102 for designing participatory sessions: find solutions from future scenarios

This post is the second in a series of resources on participatory session design. You can read the first instalment here.

In order to build a world where our rights are respected and protected in both online and offline spaces, we need to use every tool and tactic at our disposal to foresee the challenges that lie ahead and disrupt dangerous digital trends. Change requires clear-eyed, active optimism and radical imagination: we need light to see the path in front of us.

The 11th edition of RightsCon (June 6-10, 2022), hosted online and across every time zone, will chart the course for the next decade and the Call for Proposals, now open until January 13, 2022, is an opportunity to put all possible futures on the agenda.

The use of future scenarios isn’t new to RightsCon. Our program has supported sessions on strategic futurism and creativity, speculative design in public service delivery, climate resilience for companies and communities, art that frames the present as the past, positive approaches to “future-proof” technology, and much more.

Interested in hosting a session, but not sure how to convert imagination and speculation into a strategy for change? Read on for tips to facilitate a participatory “future scenarios” session, based on the ADIDS structure (Activity-Discussion-Inputs-Deepening-Synthesis) developed by LevelUp, and check out the first instalment of this blog series for a refresher on the basics of session design.

Activity: Fast-forward to the future (but first, visit the past)

The first part of an ADIDS session supports an activity or interactive exercise, which introduces the subject to the participants, and encourages people to share ideas and personal experiences.

If your format supports breakout rooms – as is the case for community labs, workshops, or private meetings – you can place participants into small groups at the start to discuss the “speculative question” of your session. You can split the activity into parts: first, ask participants to summarize what has happened to date, in order to frame the issue at hand. Next, ask them to imagine what could happen. Instruct each breakout group to take notes in a collaborative document and list 3-5 possible scenarios that could arise.

For panels, why not open with a poll? Direct the audience to review a list of scenarios that speakers created and vote for which option seems most likely to occur. While participants respond, ask the speakers to set the stage by providing relevant context.

Exercise: Take a moment to think about the issue you want to explore through strategic futurism. Identify a speculative question and map the framing participants will need in order to envision future scenarios. Imagine the world in 10, 15, or 50 years and how the topic of your session could evolve over time. How will you encourage participants to consider optimistic futures?

Discussion: Rewind to the present

The second stop of the ADIDS journey is the discussion, which directs participants to reflect on the above activity.

Once everyone returns from breakout rooms, ask participants to read the scenarios from the other groups and note any similarities or connections. Use guiding questions to drive the conversation and maintain a forward-looking lens: What scenarios surprised you? How did the past or present influence the scenarios identified? Are there any scenarios that stand out as most likely to occur?

For panels, once the poll results are in, turn back to the speakers who chose the scenarios and ask for reflections on the results.

Exercise: Participants arrive at RightsCon with different perspectives, lived experiences, and levels of privilege, and a session about the future should also be mindful of the past, and historic events that could affect how a person perceives the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Reflect upon past sessions that you have attended – either at RightsCon or in other spaces – where you felt welcomed into an open and inclusive dialogue. How did the facilitator ensure different voices shaped the conversation? What steps could you take to balance power dynamics, and include those with poor internet connections or who need accommodations for disabilities?

Our team recommends Aspiration Tech’s blog on power dynamics and inclusion in virtual meetings as a helpful starting place to develop answers to these questions.

Input: Map the butterfly effect

During the input phase, facilitators and speakers offer perspectives to frame the next part of the session, and share learnings drawn from personal and professional experiences. For all session formats, once potential scenarios have been reviewed, the speakers or facilitators can offer input into the most likely scenario with consideration for the “butterfly effect”: How can small changes ripple out into large-scale effects on our future? How should our strategies adapt over time?

Remember: input doesn’t mean lecture. Speak dynamically, pull in points from earlier in the session, and leave room for questions. Use “active optimism” to frame the discussion around solutions, not problems. If you’re not sure where to start, Thomas Coombes offers five basic shifts in thinking to achieve hope-based communications, which challenges human rights actors to consider what we stand for, and not simply what we stand against.

Exercise: As you design your session proposal and think about speaker or facilitator selection, try to look up three people who have put forward ideas and scenarios that relate to your speculative question. Once you have found examples, map out each argument and try to find counterpoints for each.

Deepening: Crack open the crystal ball

Deepening is the fourth phase, when the lessons and concepts start to “sink in”, and participants put to use what they have learned throughout the session.

Place your participants back into breakout rooms to reflect on the scenario explored and explained in the input phase. Have the new ideas presented changed your opinion of the future scenarios identified during the activity? What actions did we take (or not take) to reach this point? What obstacles did we overcome? Who were our key stakeholders and supporters?

For panels, you can poll the audience again to measure if the opinion has shifted about which scenario is most likely to happen, and what steps we can take to ensure (or avoid) that future.

Exercise: Based on the arguments collected from the exercise above, try to anticipate the possible scenarios that participants could map out. If a negative outcome is predicted, how do we prevent or mitigate that possibility? If participants believe a positive scenario is possible, what do we need to do to arrive there? Develop answers to these questions beforehand, even if you’re not sure what shape the conversation will take, and come to the session prepared to guide participants toward solutions.

Synthesis: Create a time loop

We now have arrived at the final stop of the ADIDS journey, synthesis. For all session formats, this is the opportunity to summarize all the elements that have been discussed, resolve unanswered questions, and share avenues for continued collaborationHow can participants stay involved and contribute? What are the next steps to solidify the learnings from the session into a resource, coalition, or other outcome that serves the RightsCon community?

Exercise: Many of us have walked out of a session feeling inspired and ready to take the work forward. However, once the session ends, it’s easy to lose momentum. How can you build toward outcomes? Create a plan of action to stay in touch with participants after the session, circulate resources based on the speculative question, and maintain connections with potential partners and networks who can contribute to the work.

Future scenarios is a useful approach to structure a session and arrive at an end goal. To learn more and submit a proposal for RightsCon 2022, check out our Guide to a Successful Proposal, our blog post on the Call for Proposals, and our recent Twitter Space event, featuring past and present members of our Program Committee.

If you have questions, concerns, or other ideas for our team about future scenarios, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at [email protected].

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