Science cafés as participatory tools

posted 9 Nov 2015, 22:11 by Franco Bagnoli   [ updated 9 Nov 2015, 22:21 ]

By Franco Bagnoli

Hi. My name is Franco Bagnoli and I am a rather esoteric physicists working in the University of Florence (Italy). With my colleagues in the SciCafe2.0 project we are interested in a lot of (apparently) different subjects

A science café is a conference in Alice’s wonderland, i.e., upside down. Instead of listening experts who sit behind a desk, we ask experts that sit, like us, at a table and discuss with them. Science café aims at bringing science back into the society.

A video illustrating the motivation behind a science café can be find here. See also the scicafewebbook.

Science cafés are nowadays well known, even if their true essence is a bit blurry. Indeed, there are many different variations: with one, two or more experts, with or without slides, with different time allowed to presentations, with streaming, recording, podcasts…. But in any case I think that true essence of a science cafe is that it is driven by the public: it is the public the real engine that extracts knowledge from the experts.

By playing with the double meaning of the Italian word “caffé” (a place — caffé — and a substance — coffee) we can illustrate the working of a science café using the Italian machine for making coffee: the moka.



All the different flavours of science cafés have in common the word “science”. What does it refers to? Mainly, it is the argument of the discussion: the Higgs boson, or the AIDS pandemia, or the latest biological applications… I would propose a shift of this meaning. The term “science” should refer to the method — the scientific method — and to the environment — the scientific environment. The very essence of the scientific method is that of not allowing anyone to impose his/her opinion by his/her role, but only because he/her is convincing. And the scientific environment is a peer one, in which anybody is allowed to talk or pose questions.

Why this shift? Because I think that the concept of science cafes can be adopted also for non- scientific moments, and become a method for synthesizing collective knowledge. Many democratic institutions or movements face the problem of taking decisions. In general, there are always some leaders, or some designed spokesmen that has the duty of resuming the deliberations and decide what to do, but it is generally quite difficult to let good ideas emerge and refine in a large assembly. This has probably to do with our attitude as human beings (and thus with our history): we feel more at home in small groups, say of 12 person maximum, and we feel intimidated by a crowd. Moreover, we are more apt to speak in very small groups, of about 4-5 people [1,2]. Based on this, there are techniques, like the word cafes (nothing to do with science cafes), in which a relatively small number of people are scattered in conversation groups with frequent exchanges among them. But it is of course very difficult to apply this technique to a large group, especially if the decision to be taken needs some technical or scientific information (i.e., an interaction with experts).

In general, in this case one resorts to a conference, followed by questions. But the whole arrangement of a conference is polarizing: experts are allowed to lead the conversation, people do not feel at home, and question time is usually limited. Moreover, individual’s response depends a lot by the environment: isolated individuals can be easily influenced by a crowd, while an acquaintance group may resist better to this pressure [2].

I think that the experience of science cafes should be considered in this cases. Science cafes are small events, in which people sit near friends (and exchange impression with them), and feel empowered by the environment. Indeed, we have to analyse more in details how and when science cafes really work. For instance: are people after a science cafe more tolerant with respect to other ideas? Do they remember the argument discussed better and longer than in a conference? It is possible to reach a consensus? We have to investigate carefully on this topic.

Clearly, on this ground one has to extend the method of science cafes in order to allow a larger public, i.e., one has to think big. This implies using broadcasting tools, and I consider mainly web-based streaming and podcasting, since they allow also feedback from the public. In Florence [4] and Rome [5], we usually stream our debates on YouTube, and then make a better-quality video available. People can interact through the YouTube textual chat system, but I would like to develop a more capable interface. In my opinion, this interface should allow distant people to feel at home (or at pub) even if using a tablet, a computer or a cellular phone. Thinking to the human numbers that I presented above, I think that the interface should include the streaming, a channel for making questions, but also a way of chatting and commenting in private with friends. I would like to see virtual coffee tables in which conversations can start, and questions distilled before being presented. These coffee tables can be chat rooms or other interacting systems like twitter or Facebook. Other tools that are available using the web technology are feedbacks (concerning the topic, the organization and the experts), and instant polls (if needed by the task). These tools could be easily used also by people in the physical audience, if needed. As a rough example of technological-enhanced event, I recently co- organized conferences with many (about 200) attendees [6], and lots of questions. I asked people to send questions by short text messages (SMS). In this way the questions were sufficiently concise (even though people are quite happy to exceed the 140 characters of a single SMS), but at least the moderator was able to group and resume them. In this way, we were able to comment more than 25 questions in a relatively short time (one hour). Moreover, the public liked a lot this systems, as they could send questions and comments on the fly, while the expert was still speaking.

Concluding, I am not proposing at all to replace traditional science cafes, but rather to adopt its method for gathering collective intelligence from relatively large assemblies using a human-based scientific approach.

Franco Bagnoli


[1] Christopher Allen, The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Sizes

[2] Sheila Margolis, What is the optimal group size for decision- making?, making/

[3] Wikipedia, Crowd manipulation, [4] Caffè-scienza Firenze. Web site:; youtube channel:

[5] FormaScienza Roma. Web site; youtube channel

[6] Incontri con la città,