On the Importance of Conversation

It’s been on my mind, as I’ve careered through Europe the past couple of weeks, that there is something elusive and important to be said about conversation, particularly formal ones, and how they shape the quality of our life.

In early colonial America a group of free thinkers gathered outside Boston for a fireside conversation. In 1885 A. O. Hume gathered some folks into a hall for a bit of a chat. In 1944, a whole clutch of public servants went off to a large retreat in New Hampshire. Out of these earnest conversations came Harvard University, the Indian National Congress and the Bretton Woods institutions that governs the international system. Large and small structured public conversations have the power to create new forms of life and new institutions and this is why Alfred Nobel included among his criteria for his peace prize the ‘holding and promotion of peace congresses.’

If we are to imagine new ways of organizing and directing capital, new kinds of flows of knowledge and opportunity, new ways of recognizing, coordinating and accelerating innovation, then the way forward for us will be to discover new platforms, formats, and techniques through which we may converse. This is the possibility presented by the on-going search and process, which is live at Design Public: the purpose of our conversation is to discover new ways of interacting and collaborating which can be generative new possibilities, which can then spin out and take on an independent existence of their own.

I’ve been asked, several times over the past few months, if there are any examples of how this process happens at Design Public, and of how we intend to bring this kind of generative process about. It is better to answer with specific examples, it seems to me. In DP1 we brought MindLab from Denmark to have a conversation about health services innovation, and with representatives of Government and the Gates Foundation in the room, the Bihar Innovation Lab was born as an idea. In DP2 we had a large conversation about whether people really understand or agree about what innovation is and through that conversation our Lab-School for Innovation took shape, which offers executive training in innovation management. It is early days for DP3, but I think the most interesting conversation there had to do with the future of India’s cities and how they can be made smart, a conversation which is still unfolding with many different stakeholders in India.

With our upcoming event in Mumbai and our future London event beyond that, my sense is that many people want India’s innovation ecology to be more complex and variegated and that specific kinds of work remain to be done to enable people to innovate, be it in start-ups or in the social sector or within government. We need to be able to discuss those challenges in a way that helps us discover what needs to be done, so we can build new routines, processes, institutions around them. In the intensity of collocation, in the creativity of the collective, new things become possible. That’s the power of public conversation.

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3 Responses to On the Importance of Conversation

  1. namrata says:

    thank you for the blogpost aditya, and sharing your thoughts about conversations with us. it’s an interesting thing, and one that has been on my mind since sunday, when over lunch there was much talk about Amir Khans new show, one that I haven’t seen as yet. but as most of us know, they pick a topic, research it, and then bring together various people to talk about it.

    around 2002, several of my friends in school were getting involved in something called the Youth Parliament, started by Ishita Chaudary, a senior, now a TED fellow, and probably several other things. The YP had a very similar approach, they brought together interested students called ‘facilitators’ who would research a topic, (at the time AIDs, RTI and homosexuality were big) and then they were days when the larger ‘youth’ body was invited to join. all participants would be divided into smaller groups each with a facilitator who would then moderate a discussion on the chosen topic, backed up with all the research that had been done over the previous couple of months.

    the YP now does so many things, I don’t know if they still follow this approach.

    but since we are talking about conversations, and since we have in the past mentioned bringing in more young people into design public 4, we should definitely think of the YP.

    my other thought is about grand challenges, there are the ones that we have been working on and towards, and then there are the ones that Satyamev Jayate and the YP seem to be focusing on, where do they meet?

  2. Aditya Dev Sood says:

    interesting thought. maybe we should get the PRS guys involved to try and make this possible with the youth parliamentarians.

    i’ve yet to see an episode of satyameva jayate, but i’ve tracked its explosion on twitter in the 2 weeks i’ve been out of country. my cousin wrote to me saying she walked into a household kitchen last week to see all five members of the domestic staff glued to the episode on child sex abuse. someone else mentioned to me yesterday that it was a revelation to him that his parent could say the words child sex abuse in a sentence. such things were not talked about with clarity or care in india.

    while we do want to explode the domain or arena in which design conversations can be had, i guess it also makes sense that oprah and amir khan have their wider areas of interest, and we have our slightly narrower fields of vision. it also occurs to me that while amir khan can show impact in terms of viewership and twitter references, we must show outcomes from dp in terms of new projects, new partnerships and new activities.

  3. Ekta Ohri says:

    From what I could gathered out of seeing the episode on child abuse is that only having a conversation is not enough, the subject of conversation along with the nature of dialogue are equally important. Aamir Khan’s SMJ is a success because he has been able to moderate an open and honest conversation. The show has already shown impact beyond twitter mentions as people are openly sharing their viewpoints even about the most sensitive, taboo issues of Indian society, without any fear of public broadcasting. Hope we can motivate more people to do so in DP 4!

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