Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Collaborate, Enjoy, Create, Include: Lessons from the Folk Festival

As winter sets in, Easter Weekend in Canberra can be bitterly cold and grey. Vibrant colours, beautiful tunes and sensational smells of foods from around the globe start pouring out of the Showground. The National Folk Festival (NFF) is another world in an otherwise depressing part of the year.

But why I am I writing about a Folk Festival? 

As I enjoyed my weekend of music, eating, dancing, laughing and chatting, I also did a lot of thinking. There are a lot of reasons why I love the NFF (and why I go back every year). It dawned on me that many of the things I love about the festival could be used to make science, including soil science, conferences more amazing.

The NFF thrives on collaboration, enjoyment, creativity and inclusion. Focusing on these four key things could really open up how we think about science communication and conferences.

What do I mean? 

As you wander around the Festival you notice the diversity of people; all ages (new borns to great grandparents), backgrounds, levels of education, levels of experience, experts and amateurs, interests and personalities. You can wear whatever you like. Get involved in anything. You will not be judged and there will always be a place for you to engage, meeting people, be creative, and above all... have fun. It is this sense of inclusion and engagement that allows a sense of broad community and learning. Using some of the techniques at the NFF could really make science, science communication and conferences great.

How do they do it? 

There is a space for everyone, and for many needs. The NFF has a space for pretty much everyone and everything. Like the traditional music festival/conference structure, there are workshop spaces, and places to perform. In addition, there are spaces where any musicians/artists (experts) can meet up and collaborate with each other. But, there are also spaces for the artists to pass on their skills, meet interested people, or to simply sit down with people of all different backgrounds and enjoy their common interest through music, laughter and conversation. 

Having a variety of spaces for people to meet, share, collaborate and exchange allows a range of people from different backgrounds to connect. It doesn't limit people to engaging in awkward conversation at a conference dinner or after a talk or with the aid of alcohol. It is dynamic and casual, and has the potential to really allow interesting conversations happen between people of all ages and backgrounds.

Anyone can share. There are always opportunities to showcase your talent and ideas. Even if you don't get a formal place to share your ideas, there are opportunities for anyone to share at the event. The Blackboard sessions are simply that; you put your name on an empty slot on a blackboard and you share your talents with the audience at that time. There are also more informal places to share talents known as Busk Stops. These locations could be used by anyone at any time to share their thoughts, music, talent or joke. It doesn't matter who you are or what type of Festival/conference participant you may be, it allows you to get involved and share yourself.

It is diverse and interesting. The Festival opens its eyes wide to interesting, new, creative, extraordinary and different. There is no one thing that is the same, and your are encouraged to be yourself and to be different. The encouragement to 'be whatever' really relaxes people, opens them up and makes them feel more willing to share and get involved. 

Age doesn't matter. Everyone is talented, no matter what their age, background or experience. And this is showcased in the youth parts of the Festival. There is a whole stage dedicate to younger performing artists (30's and under) and another for under 18's to give them the opportunity to shine. And shine they will! Much of the young talent was noticed and asked to be involved in the competitions, collaboration and the final concert. They also have the mantra of 'It's never to late to learn', with the aim that everyone will go home having learnt something new. 

Young learn from old. Old learn from young. It is great to see the mix of learning across generations, and ideas being sparked and fostered by all. 

Mixture of learning styles. There are formal workshops and performances, but also informal spaces and learning environments. It allows for a relaxed atmosphere and time for reflection, and where people can learn in a way that is best for them.  

Less is more. Many sessions run multiple times so that people can get to as much as they can. Not only does it allow people to really see what is on offer, but allows a good learning environment. It provides time for thinking, reflecting, engaging and debate.

It is accessible and everyone is invited to participate. Audience (and that is musician, artist, festival goer, interested person.. anyone!) can get involved and make the festival a great place. You can join workshops, attend various sessions, paint the space, be engaged in audience participation at concerts, sing, build the parade, go to a Busk Stop or Blackboard... etc. It is family friendly, with day care and kids opportunities. There are different pricing options or volunteering for those that don't want to pay, but happy to get involved in the community. 
It is about community, engagement, involvement for all and having fun. Anyone can apply to be involved, no matter your background. 

What do I suggest? 

The next time I think about running a conference or event, I am going to think about these things:
* Are there opportunities for everyone to participate? Rooms for casual chat, workshop space (formal and informal), blackboards/soap box, showcasing talent of all ages and backgrounds.
* How can we get the audience involved? Do we need to encourage more debate within talks or run experiments right there? Can we get people involved in the communication of science? 
* Is my conference accessible for everyone? Do we engage as many people as we can? 
* Do we give people plenty of opportunities to seek out the conference content? Are there different types of learning experiences? 
* Is there a sense of community? Fun? Laughter?
* Are there places to collaborate and meet, even if accidentally?
* Are we conscious of different age groups and backgrounds? Do we have day-care? Do we allow access and engagement for specialists and non-specialists? 
* Are we community focused? Are there ways we can improve the conference to make sure people of all backgrounds feel included and less attention on it being a 'specialists' event?
* Are we letting people 'be whatever'? Are we allowing creativity and the extraordinary?

Inclusion, and places to collaborate and create, really make events enjoyable. Creating a happy atmosphere allows for better learning and more positive and constructive communities. Re-thinking how we run conferences and events could allow for more positive relationships between soil scientists, land managers, government and other interested people. It could improve our science, communication and practicality of science development and on-ground uptake. 


  1. Hear, hear! :) It isn't always easy engaging the wider community, which is a huge shame. Science is awesome!

  2. Great analysis - and you should have music at your next conference too. Nash was good this year particularly due to the kind weather, that's a bit tougher to arrange.