Designing the Convergence programme

Celia from the Convergence Programme Team describes the principles & processes behind the design of the convergence timetable.

As with any linear design write-up, it's hard to capture the feedback loops that happen during the process. The following is a approximately chronological description of a very circular process!


Before I got involved, the Convergence coordinators began by designing an online form where people could offer workshops. It meant we could capture all the information we would need in a really clear way. Entries were instantly updated into a spreadsheet in Google Drive so it was extremely convenient.


Analysing the workshop offers enabled us to develop a number of themes. It also gave us an indication of other useful design factors, for example, the fact that the vast majority of people requested one hour workshops, with a second large minority who asked for two hours. This led us to rework the pattern of the timetable to fit these offers, and to ask the very few people asking for other lengths of time to adjust their workshops accordingly.

(Getting ready to) Design

From past experience, we knew that timetabling workshops can quickly become very complicated. When you factor in the details such as late offers, retracted offers, multiple offers, complicated equipment requirements, not to mention the communications required to keep on top of it all.

So, to avoid crucial details getting lost in email-land, we set up a system in which to capture the detail from day one. We set up a digital mindmap (using Xmind software), for us to record every single tiny detail that we would need to consider or action later on. At each design session, this would be updated with latest updates; we are now up to version 8.

Design from pattern to detail

Early on we designed a draft pattern level timetable, which we published on the website for feedback and ideas.

With our analysis of the offers, feedback and past experience, we redesigned the timetable pattern so all workshops are 1 hour long as standard, but 2 hours could be easily accommodated. Other key features include frequent breaks between workshops, time for neighbourhood-level people care, and a workshop-free break at the mid-way point (more on that later).

In addition to the pattern timetable, we had a number of design criteria that we had been asked to consider:

Equality of representation

It is important to begin by saying that the representativeness of workshops is a reflection of the diversity of offers that we received. To illustrate, the situation at the deadline for offers (mid-June) was that almost half were from the UK, whereas we had received less than 10 offers from scholars. This was not unsurprising, given that UK attendees make up the largest group from one country, and that many delegates did not yet know if their visa applications would be successful. However, we were keen to enable many people from different countries and backgrounds to be in the programme.

The first thing we did was to reserve a number of slots for scholars. We then tested to see whether we would be able to schedule all of the offers, thereby simply accepting the wonderful organic range of workshops as they came. However, we quickly realised we had too many. We reached the point where we would either need way too many structures or we wouldn't have any space or time left for self-managed, organic workshops.

Given the high number of offers from the UK, we decided the fairest thing to do would be to accept just one workshop each from UK attendees, except in a few exceptional circumstances, such as when people were co-offering a workshop with others. We particularly wanted the 'Stories from Around the World' spaces to be as representative as possible, so in a number of cases we asked UK attendees to share a slot, thereby reducing their presentation time to half an hour.

The next most represented countries were Australia and USA, from which a few people generously offered up to 5 workshops. So again we asked these individuals to limit themselves to their absolute favourites. A big thank you to all of those who we contacted about this, we really appreciate your understanding of the situation.

Sunday morning is a morning off

As a six-day event packed with inspiring workshops, talks and entertainments, we knew that we'd need to plan in some 'down time'.

We've all been there, telling ourselves that we will take a break but ending up going from workshop to inspiring conversation to workshop to dinner to dancing and so on... It can be hard to get away.

There will be things going on, some walks and the normal chilled-out spaces will all be available. But we will encourage you to 'accept feedback and apply self-regulation' if you are the type of person who needs to rest.

Personally, I'm looking forward to a lazy morning with a (non-permaculture!) book. But for those of you always full of beans, we are planning a couple of 'permablitz' activities. These will be great opportunities to get stuck into something practical, which will also leave a really positive legacy as well. More details will be available at the event.

Sunday afternoon is regional networking time

Time for this was also requested early on. Workshops that had a clearly regional audience are planned for Sunday afternoon, followed by a whole group 'mapping' exercise and time for regional strategic discussions.

Make space for the Next Big Step project

One of the unique things about IPCs is that they are a great opportunity for face-to-face discussions about the global permaculture movement. We have really embedded this into the programme by running a dedicated stream for global strategy discussions, as part of the Next Big Step project.

These sessions will run in the afternoons on Friday, Saturday and Monday. This sounds like a lot but is actually only nine hours! To maximise the effectiveness of this time and enable as many people to take part as want to, (but also not to force everyone to take part), we have designed the timetable with a full programme of workshops running in the morning, and fewer choices in the afternoon. This means some of the workshop spaces will be vacant in the afternoon, which brings me on to the next design criteron...

Leave space and time for self-managed workshops and informal networking

This was a really important design factor. We knew that the deadline for offering workshops was really early, and that many people wouldn't be able to submit something in time for very legitimate reasons. So keeping space free for self-organisation was a must.

We encourage attendees to use the spaces available in the afternoons (and in the early morning!) to self-organise. The system for using these spaces will be really simple. If you want to offer something, simply request a space at the Info Tent. Offers will be announced each day & added to noticeboards outside workshop spaces.


Putting it all together

Back to the process. Once we had gathered, organised and coded the workshop offers we began the process of assembling them into the timetable. We approached this using an adapted McHargs exclusion method, by working out and prioritising the constraints on each workshop. We used the term 'hierarchy of dependencies' to describe the order in which we needed to consider these constraints.

Equal first & second were (i) people offering two or more workshops could not be in two places at once and (ii) people could not be scheduled at a time when they would not be on site. These seem obvious but are not necessarily easy to keep track of and it was critical not to make a mistake here.

Third, workshop leaders who are also centrally involved in facilitating the Next Big Step project or Friends of IPC could only be scheduled in the morning.

Fourth, offers were organised in terms of whether they required to be in a specific venue (such as the cinema space or outside) and/or whether or not they needed a powered space.

Fifth, we looked at gathering people in similar sized venues (for those who had asked for a maximum).

Finally, we considered whether we could organise workshops so that there would be a good spread of themes at any given time.

Making it simple

The result of all this organising and assembling was a very exciting first draft of the timetable! Unfortunately, it was also much bigger than we imagined - on some mornings there are upwards of 15 choices. Potentially very overwhelming.

It was suggested that if we could arrange the workshops so that each theme stayed in one venue, it would make it much more simple for everyone to understand. Amazingly, it was easier than expected to tweak once everything was arranged in a visual way. The result was venues for: strategy workshops, stories from around the world, ecological practice, society & economy, social & personal, education, design, research and more.

Integrating with other programmes

In addition to the fabulous list of workshops now online, we have two more streams coming from the Children & Young People working group and from Gaia University, who will have a space throughout the event. We are currently working with both to integrate all workshops into one coherent programme.

Final tweaks

We know some of you are keen to see the timetable, and we're working as fast as possible to pull it together. Amazingly though we are still getting in offers and there are many final details to confirm, such as the After Dinner Speakers programme and allocating time to scholars who now have their visas.

To give us time for these final tweaks, we won't be able to publish the programme until two weeks before the event.