A Weekend in Albuquerque

Yes, that really is a New Mexico rainbow in the background of this photo. Sometimes a bit of serendipity just pops up out of nowhere. So what was this bunch of people doing in Albuquerque in June?

In a word – just talking. But talking about things are tough to have a conversation about on the margins of an industry event or a family gathering. Many of us have been lucky in many ways – not least in having careers in the booming tech industry. However, as society around us changes many are not so lucky (sometimes even from decisions taken in the tech sector itself) so the question we had on our minds was – what are the kind of things large and small which can be done to make things better.

To try to make some progress we decided to start by organizing a small event just to discuss what saw as the biggest challenges at the moment and how they might be solved. The level of ambition was low but it turned out into a moving and powerful event. This post and this site tries to capture some of what we did in the hope that others will try the same!

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Our First Event

When we first decided to run this workshop, we only had a very loose plan, so it was a gamble for all attendees. However, people did not disappoint: it turned into a wonderful three days of conversation and generated some great threads for follow up!

To make it work, we wanted a peaceful place where we could talk for 2-3 days and that ample opportunity for breaks, side discussions and reflections. The Sandia Resort in Albuquerque, New Mexico was a perfect fit. While it’s a large resort, it is also run by an Indian reservation in a close-knit way: a good motivation to use it.

The event ran for 2.5 days: Friday, Saturday and half day Sunday. 12 people attended and everybody had the opportunity to speak if they wished. The rules for speaking were:

  • Focus on topics of social or world concern that you are passionate about.
  • If you’re presenting problems, have a least a stab at possible solutions.

Safe Space

Having deep conversations about social challenges can be very difficult, raising emotions, dragging up fears and highlighting disagreements. Some of the disagreements could be along political or religious lines but they can be purely intellectual or emotional. Everybody has different experiences and it’s rare that we spend several days with the same group discussing emotionally charged topics. 

As a result, our most important aim was to create a safe space for discussions. In order to help with this we produced a discussion guide which was based on three ideas:

  • Getting the motivations for discussion right
  • Emphasizing respect for other people’s opinions as primary
  • Encouraging attendees to flag times when discourse did not go well

Motivations

While we may all trip up in our speech sometimes (or express ourselves poorly) the most important factor in determining the contribution to a conversation is our intent. For this event, we deliberately highlighted that the objectives were NOT to persuade each other of our points of view. Instead, the objectives were:

  • Catharsis: Sometimes it’s ok to just cry!
  • Understanding: Articulating concepts and discussing helps organize thought
  • Making things better: perhaps understanding can lead to action for change however small
  • Trust: create a trusted space where we could talk about all of the above without things getting taken out of context or misconstrued.

In other words, these were objectives for each of us which centred on personal growth and understanding rather than persuasion or some master plan as an outcome.

Respect for others

In the invite for the event, all attendees were invited to present on topics they cared about. In the end, 70% prepared presentations (each of which kicked off lengthy discussions). However, the remainder also took slots during “open microphone” sessions and followed up with their thoughts.

In the conversation guide we emphasized a number of things:

  • No discussions topics are less relevant than others: the objective was to hear what large or small issues were important to people.
  • Listening is hard to do and should be focused on understanding, not on the desire to make one’s own follow-up point.
  • All participants should assume good intent in all interactions. It is hard to express one’s self perfectly all the time.
  • Summarization can be a powerful tool to make sure everyone is understanding each other, but it needs to be used in the right way (and not to wrest conversation flow from others).

Lastly, we applied the Chatham House rule to the event:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

Using this rule means that statements from the event could be made or ideas reused if all parties agree, but the default is that they would not be attributed.

The aim (here again) is to make it safe to speak without fear of statements being used out of context unexpectedly outside the meeting.

Meta discussions

A final important area of the discussion guide was to make sure people felt comfortable speaking up when they did not feel comfortable.

The objective of the discussion guide was not to keep track of good/bad interactions but make people conscious of good/bad. This allows people to more easily comment when they feel frustrated by an interaction.

In certain cases, an attendee may also feel uncomfortable expressing annoyance or unhappiness in front of the group. We encouraged people to talk to one of the organizers if this happened.

Topics

The topics that came up included a very wide range from economic inequality, education, social discourse, tech community assumptions, the changing nature of work, automation, data and government, as well as many others.

We had a truly wide-ranging conversation, each of the topics could have occupied several days!

Here is a partial list of topics and links to materials some speakers prepared. We’ll update with blog posts and other pieces which are planned post-event.

Here are the first two:

With some more to come!

Outcomes

In the course of the discussions, there were numerous ideas which came through as viable steps to address some of the problems. Different attendees are writing about both problems and solutions. These will be added as links to this post as they emerge.

Event Reading List

Some of the literature suggested by attendees related to the topics we covered is provided in this list:

Reflections

As we embarked on organizing the event we had little idea of how it would go. A huge thanks to the attendees – it was a privilege to be able to spend this time together. Each of us came away with more hope, new ideas and some likely things to try to achieve.

The most important lesson though was that having the conversation was valuable in and of itself. We’d recommend other people consider doing something similar if you can. Our suggestions as to how are posted here

The more conversations the better :-).

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