in Mpumalanga, was also enthusiastic about his first experience of the Knowledge Café concept. “I particularly appreciated the process of seeking solutions for different problem scenarios. We need to expand this process to encourage people to see that they should not wait for others to come and solve their problems. They must look for solutions themselves and consultation is an important part of that.”

What is the knowledge café?

Knowledge Cafés are a form of large group process perfected by David Gurteen, a British software development manager who started a knowledge management company. According to Wikipedia, this method has multiple origins and is linked to other similar methods such as The World Café. The process aims to create an open and imaginative conversation to allow participants to share their collective knowledge, ideas and insights, and gain a deeper understanding of the chosen subject and the issues involved. Participants sit at tables in small groups in a venue set up informally like a café. Materials are provided for scribbling, drawing and making notes. There are usually three rounds of conversation that last about 30 minutes. One person acts as host at each table and after each session, either the host or the participants circulate. The host explains the previous round of conversation to the next group to link ideas people have from their previous discussions. In the last round the table groups sum up on paper the key points from their conversations. These notes are posted on the wall for participants to read, which can lead into prioritising issues or action planning.


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