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3 Dec 2010

Ingredients of Transition: Community Brainstorming Tools

Here is the ingredient about World Cafe and Open Space.  I would love to be able to weave into it your stories about when you have used them, when they worked, and perhaps even when they didn’t.  Do post any thoughts as comments please…


Thinking about the implications and responses to peak oil and climate change on your own can be dispiriting and lead to POST PETROLEUM STRESS DISORDER (1.1).  Brainstorming tools such as Open Space and World Cafe can be a pivotal part of your AWARENESS RAISING (2.9) work, and can also give birth to a number of PRACTICAL MANIFESTATIONS (3.9) and to people FORMING WORKING GROUPS (2.11).

(We are collecting and discussing these Transition ingredients on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The Challenge

We have become a society which increasingly believes that little can be done without input from experts and specialists. It is an approach which is often disempowering and ineffective. We need to rediscover how to unlock the collective knowledge, and indeed genius, that surrounds us, and engage it in addressing the big challenges of our times.

Core Text

An early Open Space event organised by Transition Town Lewes

We have become used to the idea that if we want to make change happen what we need is a coachload of experts who arrive, walk around with clipboards and then subsequently send us a plan to implement.  However, much of what we need is already present around us, all we need are the tools that enable us to unlock the collective knowledge and ideas of our community.  Two of the approaches used most often in Transition are World Cafe and Open Space.  I will try here to offer a concise overview of both, hopefully in such a way that you would run a session on either with this book propped open next to you.

Open Space Technology [1] is a tool for using with groups from 800 to 1,000 people who need to explore a major issue. According to its originator, Harrison Owen, it is based on 4 simple ‘rules’ …

  • Whoever comes is the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
  • When it starts is the right time
  • When it’s over, it’s over

…. and one ‘law’, ‘The Law of Two Feet’, which states that:

“If, during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their feet and go to some more productive place.”

So here is a step-by-step guide to facilitating Open Space.

  • You’ll need a room large enough for those attending to be able to sit in a circle, and a wall you can stick things onto, and also a number of distinct places (rooms, tables, corners) where conversations can take place.
  • You will also need a clear question, which has been circulated in advance in publicity and invitations for the event
  • Sit participants in a circle.  In the centre is a pile of sheets of A4 paper and pens, and on the wall is an empty timetable, with the timings of the different sessions on one axis, and the various breakout spaces on the other.
  • Explain the rules of Open Space and that the only prerequisite for proposing a question is that you undertake to host that discussion and take legible notes of what is said
  • Anyone with a question writes it on a sheet of paper and sticks it to the wall (you may well end up with more questions than you have slots available, in which case consolidate relevant ones together)
  • Once your timetable/agenda is complete, allow people a few minutes to look at it and work out what they want to go to, and then ring a bell, or something similar, to announce the convening of the first session.
  • In theory, the rest of the day will now organise itself!
  • At the end of each session, ring a bell to let people know it is finished, then go round and collect up the note-filled sheets, and put them up on the wall in the area you have pre-designated as the ‘Market Place’.
  • Leave 30-40 minutes or so at the end for a go-round, for reflections on the event and the process itself, rather than issues raised.

'Powering Totnes Beyond Cheap Oil': an early TTT Open Space event

Open Space works not only as a tool for gathering ideas, but also serves a powerful role in somehow leading to the emergence of practical projects.  There is something in the intention of conceiving ideas and meeting others who share that passion which also serves to bring ideas into being.  For example, in October 2006, Transition Town Totnes held an Open Space event on energy called ‘Powering Totnes Beyond Cheap Oil – rethinking Totnes’s energy supply’(see left).  It is fascinating, nearly four years later, to look back and see how many of the ideas and visions which emerged during the day have subsequently come to be realised.  At least 10 of the ideas, mostly substantial projects, are now underway, sometimes, but not always, held by the people who had originally suggested them at the Open Space event.

Why might it be that this Open Space event appears to have led to the emergence of new initiatives?  It is partly because those who had the ideas brought them to the event looking for collaborators to make them happen, partly because the ideas informed the work of TTT and partly because it brought ideas out into the open and began a process of exploring their feasibility which, in turn, attracted others.

A World Cafe session with local Councillors organised by Transition Town Totnes

World Café has been summarised as being about “awakening and engaging collective intelligence through conversations about questions that matter”.  It is a powerful tool for exploring specific questions. It differs from Open Space in that it is less chaotic and self-directed, offering a powerful way of exploring specific questions and issues. It is based on the idea that for many people, the place where the richest conversations take place are places where they feel relaxed: at a table – be it a kitchen table or a table in a café – with a cup (or glass) of something in their hands and perhaps some biscuits.

Here is a step-by-step guide to running World Café:

  • Plan the event well, frame the question(s) that will be explored, decide who should be there and how you will invite them, where and when it will be, and what outcomes you are hoping for from the event
  • Create a hospitable space, somewhere people will feel comfortable, with round tables set out café-style, with room at each for around 5 people, with paper tablecloths, marker pens, flowers and perhaps a candle, and provide food and drink
  • Make sure that the questions you will be exploring (either one overarching one or a number of questions that explore different aspects of an issue) are relevant to those attending, are clear, thought-provoking and invite reflection, invite the exploration of possibilities and connect those present to why they came
  • Encourage everyone to contribute by maximising the number of interactions.  Every 15 minutes, a bell is rung indicating it is time to move to another table. Over the space of a few hours, participants get to meet most, if not all, of the people in the room, and exchange ideas and thoughts with them
  • Each time people move to another table, they bring threads of conversation they were at to a new group of people.  Each table has a Host, whose responsibility it is to scribe the points raised in each conversation on the tablecloth, so as to create an accurate (and legible) record of what was discussed.  Each time the groups change, the new session begins with the Host sharing what was previously discussed at that table, and the new people briefly share what happened at the tables they were on previously
  • At the end, the event is drawn together through a sharing of the collective discoveries.  You might pin up all the written-on tablecloths for all to see, you could have a ‘go-round’ where each host summarises the main conversation points on his or her table. This could then be followed by a more general ‘go-round’ to give people an opportunity to share reflections on the process, how it went for them, and what deeper questions were raised. This process can also be continued by typing up the sheets and emailing them out to everyone a few days later, as ‘minutes’ of the discussion.

So there you have it, ambience, good food, conversation, lots of mingling and an outpouring of ideas; World Café, and Open Space, in a nutshell!

The Solution

Find ways of enabling people in your community to find solutions to the challenges facing them. Use Open Space and World Cafe (making sure you are clear as to where it is most appropriate them) to facilitate community brainstorming and to draw out the ingredients of a collective vision for the future of the community.  Well designed and facilitated, they are extraordinary tools.  Make sure that each event has clear questions, and trust in Open Space’s ability to enable people to self-organise.  For anyone with leanings towards being a control freak, running Open Space is terrifying, but trust it, it works!  Both tools are flexible and inclusive and can be used in many different contexts. However care must be taken to not use them in ways in which they are not suited.

Connections to Other Ingredients

Facilitating these events offers a great opportunity to practice STANDING UP TO SPEAK (1.8).  Holding brainstorming events can be a great way of generating MOMENTUM (3.6) if an initiative has got stuck, and they can also be focused on addressing particular issues, such as ENGAGING LOCAL LANDOWNERS (4.8).  Ideas and insights they generate can provide very useful input for ENERGY DESCENT ACTION PLANS (5.11).

[1] Most usefully described in Owen, H. (1993) Open Space Technology – A User’s Guide. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Please leave any comments here.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Gijs de Boer
3 Dec 9:36am

I’m not so sure anymore about that wisdom of the community idear anymore. People tend to hook up, so it seems, at events that are clear and given and don’t have te be invented anymore. That means that when you start something you have to have a lot of skills and knowledge. I think frontrunners need therefore, when the skills and knowledge are not there yet, a lot of scooling and education.I’d love to hear some comments on this.

3 Dec 11:16am

Great work Rob – Here is the link to the section in the Powerdown Show on World cafe, it is a very concise explanation and a good illustration of it working.

3 Dec 4:35pm

We often use world cafe style stuff at our monthly network meetings here in Lancaster. I’ve never known it fail – and when it’s really working well you can feel the sparks of inspiration flying about and connecting into something MUCH bigger and exciting . . . .

3 Dec 5:42pm

Good stuff – I have hosted these methods quite a lot with Davie and others in Ireland – here’s a few thoughts :

– there may be a logic to describing Cafe first, then Open Space – we have quite often run whole day events where Cafe is used to open up a subject in the morning and help people to gain more of a whole system view of whatever it is, appreciating diverse perspectives, inter-connections etc etc and then moved to using Open Space in the afternoon to enable more of a self-organising action orientation (this works particularly well where ‘the system’ needs to ‘see itself’, if people haven’t worked together much before – in fact, it seems the more diversity, the better)

– Cafe tends to help deepen and richen views of a question – it tends to work best where this ‘picture’ is made visible in some form i.e graphic recording or tables being asked to produce their own visual products – it is also good to do something to help highlight which parts of the picture people feel merit the most attention, otherwise the risk is of lots of ‘stuff’, but not much sense of priority

(In the jargon, ‘hosts’ talk about ‘harvesting’ and suggest designing the harvest needs at least as much attention as designing any other part of the process – i.e. thinking in advance, without knowing the content, about how the harvest will best serve to remind people of the business done and to explain it to others not present)

– there is definitely a skill / art to getting questions to work well – this is well covered in various on-line resources, but the best questions tend to be succinct and exciting in the way they push at the boundaries – it is often good to start Cafe with a positive, appreciative question or by sharing stories of something that worked, rather than getting too gloomy about problems.

– the detail of the environment matters (appropriately enough); one of the key factors that governs the effectiveness of conversations is the degree to which people feel safe, comfortable, contained etc – details like checked tablecloths, music on arrival, sweets can make a real difference

– 15 minutes is short for a cafe round if you want to give groups a reasonable chance of getting to much depth (and 8 is probably a reasonable number to start Open Space with, rather than 800 ..)

– there are loads of good on-line resources – some good places to flag are :


– and a final thought, both methodologies hint at what we all know i.e. that most of the best business gets done in the breaks / bar afterwards.

Good luck with it.

Nick Osborne
6 Dec 11:28am

In Somerset we used Open Space in late 2008 as a way to create connections across the county. A few of us researched who was doing Transition in Somerset and then I invited people from all the approx 20 initiatives which we had identified to an Open Space Party at my house.

The Open Space had the question ‘How can we develop Transition in Somerset?’ and was a short one, running from 4-6.30pm, after which we had a party. We had about 60 people come in total to the Open Space and party, although not all at the same time. It was a very useful way for people to meet, get to know each other, explore ideas about developing Transition in the county and also have some fun! Two years later, I feel it is time to do it again.

Also in Glastonbury