Alternatives for Marrying Lectures, Sessions, and Tracks with an Open Format Dialog Culture

Proposing additional Time-Credit-Based Dialogues (Open-Forum Magic Round-Tables) for intensive conversations at scientific, social, cultural, educational, or political events or gatherings


Heiner Benking, Farah Lenser, Open Forum, PoBox 410 926, 12119 Berlin; Germany


Abstract. Scientific vigor and social conversation depend on the way we include and question other perspectives and epistemologies: Where we are, what we see, and how we reason - and how we are talking and listening – deliberate and ponder. Let us call it a dialogue, deliberation and decision culture DDD-Culture.

It has much to do with how we organize our gatherings, meetings and conferences, physically and with modern virtual conferencing methods, and how we include new trends, include best-practice light-tower solutions - state of the art society, technology and industry perspectives, if we include, not exclude - new and old - “other” perspectives and minority views which might be “out of the box” or beyond our daily “grid”..

The paper bridges between conventional lecturing and conferencing, and alternative, self-organized participation methods. The idea is to invite practitioners and experts to present issues and see where dialogue and controversy might lead, open and ready for surprise, the unexpected und unplanned. The question is which formats fit best the needs, expectations, and assumptions of drivers, stakeholders, risk-takers and observers, given the restraints of time, space, location ambiente,… , to produce shared and productive, pragmatic results for various time-frames and states of mind - keeping in mind the terms, values, and situations people base their meanings on.

So, how can we engage all participants and include and combine various forms of contributions, keynotes, lectures, posters, discussions, and any other free-form and self-organized way, in order to add a little flavour and give fruits to possible surprises happening in groups – if we permit….

Keywords: Dialogue, participation, self-organization, flow, Magic Round Tables, Open Forum, Open Space, moderation, mediation, facilitation, Participant Messaging, Conference Gazettes (DaZiBao)

Please note: This is more a collage and some lines of though to prepare scientific or political meetings, any kind of social or cultural gatherings in different ways and formats

The orginal text was done for the ICSU-CODATA events in Berlin in 2005 - SEE IMPRESSIONS AND RESULTS - and will need be reworked and shortened to become a guideline for organizing meetings, where an organization wants and needs to invite and present input to cover the topic from all imagined and sides beforehand. Marrying such requirements was done for example at the BMBF Conference of WHOLE- DAY SCHOOLS – Ganztagsschulen in 2003 and at the CODATA ISGI. Please study the reports and outcomes, visit re-inventing democracy, some events, and please visit: and and this collection of”outcomes” we have a “habbit” to collect:

1 Introduction

There is a high demand for interdisciplinary exchanges at conferences and symposia. One alternative is to call or invite contributions, carefully select and compose interesting sessions and agendas, and allowing prime- and ample-time for posters. The other is to prepare the ground for self-organizing agendas, which often require much more service and preparation in order to be ready for any request or setting. Nowadays, such Open-Space events are very much in demand, even fashionable, as participants like to contribute and arrange freely new themes when offered.

The conventional way of carefully selecting speakers, preparing and composing themes has much merits and requires a selection beyond self-centered concerns. Its requires also speakers to prepare well to present latest research, and some clear perspective on how and when to present his work - as which expert would come to symposia because he/she might get - perhaps - some time to speak and present his work?, without even knowing if to prepare for 10 minutes or one hour?

But the old stile of lectures and monologues is in a crisis. Discussions after lectures often do not take place simply because the speaker could not find an end, 2. the schedule is too tight, 3. the speaker holds another lecture afterteh first question, instead of responding briefly, or on the side of the audience, 4. participants are too tired after listening for an extended time, or 5. people in the audience use their chance to finally give their lecture... -- and after the sessions people are too tired of a “day of monologues” to start new conversations and meet new people - having met the old friends and colleges already around coffee and cigarettes in the lobby or outside, avoiding the sections of little interest.

The diagnosis would be no dialogue, nobody listens and responds, and everybody fights for his thing at his time at the mice (mircrophone).

Open Space as a free format without clear agenda, on the other hand, was born out of the experience that participants of past conferences rated in questionnaires the informal or dialogue part, the breaks or the evenings higher than the sections and lectures! Thus, the idea was born to create “a very large break” - inviting self-organising sessions. This idea is appealing, but is it attractive enough?, maybe even a little too chaotic for some? A well understood Open Space is not chaos but a grid or matrix where, for a clearly defined time of two or more days, participants organise the agenda themselves.

Both ways of organising symposia or gatherings have their pros and cons. Maybe a special keynote, a new development or important theme should be included upfront, as an “opening ceremony” providing impulses, stimulation, orientation, offering a road map or offering general course coordinates. In fact, some people just come for a certain contribution, needing to know when it will take place. They will do so often paying full even when participating only part-time, and making a financial success of the event possible. So full time participation is fine - but who pays as interested parties are seldom in the position of observers and sponsors.

This tension of carefully planned presentations versus freely self-organizing sessions avoiding hierarchical or political preferences is seen by the authors as a potentially very fruitful one!

As all events benefit from free conversations and exchanges, it does seem critical to combine both sides: “expected content to be delivered” and “allowing surprise and unplanned solutions”. Conventional events care for this with "warming up" receptions and "ice-breaker" parties, but they are typically too short to socialise and significantly getting to know new participants. Open formats on the other hand seem too unpredictable for some events, - and is it possible to deliver essential, wanted content?

So what can be done? We believe that you can increase the attraction and success of events by bringing together the benefits of both forms of meeting design. In one case, more structured and perfectly scheduled. In another more open, with more chances to socialise and co-creatively develop new themes that no organizer could have been able to plan or predict beforehand - all naturally very much depending on the participants, topics, time, location, expectation, assumptions and external objectives and requirements.

When you ask why participants come to conferences they most often rank at the top the exchanges in the coffee-breaks, during lunch, at very special and highly valued breakfast briefings, and at the evenings as the most often intensive conversations are not of interest to the whole floor or plenum, but require the ideal setting of the right people, the right time and environment.

These participants come, leaving out the most sessions, for meeting with colleagues outside, and in this way creating their own, typical and valid answer regarding the problems of overload and alienation. But such "individual" solutions of "hook and pick" maybe not enough, as we believe there is valuable content delivered by invited speakers. The question is whether it is possible to arrange selected presentations with enough time between the sections and tracks, time created for meeting more openly and informally, learning to know who is around and getting an idea of whether one wants to listen and exchange with a person or group more intensively.

The typical answer that there is a social part, with dinners and trips, welcome and ice-breaker events - which is where people meet anyway. But too often we tend to forget that you typically need to know people, which introduce you to colleagues, and so only by chance and maybe needing a couple of conferences, you will get a chance to meet the “right people” – the right people in your “turf” or field of professional interest. All too often you miss the people from other subject fields, which might have similar pressing problems or possibly usable solutions, but how can you find out and know?

So what can be done? Given that people cannot afford weeks and lots of travels just to learn to know the “other” person and that the chances to sit by chance with the right or most interesting person, for dinner or later in the bar, are at best "thin", not high enough, given the effort, time and funds needed for conferencing or conference-hopping.

2 Meeting Design

The authors have exercised, learned from and experimented with various conference formats and facilitation methods. They understand very well the different expectations, of organisations who want a clear and well structured event with clear results and well done proceedings and work reports, and the wishes of participants who want to learn something new, enjoy conversations and the trip.

First it seems obvious that there is no chance to have the same solution for all possible events and gatherings. But when focussing on scientific or other “content-to be-delivered-rich" events, still a few recommendations should be made:

  1. Allow for enough breaks between sessions so people can get some oxygen, commute between tracks, and leave the passive mode of just “hearing” content with little chance to question or setting different focus.

  2. Arrange early-on an acclimatisation session, possibly in conjunction with an “ice-breaker” receptions and dinners. This “acclimatisation” is meant to learn to know who is part of the exercise. If well done, this informal meeting already allows people to find the right peoplethey wanted to meet or get to know them, but in other “conference settings would never meet them or only on the last day.

This learning to know who is "there" is much more than a list of participants. Hearing the other person (equipped with readable name-tags) talk and possibly present their interests or expectations, questions or concerns which justified the effort of coming to the event.

For the ISGI, we proposed for the first day a Time Credit Round Table, which is more than just an introduction round where everybody introduces himself by name and institution. It invites and encourages participants to briefly outline their motivation and topic, where they are with their interests presently and what they would like to talk about to any length, as an offer to anyone interested. (this could be also the theme of the presentation or lecture, but could be also other topics they would like to enlarge(????) deepen and expand on – if there is interest. Please note: It is not necessary that all offers receive keen interest. All too often, it is good for persons to orient themselves and find out about the interests of others. This is a foundation for minimising the urge to sell and over-sell, talk and talk – without anybody listening!


Given that this introduction needs to be brief and intensive, we use time-credits which are given as an invitation and encouragement to the person who just offered to talk about a certain issue. If for example 20 participants each receive 3 tokens – each representing 1 minute of speaking time, everybody can see who is around and where the interests of the group are. Typically, the variety is very rich and so even “minority” interests can intuitively match, even when they do not get time to enlarge, just by introducing and outlining a certain focus or interest.

As these time credits float during the session, given to the person who should talk more, a dynamic, intensive, open, transparent and (through the visualisation) “embodied” conversation evolves. A polylogue that encourages and focuses, invites short or terse interventions, that hopefully early involves many or all participants, empowers and encourages to continue the dialogue.

More about the time-credit Magic Round Tables method and application reports can be found at the open forum site. Highly recommended is the report from the 2001 Bertalanffy “100 Years of System Sciences Symposium in Vienna. One afternoon, instead of delivering 2 papers, all the senior experts gathered were invited to leave the standard frontal lecture layout to sit around a large table, sharing insights and ideas in a very intensive, unique, and efficient scientific format, some even stated that they have never experienced before such an intensive scientific exchange.

Please visit: 2001 !?? or 1999 !!!!!! Bertalnaffy ******

Such an introduction exchange over 1-2 hours can be nicely continued by a joint reception, a dinner or evening event. Making participants ready not only for immersing into the content presented the other day, but also start more easily approaching and questioning everything and anything. Listening in and watching out for points raised in given time! Learning as time-keeper and observer how time is used well, and interactions trigger new questions is helpful for a whole series of events, where people become more aware of time used and misused.

  1. A second Round Table inviting open dialogue

In the middle of the event at a "Bergfest" (social "half-time" event, typically the 3rd evening of a one-week event), or at a summing-up or future outlook session is often indicated.

In case of participants already knowing the rules of "time-sharing in conferences" the climate of not controlling and overwhelmingly taking over or controlling sessions – can lead to another 1 or 1 1/2 hour effective brainstorming and summing-up sessions, prepare the roadmap for further activities by linking old and new insights and perspectives.

In the case of a 2 1/2 day events like ISGI, another round table and listening to comments typically not reaching the plenary might make a difference. People change their contributions in vie of the time used and available. Please read the “rules of the dialogue game” in the conference folder and maybe follow the links and references below.

4 General context, out-look, and some more general remarks and observations

To have "ordered procedures", which means a clear outline, time-frames and agreement on methods and results, in contrast to a chaotic gathering without any time-frames and agreements is very much what participants and expect expect. Even the so called "Open-Space" is not "open" in the sense of chaotic, but facilitates and serves participants to a very high degree, so that they can freely discuss, arrange sessions, monitor and document the process and outcomes. Different are the time requirements and the general setting of events, number of participants, not just expectations and assumptions, time available and location and ambiente of the whole setting for the event or gathering.

In cases where a certain number of proposed and accepted / invited lectures need to be accommodated, we have two basic alternatives:

  1. Do an Open Space, where the proposed inputs or contributions are featured, maybe even with more time for their introduction / offer to the group, and let the participants also and maybe "ad-hoc" make other offers to the group, which then - like on a marketplace - have the same chance of "competing" for time and attendants. Here, groups form and time-slots are filled so participants can freely decide and float between the topics and offers, design their own schedule and sequence, and choose "with their two feet”, which means leaving a group or time-slot focussing on content they are not interested in. The benefits are that only participants with interest in a certain presentation join a session. The creation of such a productive working environment, where the speakers are encouraged by the interest, even of a few, instead of having to fight against the disinterest, boring or dull eyes of participants, maybe even engaging in other activities and disturbing the attention. The special feature of such a design is “competitive setting”. It can very well be that the invited and celebrated speaker has an offer which does not match with the interest of the participants, or that unplanned alternatives are even more attractive. To some degree, slots can be moved. As a consequence, proposals high in demand, can be placed "one after the other". But competition can also mean that someone who has to present their work as part of an academic schedule is left alone without participants for his session. So what can we draw from such a possible avoidance? 1. Maybe the topic is only of interest to the speaker, and so he should develop his work further or not. Maybe the time is not ready for his topic and the presenter might better work in smaller groups to establish readiness and attention for the topic or matter. Maybe the participants had not understood the innovative scope of his presentation and the relation to their work or the course of the event altogether? Combining for example open-formats with invited prepared lectures in fair competition with offers from "normal" participants was successfully done at an event of the German Ministry for Education and Research. On this large, two-day congress, the offer of content invited contributions by the present experts. This helped to focus on issues and settle the thematic aspects in special fora, which help participants of large events to find some orientation.

  2. Accomodate as outlined in 1-3 above the conventional delivery of papers, but at the same time arrange for ample time to communicate and socialise, encourage discussions, conversations and dialogues, and maybe even "break the ice" not just with welcome parties, but with introductory rounds - like the outlined Magic Round Tables, or repeat such events again and again to make people aware of the chance to contribute a lot, as long as the group is making visible their interested to listen and engage by sharing their floating attention credits with the speaker.

  3. Do a combination of A and B by inviting also to use the magic round table "time-credit" methods - we call it open forum - to secure that even when people meet for a certain group session, no single person can "take-over" the group as a talker, dominating, manipulating or outmanouevring others which had not come to listen to a lecture but engage in dialoge on the topics of the session they subscribed to. Open Space invites people to leave a group they do not feel comfortable with. But maybe the problem is the (one) “monologuer” or talker, and it might be more time- and focus-adequate, less confronting and alienating to visualise and embody interest and making clear that people have not come to just listen again to one person doing his thing over the heads of the others. We have used the time credits also with some success in large group events, like mentioned in A. above. Please see the documentation and results.

  4. Additional to the above methods, the documentation can be improved and become more communicative by interweaving the different sections or tracks by a joint conference journal or gazetter, especially in large groups and large conference venues!. This is done continuously in form of a Participant Messaging and edited into Newsletters which are distributed to all participants. This definitely is a major extra effort, as participants need to be encouraged, but - as often voices are not heard- many people are eager and willing to contribute extra views or experiences. The benefit lies in the crosscutting communication between different thematic areas, tracks, or even locations of very large events. We recommend the links in the references about DaZiBao and Participant Messaging, and a summary of a large Summer University, where over 4 weeks the connection between various themes, events, and locations was secured by such a DaZiBao or Viewsletter. LINK

There are a lot of methods, many more than we can even possibly list or mention here, but we invite to check collections of methods for further exploration and exercise. See references below.

In a nutshell:

There is high demand for participative, empowering and encouraging methods which harness quality by allowing participants to decide - to more or less degree - on what is on the agenda. Our experience is that participants come to conferences or symposia because they have a keen interest into the topic, and often bring practical experiences and new questions that the most established experts are eager to engage with. In the end, through dialogue and conversations, the exchange is easy as people like to talk when they experience that others actually want to listen. Another effect is a slowly evolving dialogue culture. Contributors become aware of the time they use and are more conscious about the attention around them. They learn that they do not need to fight for every minute, even talk more and more, exceeding the scheduled speaking time, as they want to add more and more, feeling that they lost the audience. When participants experience that short, terse contributions and interventions reach the point at any time, they feel secure, do not need to overload or develop second co-lectures in their fight for attention - all too often ridiculing themselves and boring all the others.

Whether some, all, or no lectures or presentations are planned and conceived long before has little to do with the success of events. The Key element is that people are interested, the contributions delivered meet the needs and expectations and there is ample time to question and learn to see the other perspectives.

We have experienced that people being aware and secure in attentive groups quickly develop the skills of utilising time much better, are more ready to contribute, or swing in, subsume and resonate, ready for surprise or the "flow" which is part of a true, self-organised dialogue culture - whatever the setting might be. Observably even lectures get shorter, ready for opening for intervention and discussion, dialogue towards fruitful exchanges and hearing news or the unexpected but useful.

References and material for further study

Gesprächs- und Entscheidungskultur: Rundgespräche und Vereinbarungen als Elemente einer wünschenswerten, zukünftigen Zivilgesellschaft,


re-invent democracy *********

Robert Jungk, Projekt Ermutigung. Streitschrift wider die Resignation. Berlin: Rotbuch, 1988

Siehe hierzu eine Dokumentation der „re-inventing democracy„ Rundgespäche

Banathy, Bela H., Our Challenge in thr 21st Century: Concious, Self-Guided Evolution, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science, The Official Journal of The International Federation for Systemss Research, Volume 20, Number 4, July-August 2003

David Bohm, On Dialogue, Übersetzung von Farah Lenser, siehe Fußnote 8

Bohm, David, On Dialogue, ed. Lee Nichol), Routledge, London und New York, 1994

Buber, Martin, Das dialogische Prinzip, Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh, 2002

(vergl. dazu: Banathy, B. H., Designing social systems in a changing world. New York: Plenum, 1996 und Banathy, B. H., Guided societal evolution: A systems view. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2000

The Circle Way by Manitonquat (Medicine Story) Story Stone Publ. „The Ceremonial Circle by S.Cahill & J. Halpern SF, Harper & Row 1990. Online:

Agoras of the Global Village, Conscious Evolution of Humanity: Using Systems Thinking to Contruct Agoras of the Global Village, 47th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Systems Sciences Online:, See also New Agoras for the 21.Century, Congress in Crete 2003, an spezial volume of World Futures: Benking, Lenser, Sherryl Stalinski: TOWARDS A NEW COVENANT: EMBRACING A DIALOGUE AND DECISION CULTURE TO ADDRESS THE CHALLENGES OF THE AGORAS OF THE 21ST CENTURY, Taylor & Francis 2004, Online:

AIO – Americans for Indian Opportunity. Available at

Christakis, A., A People Science: The CogniScope Systems Approach, 1996 und Christakis, A., The Dialogue Game, Paoli, Pennsylvania: CWA Ltd. Available at

Owen, Harrison, Open Space Technology, A User’s Guide, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco,1997

Lenser, Farah, 1998, Interview mit Harrison Owen. Available at

Krippendorff, Ekkehart, „Mehr Demokratie wagen„, erschienen in der Wochenzeitung „Freitag„ , Nr.8, 13. Februar 2004; Siehe dazu auch Leserbrief der Autoren „Gemeinschaftskunst„ Online:

Jungk, Robert, Rüdiger Lutz / Norbert R. Müllert: Zukunftswerkstätten. Mit der Phantasie gegen Routine und Resignation. München 1989 und Jungk, Robert (Hrsg.): Katalog der Hoffnung. - 51 Modelle für die Zukunft. Frankfurt/M. 1990.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi, Kreativität, Wie Sie das Unmögliche schaffen und Ihre Grenzen überwinden, Stuttgart, 1997

DaZiBao - McLaren, N.: Participant Interaction Messaging, Manual and Guidelines, UIA, Brussels, October 1992, Online: