Processes that could be happening in multiple places around the world

The following text is an extract from a 56 page transcript of the conversation between Juanita Brown and Finn Voldtofte on the ideas of world cafe. The extraction was made by Finn from his feeling of deep relevance 3 months after the conversation.

(Transcript of IC cafe conversation, Finn Voldtofte & Juanita Brown, january 28, 1995)

To have a World Cafe would be reinforcing the understanding that the world is one, and the world is connected. But it would be from the point of view of people because the Cafe is where people go together, not something about market, it’s not something about trading, business, currencies. It’s not something about telecommunications, Internets, air time, airplane routes and all that.

World Cafe brings it out to the people. It’s sort of real participatory democracy.

The notion of Cafe itself is related to a level of complexity and the development of civilisation and society, which implies community. But simultaneously it implies a level of connection, complexity and inter relationship, which is beyond that of either family or village.

A Cafe is a result of a development process of civilisation. It’s a product of civilisation. It’s a product of a development process that had fostered civilisations large enough, complex enough, connected enough to foster things like Cafes. And if a Cafe is a womb for the next stage of evolution, then we build on one of the very positive and good results and outcome of the civilisation so far.

Build the core image around which the quality of conversation that we’re talking about can actually occur without having to have fancy designs.
Maybe we learned from the intellectual capital dialogue these last days that we’re at a time where it’s possible to design very, very simple processes that would have a great impact.

The world cafe is engaging a core image, which in itself simplifies, focuses and deepens.

The participants had the feeling like they were on an adventure. Like something important is going on here.

The image of a lot of Cafes, a lot of people sitting around a lot of small tables and all of them having the feeling that something important is going on, and I’m right in the middle of it. And that knowledge – that I sit and think something important going on right here and you’re in Mill Valley – that doesn’t disturb that feeling that it’s right here. And I’m part of something larger.

I was sitting with a feeling that I was not missing one sentence said in that room around the four tables. The feeling of having been a part of the whole, all the talks.

We sort of have the tendency that if we are at the same time, and at the same place, then we have to take advantage of that fact that we are at the same time, same place, so we never design processes as many places, many times processes, when we are actually at the same place, same time. But this was kind of a many places, same time process.

That process was a metaphor that we could actually see right there in that room.

An important design issue is arriving to the Cafe. There’s a door into the Cafe. There’s a travel to do from your home to your Cafe. It’s not a travel. It’s just a small walk. But there is a small walk.

To put this into stages: Leave your home, walk down the street, open the door, go into the Cafe, find a chair and an available table. Not at an empty table, but at an available table because in many Cafes, you sit next to strangers.

Leaving the home is the willingness to go out in the world and explore. The leaving home part of the preparation can be hard and can be very easy.

You would never have the thought of, oh, the world’s ecosystem is out of balance, I have to go to a Cafe. Those two thoughts don’t go together. And yet in a Cafe, you may engage in passionate conversation about the world’s ecosystem.

After having rested and built up and all that in the Cafe during the time of leisure, it could be the starting point of action and engagement.

The dialogue has no real starting point. So what’s happening is, in a sense, there’s an ongoing conversation. The thread of which is not lost even though people are coming and going. And they are not necessarily always exactly the same people. But the conversation, is the same.

Another thing that has to be put into the process design: The weaving of the thread. Under some circumstances, this could be just that question, that travels so well, that it would reach any Cafe, anywhere in the world. Core questions that travel so well, that you could imagine they could reach any Cafe in the world.

The question is supplied, as the Cafe is supplied.

The dialogue starts whenever two people who are going to be part of the larger group is there.

We don’t have to call it dialogue. We don’t have to talk about what is the purpose of it, what’s the mechanics of it, what expectation do we have as to how do you engage in it and all of that. As long as we set it up as a Cafe, it will contain within its inherent properties.

Would you need to actually have used the metaphor of Cafe, or would you only to have designed in the principles that we understand about it? In other words, was there something about showing up to a literal Cafe?

The principles that we’re now talking about were actually in the process long before they actually showed up and saw a visual Cafe in front of them.

The Cafe metaphor contains the dialogue principles.

Maybe that not the Cafe metaphor alone evokes the operating principles of dialogue, but that it is the Cafe metaphor combined with some set of something else – like the weaving of the red thread, a process design issue.

So the red thread, or the questions that travel well, and the context that holds the question, is what takes the world Cafe from being a place of small talk to a place of dialogue.

The intention that you have when you enter is of importance. The intention held while entering is responsible for whatever outcome will be at the dialogue.

From an outside point of view, we could even think of the Cafe as a kind of black box. And then entering with the intention. And then the black box, we don’t know what goes on, but some people describe it as dialogue. And then out of that black box comes, social invention, lines of action, commitment to action, community, connections, intellectual capital.

Lengthy speeches of concepts and methods and principles and all that, doesn’t go with a cafe. But the telling of a story or listening to a piece of music, someone entertaining with juggling – that could be part of a cafe.

I would suspect that the storytelling or a piece of music, well chosen, or a poem, would be a better way of starting such a dialogue than the features about why we are here and what we want to achieve.

Principles at work recognised

  • Small groups enabling a lot of participation.
  • Dividing the dialogue into several smaller dialogues doesn’t divide the whole community into small communities.
  • The expectation that all of the dialogues going on simultaneously were going to be part of the whole, or were already part of the whole.
  • We never had report backs.
  • They don’t all need to sit together all the time if there’s been enough cross pollination.

That is what makes The World Cafe possible. Because we will never have everybody in the same room.

Ensure, invite, catalyse, design for cross pollination between conversations on the assumption that any part of the whole of the conversation will reproduce the essence of the whole in the next conversation.

That would also give meaning to the understanding that what is going on right here is of importance, because just one single word added here could change the whole understanding over there.

There was something great about the coming back and discovering what had happened to what you started.

I think its possible to modify while the dialogue is taking place. Not to control, but to modify and to facilitate, to subject new threads of focus. If the modification is timely, if the modification travels, then it’s well timed and framed. If it travels well, you know you’ve made a difference.

It made a big difference in a certain way to this group, the fact that they were all in the same room, the feeling of community was important.

The principle here is not so much that the learning would have taken place because it already has taken place. But that by noticing the learning, the next emergence in terms of order or possibility is made more articulate, more actionable.


Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
20th of may 95
Finn Voldtofte