By Aurore Dandoy & François-Xavier de Vaujany

 

This summer, walking has been a trendy topic in French bookstores. Presented either as healthy practice, an opportunity for true, reflexive loneliness, a possibility to explore a territory, a new managerial approach or a political engagement, walk is an embodied practice at the heart of numerous trends and fashions today. Indeed, it is a very old practice. Aristotle taught philosophy while walking in the Lyceum of ancient Athens. Beyond the peripatetic school, situationists (with the practice of ‘drifting’) or revolutionaries (through walk as a protest) have all settled practice as a movement with possible political connotations.

Walk is also an experience. Moving from one place to another (see vignette 1 below) without thinking about it, there is something lived in-between. Walking as a group of researchers outside university walls is an intriguing liminal experience. For academics (and probably entrepreneurs…) experimenting the indoor world is much more common than the outdoor one. We cross, move, see public spaces, but we rarely do something from and in them.

When we began the Open Walked Event-Based Experimentations (OWEE) adventure, we were not aware of the novelty (in particular for many researchers) of such as practice of walked conversations and events taking place in inner courts, streets, gardens or public squares. What is more striking is that we did not plan to walk in-between two places for academic purposes. It was the easiest way to reach the next destination for an association with no resources. Now, walked conversations including citizens, entrepreneurs, artists, students, academics and activists have become our flagship, as a ‘do’ tank (RGCS). More and more, we believe that the practice of walking has implications both for research, teaching and the political relevance of any knowledge co-produced by a community.

Vignette 1: Walk as a shared and diverse experience

Walking does not boil down to putting one foot after the other. As reminded by the French poet Baudelaire with his vision of flânerie or by Leroi-Gourhan in his anthropological account of hominids who became human when stood on their feet, walk is a central experience in our lives. However, it would be a mistake to believe that there is a normality or normal state or process of walking epitomized by so-called ‘healthy people’. Walking in our perspective is not incompatible with wheelchairs, disabilities and drifts. It is both the most shared and the most diverse experience.

 

OWEE (Open Walked Event-based Experimentations) in practice: a couple of astonishments

Since our first event in Berlin in July 2016, our network has organized numerous learning expeditions and field trips all over the world. We want to come back here to the live, hot, ‘in the event’ community management of our walk and discussions.

First of all, what we find striking is a size effect. We have had the opportunity to manage very small (2) or very big (67) groups of people in the context of our learning expeditions. Managing a group of three or five people makes improvisation and drifting (derive) much easier. Community managers and participants can improvise visits and people encountered in the flow of their questions and their discussions. The bigger the group, the more likely it is to stick to the program (e.g. to make coordination more effective). It appears more manageable to co-produce the program within small groups, even if when we are big groups, the group can split spontaneously and re-assemble at some point.

Then, the process of walking has been full of interesting micro-observations and micro-experimentations. Stopping somethings and doing a break has often been a way to re-constitute the group and the collective conversation. Walking the conversation, in particular after something likely to be commented (a visit), made it also often more fluid. But again, a good community management requires to pay attention to the sub-groups likely to emerge and re-emerge and to do stops, games, open conversations… likely to break them.

In line with this concern, the use of (crowded) public transportations has also often been particularly useful. First, one can avoid all day long someone, but once in a crowded tramway or metro, you are pushed and can be close (or closer) to someone you wanted to avoid. Then, a social convention is activated. You cannot spend 20 minutes in silence with someone you know and will spend other hours or day with. You feel you have to say something. Second, walking is a tiring activity and people needs to rest regularly to avoid tiredness which increases negative emotions and risks of conflicts. Moment of meals are also an important part of the schedule in order to not lose people or split the group at wrong times.

Interestingly we also noticed that outdoor parts of our events were performative precisely because of an in and out set of movements. Just walking continuously outdoor does not necessary create something for those in the group or those following us from far. This is the movement and tempo and narrative of this movement that can bring a particular performativity and narrativity. In the case of the social movement called Nuits Debouts in France, public gathering place de la République in Paris were performative because people kept ‘coming back’. Because we felt that these people had an ‘house’, were ‘in’ a couple of hours or days before. Because they could or should be somewhere. Because the length of their stay here, the duration of the narrative, was a way to show their determination.

But it is also important to specify that OWEEs walks and conversations are always extended by means of online social networks. Some people follows us. They walk symbolically with us. They interact with the group and the people encountered and wrapped (e.g. through mentions of Twitter) in the online narrative. After our events, the use of posts, articles and videos is also a way to extend in time and space a narration which will be put in the loop of future events and their live tweets and onsite narration.

With more or less success, our learning expeditions try to include a high variety of people: academics, entrepreneurs, artists, activists, public policy managers, journalists, slashers, students, workers, etc. This unusual situation (some people do not understand that they will join such a heterogeneous group) sets up great opportunities for fluid conversations and collaborations. It is interesting to see that behind job status, we are all made of flesh, something a long walk makes obvious.

As an ongoing protocol, all OWEEs are different from the others and give new insights for enhancing the protocol. A year ago, we were trying to write a guide for a walked community management (an “OWEE box”). We stood numerous mandatory requirements, such as duration of the OWEE or tools to use to collect data. Now, on the contrary, we encourage micro-experimentations, such as enhance the improvisation part of the learning expedition or the use of camera to interview participants and passersby.

 

Eight practices in our walked community management

Beyond the diversity of our events, we identified in our notes a set of particular practices community managers are likely to enact in the context of a OWEE-based learning expeditions (see table 1 below). This analysis is based in particular on our learning expeditions in Berlin (July, 2016), Tokyo (July, 2017), Paris (March, June, 2018) and Boston (July, 2018) which we had the opportunity to animate together or separately.

 

PRACTICE OF WALKED COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT

DESCRIPTION

LIMITATIONS

Practice 1: Assembling and re-assembling the group

Bringing a visible dressing and/or artifact. Keeping a visibility on the street. Identifying representatives of sub-groups.

Guiding, re-assembling can also break the fluidity and openness of the conversation. It can also be at the opposite of a spirit of improvisation.

Practice 2: Dissolving or connecting sub-groups

Doing stops, breaks, jokes, provocations, to make the conversation as open and fluid as possible.

Some people just want to be alone. The presence of sub-groups can also be important for the creative activity that will take place on site, indoor.

Practice 3: Maintaining a sense of openness and improvisation

Not coming with a paper-based version of the program. Showing that things can be changed from the beginning, as quickly as possible.

Some people left the group because they interpreted this as a lack of direction or leadership.

Practice 4: Directing to next stops and public transportations

Using entry processes in metro, buses, and tramways, the process of buying tickets, as a ‘shaker’ and key time for the discussions about what could be done next.

Some people have their own bike or have a precise idea of the way we should follow.

Practice 5: Extending the walk online

 

Using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Blogs, Framapads and other tools to comment, reflect, share, the dynamic of the walk. Including the live experience into a broader narrative (doing a temporal work, see Kaplan and Orlikowski, 2013).

Some people do not want to appear online, on pictures tweeted. This practice can also foster a very artificial way of behaving. Good not to tweet all the time.

Practice 6: Coordinating the walk among participants

Finding a way to coordinate the walk. Include two key issues: people can get lost, some people may need to come in and out during the event and may need to find the group again. Some people just want to share things between the group… and not on Twitter.

At some point, a WhatsApp group can be so successful that people will not share anymore things on social media.

Practice 7: Encouraging initiatives and spontaneous experimentations

Listening to suggestions or negative impressions. Looking closely at every participant and wandering when one stays alone if it is a need of loneliness or someone who is waiting for something else and who could lead his/her idea as another micro-experimentation.

Guiding a group with a partially organized program is a challenge but allowing people to change everything in it, even the organized part can cripple the guide.

Practice 8: Being a catalyst (Brafman & Beckstrom, 2006)

Putting one’s ego aside to enhance participants’ initiative. Listening to one’s life story. Mapping skills and needs among the group. Trying to help everyone with answers, new questions or connections with someone who could help. Being trustful and honest when previous engagement cannot be kept. Accelerating and catalyzing interesting trends ongoing trends in the group more than trying to impulse things all the time.

It can be frustrating for the organizer to not act as a leader but as a catalyst (the one who closes the walk, not the one leading it). Questions like “what will we do next?” or “where do we go?” must not be answered as a tourist guide but merely as a fellow walker: “I don’t know, what do you think?”.

 

Embodiment is at the heart of a walked community management. Gestures, postures, rhythms of the walk by the community manager, all contribute to make the learning expedition expressive for all those walking or joining far in time and space the conversation. And the eight practices we have stressed before all engage bodies, corporeity and intercorporeity (Merleau-Ponty, 1945) in the process of walking.

 

References

Brafman, O., & Beckstrom, R. A. (2006). The starfish and the spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations. Penguin.

Kaplan, S., & Orlikowski, W. J. (2013). Temporal work in strategy making. Organization science, 24(4), 965-995.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945, 2013). Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris : Éditions Gallimard.

 

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