I’ve always been a firm believer that having diversity in ideas, thoughts, stories, and people in a room deeply enriches a conversation and should potentially lead to more creative outcomes. And aside from the results, a diverse journey by itself is a opportunity for growth and fun!
This principle has been slowly and steadily rooted in me deeply over the course of many years and through countless experiences I’ve gone through in my personal and professional life.
And I’ve also learned that the idea of embracing diversity itself can be challenging to many people and disruptive in many situations. That’s why we all need to connect with other people and spaces that can help us continuously see life through colourful lenses.
In the past few years, I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to revisit one of these places: Brave Conversations … a unique space that has always been, by design, brave and diverse.
Brave Conversations was born in Canberra, Australia in 2017 as the result of a conversation that was initiated a decade earlier between the group that was starting Web Science and another group that was bringing “various communities together to talk about the emerging issues related to humans and technologies”.
Better watch Anni Rowland Campbell introduces Brave Conversations live on Jamaica’s TV:
Jamaica was one of many destinations Anni took Brave Conversations to. This long and diverse list includes London, Gaza, Boston, Bangalore and Dubai among other places.
But the most recent round of Brave Conversations that I had the opportunity to co-design and co-facilitate a few weeks ago was different. It was entirely online, for an obvious reason: the COVID-19 pandemic that has put the world in a global lockdown for the better part of the past six months.
Moreover, this virtual edition of Brave Conversations was held in partnership with the Web Science Institute as the opening event of the 2020 Web Science Conference.
Running the conversation fully online introduced a change in a key recurring design parameter that I’ve noticed in almost all previous rounds of Brave Conversations: location. In almost every single one of the previous editions, location mattered. Because the event used to take place in a city, the overall theme of the event and discussion agenda were, to a great extent, shaped by the local agenda of that particular city or country at the time of the event.
For Brave Conversations Melbourne 2019, for example, it was the re-election of Liberal-National Coalition, and the prison sentence against Cardinal George Pell for crimes of sexual abuse. In addition to the fact that the conference itself was held in partnership with two local foundations: Blockchain Philanthropy Foundation and TypeHuman with the aim of attracting “as broad a range of people from both the Melbourne start up and entrepreneurial communities, as well as, quite literally, the ‘person on the street’”. I was in the room, and I witnessed this diversity first hand. The girl next to me in my round table was a visiting student from Taiwan and I remember her enjoying sharing parts of her thoughts in creative sketches more than plain English.
And for Brave Conversations Bangalore 2020, it was the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a series of historical nation wide events that brought Indian people together or pushed them apart. That included the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and the Vikram attempt to land on the Moon.
But this time, taking the event online to participants from around the globe has completely flattened the agenda and changed the impact of “location” on the conversation. The web turned Brave Conversations into a “horizontal cross-border” event as opposed to the “vertical, within the sovereignty of a city or country” nature of the previous editions.
And that was a natural and perfect fit to the situation considering the global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that everyone inside the conference’s Zoom room were joining the conversations from living rooms or kitchen tables. An iconic situation that reflected this unprecedented event in the history of humanity in which we all have been forced to go into a bizarre Anthropause. Zoom (among other digital means) was our key tool to connect with others and channel our thoughts, worries, hopes and anxiety.
Global yet local
Taking the event online didn’t eliminate the location factor, but changed its role in group dynamics. Despite the global nature of the pandemic and lockdown, people in different locations have been experiencing it differently. At the moment, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia offer a perfect (sadly perfect!) juxtaposition of this fact.
Therefore, participants in this virtual Brave Conversations from London, Gaza, Cologne, Bangalore, Sydney, Riyadh and many other places came (or logged in!) to the room carrying with them their family stories and personal experiences of how they had been dealing with the lockdown in light of their local political and social-economic situations.
This “global yet local” setup of the room took the diversity in ideas and thoughts to a whole new level as compared to the previous rounds of the conference. Hence, we had no other option but to be braver.
In one of the breakout groups, for example, it was interesting to listen to the participants expressing very different thoughts on how they perceive the role of the government in handling the whole crisis in their cities, especially when the government agencies get very close to the personal boundaries, digitally and in the physical world.
In Jordan, for example, the army was deployed not only to enforce the lockdown and physical distancing measures, but to also distribute bread and food supplies to citizens .. door to door.
The scene of the army in the streets was widely welcomed by Jordanian citizens and ignited a sense of “national pride” among them.
However, a participant from Cologne in Germany shared a very different perspective in which citizens considered that “privacy” and the protection of personal data are essentials in their lives and that governments should not be allowed to use the pandemic as an excuse or an opportunity to stretch their power and step into the personal space of their citizens. Here in Australia, a similar conversation started even before the moment the government published its COVIDSafe app. In more than one occasion, the Prime Minister assured the Australians that installing the app is not mandatory:
This convergence between democracy and technology was captured and discussed by Anni in her opening talk in which she quoted several thought leaders in the space including Shoshana Zuboff, author of Surveillance Capitalism:
Due to the fact that we are now “marching naked” amid this historic opportunity that’s being created by this unprecedented crisis, and because an opportunity exists within the folds of every crisis, I agree with Anni on the fact that “If ever there was a need for a Brave Conversation it is now!”. That’s the way forward if we want to emerge from COVID-19 era leading the future we imagine for us and generations to come.
Empowered by the spirit of this brave and diverse conversation, we have actually decided to be even braver and add another dimension of diversity to our virtual cross-border conversation: language!
I’m delighted to share with you that we are launching our first bi-lingual Brave Conversations in which we will be talking and thinking in Arabic and English.
Stay brave … live diversely.