What happens when we try to create a relational learning space at a conference?

Estimated Time
15 minutes
Resource Type
TIPC Region

This blog by Victoria Shaw reflects on personal experience of trying to create a more relational space for reflection and learning at the TIP conference, exploring the tensions in embedding this approach and the benefits of doing so for the knowledge system.


In 2022, we experimented with a daily session dedicated to live ‘reflection and learning’ at the TIP conference. Over five days, we sought to create a relational space, open to all, in which to connect people and explore their personal experiences at the conference in relation to networking, aligning visions, learning and unlearning. We made the decision to hold these sessions in Zoom, rather than on the conference platform, to allow for discussion in breakout groups and a more familiar technical environment, using a simple Miro tool to capture some of the main insights from the conversations.

Every day, we invited participants joining the session to consider some thoughtful questions and engage in small group discussion about their personal experience. On the final day, the session moved into a plenary format to share learnings with a wider audience.

The visual summary of the learning journey captures the key discussion points on the theme.

But how was the experience of trying to create this more relational space within a conference environment? Here are four reflections, sharing what I learned.


‘I have the nagging feeling that reflection may be an unnecessary diversion’

My first observation was that trying something like this felt, to me, quite uncomfortable. This was despite being an advocate of this type of work, having strong backing from the conference organising team and some training in relational approaches.

I think the doubt was emerging from this question: is this an unnecessary diversion from the ‘real work’? Ultimately, this is for the Transformative Innovation Policy community to decide.

There was a lot of talk about the need for different ways of working to advance a transformative agenda, but in the end the slots for these sessions were shorter than for other plenaries and parallels, the times were later and participation in these sessions was low relative to registrations. Of course, participation can be measured in quality, not only quantity – and we’ll get to that.

But one comment on this: If the community decides that academic routines do need to change, that this type of work is not an unnecessary diversion, then we need those leaders of change efforts – in agencies, in universities, in funding organisations – to model participation in trialling different ways of working, to give courage to those in less privileged positions to try new things.


‘Relational work takes time … but a lot can be achieved in a short space of time’

In a plenary about experimentation at the conference, an online poll captured 45 criticisms and concerns about traditional conferences. Many of these comments referred to a lack of participation, interaction and deeper discussion, issues that inhibit concrete collaborations and work together after the event.

Time is often cited as a barrier to addressing these issues. We hear how relationship building takes time, and of the challenges of finding this time, particularly against a backdrop of busy participants and a packed conference agenda.

But what surprised me about these mini enquiry sessions (just 30 or 45 mins each in the end) was how much connection could be built in a short space of time if we try to instil conditions that recognise and value the contributions of everyone participating.

I noticed that even by the second day, I felt warm to the people who showed up. I trusted them. I noticed that some of the ‘signalling’ and more depersonalised language that gets in the way of direct discussion at conferences had already started to drift away, and I noticed the quality of the responses to the tasks getting higher and becoming more focused and thoughtful each day.

The chance to engage on themes in a more participatory way became addictive for participants: it was interesting to see frustration emerging on the final day when the session returned to a more traditional plenary format with presentations and Q-and-A.


‘We all lose out if conference spaces don’t tap into the insight of the whole group’

The next point is perhaps the most important observation for me. That is the question of: what are we missing if we don’t do this sort of thing?

Within just a few short sessions, our participants shared hundreds of insights – just a fraction of which made into the visual summary and other outputs.

The session drew participants from many countries, with diverse levels of research and practice experience, and different personalities – introverts and extroverts. Some of those may not had traditionally had ‘airtime’ at a conference, yet their insights were important, thought-provoking, often unexpected, and have helped to advance our understanding of the themes being tackled.

If we don’t harness broader insight, we are doing a disservice to this community working on transformation.


‘Research and policy need new skills for relational work’

Finally, the learning journey drew discussion on the need for upskilling to work in this way.

Academic career pathways, in particular, are often orientated towards the individual rather than group. Training in the sector is not addressing key competencies for action research, to tap into the knowledge and experience of diverse participants in a group. We face a skills gap around active listening, responsiveness, self-awareness and group dynamics.

For the knowledge system to work in different ways on transformation, research and innovation funders and leaders must invest in new capabilities across the research and policy community, to enable us to open up and integrate collective insight.


Our special thanks to the people who took part in these learning sessions and to the ten facilitators from TIPC and its members and partners who supported the groups through the tasks each day.


Shaw, V. (2022) What happens when we try to create a relational learning space at a conference? Available at https://tipresourcelab.net/resource/what-happens-when-we-try-to-create-a-relational-learning-space-at-a-conference/

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