At a glance

Policy stage: 
Level of involvement: 
Cost: 
Low
Length of process: 
2 - 4 hours
Number of participants: 
12 - 1200
Participant selection: 
Self-selecting (usually)
Online / Offline: 
Offline

The World Cafe is a method which makes use of an informal cafe setting for participants to explore an issue by discussing it in small table groups. Discussion is held in multiple rounds of 20-30 minutes, with the cafe ambiance intended to allow for more relaxed and open conversations to take place. 

World cafe cartoon
Image by itupictures

Description

The World Cafe is an engagement process designed to take place in a cafe setting (either in an actual cafe or else the room is set up to resemble one as much as possible so that participants are seated around small tables with tablecloths and tea, coffee and other beverages). The idea behind this is to create a space that supports 'good conversation', where anybody is able to talk about things that matter to them.

The method is based on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges and rests on two key principles:

  1. humans want to talk together about things that matter to them
  2. and if they do, they can create collective power.

The process is distinguished by a number of core design principles. These include making sure that the space is hospitable space, everyone’s contribution counts and that participants take responsibility for listening and exploring insights together.

Each round is initiated with a specific question related to the overall purpose of the event. The same questions can be used for more than one round or they can build upon one another. The choice of question(s) is crucial to the success of the event. In general it is useful to phrase the questions in a positive format and open ended format to allow a constructive discussion. If participants do not find the questions for discussion inspiring the event is unlikely to be successful, it can therefore be good to develop the question together with some of the intended participants.

During the event participants discuss the questions at their table, before moving on to a new table/group for each new round. Often participants are provided with pens and are encouraged to draw and record their conversations on the paper tablecloths to capture free flowing ideas as they emerge.

One participant (the table host) remains and summarises the previous conversation to the newly arrived participants. By moving participants around the room the conversations at each table are cross-fertilised with ideas from other tables, resulting in a collective intelligence. At the end of the process the main ideas are summarised in a plenary session and follow-up possibilities are discussed.

Used for

The World Cafe methodology is based on the belief that 'we are wiser together' and that the future can be shaped 'through conversations that matter'. It is a method that is therefore best used for:

  • gathering collective intelligence on experiences or ideas around an issue
  • generating new ideas
  • collaboration and network building.

Participants

  • The method has been used with groups from 12 to 1200 participants.
  • The World Cafe has been used by a wide spectrum of participants, ranging from community members to global business executives.
  • The flexibility does not mean that it is not important to think carefully about whom should be invited.

Costs

Various:

  • If the venue is an existing cafe and the process only involves a few dozen participants the cost can be very modest. As the World Cafe does not require a large number of trained facilitators it can be a cheap way of running creative meetings.
  • For large events involving hundreds of participants and a special venue costs can quickly reach thousands of pounds.

Approximate time expense

Low:

  • A World Cafe is not difficult to organise. The time required to organise the event depends on how easy it is to recruit the participants and how complicated the logistics are.
  • You should allow at least three or four hours for a World Cafe event. If you have an ambitious topic you may want to have a series of events.

Strengths

  • It is good at generating ideas, sharing knowledge, stimulate innovative thinking, and exploring action in real life situations.
  • The World Cafe process can deliver new thinking, meaningful conversations, an inclusive and relaxed atmosphere and deeper relationships and mutual ownership of outcomes in an existing group.
  • Works best with a mix of people bringing different ideas and experiences.
  • Gives citizens a lot of control over the process
  • Useful for researching an issue or building collective intelligence
  • Creates a sense of community and mutual respect

Weaknesses

  • Due to the way participants are encouraged to note on the tables and draw throughout it can be difficult to record and report on the discussions
  • The World Cafe process cannot deliver clear and accountable direct decisions, detailed plans or a statistical view of different opinions.

Origin

Organisational Change: Although the knowledge that the informality of a cafe is a good setting for meaningful conversation is several centuries old, the World Cafe methodology was written by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995.

More Information

Examples of the World Cafe method in action have been collected here.

Images from The World Cafe