Think Café: An online/offline social technology model

Think Café is an online/offline social technology model for engaging people in conversations that matter. It provides a space and time for ordinary people to question, discuss, document, share and collaborate in creating a vision for the future. It is also a medium through which knowledge, thoughts and experiences are shared and distributed, especially of those who are excluded from the traditional media.

Think Café started at a period of rapid change in Korea. The vibrant social movement in the 1980s had lost its cohesive force and the ‘old ways’ of political rallies were no longer attracting the critical mass. The rise of ‘new’ social movements in the 2000s is related to the emergence of new modes of collective action in the era of information and communication revolution. It gave rise to new social actors, a new generation of people expressing their view on various social issues (ranging from youth unemployment to economic inequality) through new digital and social media. Sociologist Eric Hoffer offers insight into the changing times: “We are usually told that revolutions are set in motion to realize radical changes. Actually, it is drastic change which sets the stage for revolution.”[i]

Mr Seung Chang Ha, the co-founder of The Change (the coordinating organisation of Think Café), was inspired by two significant social phenomena in the year 2002: a public protest in response to the acquittal of two US soldiers for the road deaths of two teenage girls and the mobilisation of 8 million people during the 2002 World Cup. These two social events, which brought thousands of people on to the streets, were sparked by ‘netizens’ (‘internet citizens’) and spread rapidly through online communication and text messages.  New technology was enabling new kinds of groups to form in the Korean society. Technology had empowered individuals to directly express their voices and concerns, and connect with people who share similar views. Mr Ha was acutely aware of the notion that, “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.”[ii] And this insight helped shape the Think Café model.

The defining feature of the Think Café model is that it is able to capture the essence of new technology and changes in the way people communicate within a social platform where they can propose and develop shared social agendas. And, further, it translates online ‘virtual’ forms of engagement and self-assembly into ‘real world’, offline engagement, while maintaining the informal, open-minded, less hierarchical, loose structure that people enjoy on the internet.

© Think Cafe / The Hope Institute

The power of Think Café meetings comes from its openness and its flexibility. Anyone can organise a Think Café anytime at any location. It brings together large, diverse and distributed groups by making it easier for people to self-organise for meaningful and purposeful meet-ups. The underlying vision of Think Cafe is to make everyone an active and engaged citizen by giving ownership and power to set their own social agenda. For instance, Mr Seung Su Kim, a social worker, experimented with the Think Café model near his home, at his own apartment building. In South Korea, urban development is characterised by the replacement of older neighbourhoods with acres of nameless new apartment blocks. Mr Kim embarked on a seemingly impossible task of building a sense of community in this concrete jungle. He wanted to create a sense of community and a space where people can share and discuss the local challenges of the neighbourhood and, further, co-create solutions to those identified problems. Natural leaders for this Think Café emerged from unexpected and previously excluded groups, such as a women’s group in the apartment, shifting the existing power dynamics of the community.

The strength of Think Café lies in the purposeful act of sharing knowledge and insight. Think Café meetings do not remain as small, disjointed, simply ‘interesting’ conversations. The participants and coordinators document the information of each meeting so that it can be shared openly with the public on the official Think Café webpage. Refined and synthesised versions are published as a book. Sharing the content with the wider public under the Think Café brand gives collective power to the important social agenda and keeps the debate alive.

The Think Café meetings pop up ‘here and there’, without a specific subject of focus. In order to harness the meetings and network of people into themes, the coordinators of Think Café organise Think Cafe Conferences regularly where keywords and themes (such as Justice, Happiness, Fairness, Change) are provided to the participants for the event. It uses ‘unconference’ format to engage a large audience in discussions and consensus-building on selected subjects. The coordinators also experimented with an Open Conference format at the end of 2011, where the participants were able to set their own themes, space and time, and the spontaneous diverse voices and meetings during the Open Conference week were then aggregated. These large scale, multi-participant conferences can serve as a constructive interaction channel between the people, civic organisations and democratic institutions.  The aim of these conferences is to produce a shared vision of how ordinary people can claim a stronger influence on the future of our society, sharing the social responsibility that goes with it.


Key Resources

The Hope Institute (2012) Think Café: the on/off-line platform where people gather, chat, share, and collectively present their suggestions to society (a report prepared for the Young Foundation)

[ii] Shirky, C (2008) Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together London: Penguin Group

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