Sociology of Kiwi Foo, an Unconference

Kiwi Foo Baa Camp timetable

On Friday the 11th of March, I travelled to Auckland New Zealand for Kiwi Foo, a two-and-a-half day “unconference” where 150 participants from New Zealand and other parts of the world from a wide range of professional backgrounds self-organise the sessions. This includes people from technology companies, policy and community organisations, as well as academics . The idea behind Foo Camp is to bring together like-minded individuals who might otherwise not meet, and listen to one another and look for ways to connect in our common goal to make the world a better place.

In order to attend, one must be nominated by a previous Foo alumn from Kiwi camp or SciFoo from the UK. You pay for your own travel but all other costs, including food and lodging if you want it, are provided. When you accept the invitation, you nominate three keywords. Upon arrival, in a large hall filled with around three hundred people, each person stands up to introduce themselves by their name, their affiliation and their keywords, without elaboration. It took awhile but it was really fun. I went representing myself (and this blog!) and my three keywords were: gender equity & diversity; science communication; sociology.

Kiwi Foo proved to be one of the most personally challenging but most rewarding experiences I’ve had. It was an insightful sociological weekend. This is part one of two posts. Part one focuses on what I learned, how I was inspired, and why you should jump at the chance to go, should you get  a chance. Part two contains my talk, Informed and practical ways to enhance gender equity and diversity in STEMM.

The Unconference Challenge

The Other Sociologist goes to New Zealand!
The Other Sociologist goes to New Zealand!

I do a lot of public speaking. I started out as a tutor (teaching assistant) and lecturer in academia and have since worked in different government and industry contexts. My current job sees me speaking to large academic audiences all over Australia as well as senior scientists and Executives. All that history does not compare to how uncomfortable I felt at the idea of an unconference.

I have been reading about unconferences for many years and liked the concept, but had never considered attending. I like to be hyper-prepared when I do a presentation, even when I have to deliver under time-pressured conditions. I left academia a decade ago, but for many years I attended the annual Australian sociology conference. In fact, my only previous visit to New Zealand was for the one-off combined Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand conference in 2007, which was held in Christchurch. Coincidentally that was the same year I stopped going to academic conferences, mostly because the timing does not really suit applied work (at the end of the academic year, which is a busy time for applied researchers working beyond the academy).

My current job is very demanding and I travel constantly. Having just finished an exhausting trip around Australia in February, the idea of travelling again so soon was taxing. So why did I go? Kiwi Foo was so intriguing and so unlike anything I’ve ever done, I decided to go even though it was daunting. Also the proposition of presenting to a new type of audience was invigorating in its own way, as I desperately miss the intellectual interaction from attending conferences and presenting my own work.

My personal life, politics, leisure and paid work are all intermeshed. As my regular readers know, other than social justice issues, I write about two things consistently: women in academia and science generally, as well as science literacy and communication. I help run several sociology and science communities. The way in which I think and write about these issues on my blog impacts my day job. For these reasons I was excited to potentially make new connections at Kiwi Foo with other people who care about gender equity and diversity in similar ways to my personal preference. I was trepidatious but excited at the idea of meeting practitioners across the Tasman Sea who were similarly committed.

Kiwi Foo New Zealand
Auckland Airport

From the little I knew about Kiwi Foo, it seemed dominated by people from tech backgrounds. I didn’t doubt the natural and physical sciences would be at home at Kiwi Foo – but what about social science? I wondered how my unapologetic intersectional feminism would be received. All of the public sociology and science communication (scicomm) I do brings a lot of abuse and it can be very draining. Other elements of my daily work exposes me to painful experiences of discrimination, sexism and racism. I felt raw from the cumulative experiences of harassment from work, blogging and my activism. In my little precious time off, travelling on only a couple of hours of sleep, did I want to subject myself to the possibility of being face to face with more hostility?

In the end, I went for two reasons. First and foremost because it’s an opportunity I might otherwise never have again and second, because I felt so uncomfortable at the unconference format that I knew I had to try it once.

At an early stage of Kiwi Foo, a lovely and well-meaning male colleague said that previous Kiwi Foos had gone poorly for feminist discussions, with much derailment from the mostly-male audience. This did little to allay my inner disquiet.

I needn’t have worried. Kiwi Foo turned out to provide a highly supportive discursive space where feminists were not only welcome, but heard and validated by new colleagues looking to make a change. In fact, I was heartened that the Kiwi Foo website has an anti-harassment policy that is also emailed upon registration. This solidified my decision to attend the conference. Details like this make a tremendous difference on women, as conferences cansometimes be be daunting places where sexual harassment and sexism prevail. Thankfully this was not the case.

Kiwi Foo led to one of the most productive gender equity discussions I’ve participated in.

Foo Feminists

Kiwi Foo Baa Camp, Snells Beach, Auckland
Kiwi Foo Baa Camp, Snells Beach, Auckland

After a long and delayed flight from Canberra, it was a comedic tragedy trying to meet my travelling companions once I cleared customs at Auckland airport. One of the many benefits of Kiwi Foo Camp is its excellent organisation. As soon as you accept registration, you get access to private parts of the website and various other apps and tools to coordinate travel with other Foosters. Seven of us travelled in a van. Auckland traffic turned out to be treacherous. Google Maps had told me to expect Foo Camp being only one hour and 15 minutes from the airport… but on a Friday afternoon, Auckland’s roads had another devilish notion. My flight arrived was meant to arrive at 3:15 PM. By the time we set off from the airport it was well after 4 PM. We did not arrive at Base Camp until after 7:30 PM.

Luckily, my fellow travellers turned to be just as interesting as I’d hoped, including tech entrepreneurs, designers, economists, policy advisors, and academics. We feared we’d missed all the introductory fun, which starts from 5 PM and includes choosing sessions. Luckily, the organisers delayed the formal proceedings, such as they were, to after our arrival. Unfortunately due to the delay, I didn’t get to properly meet my whanau (Maori for “family”), the Rhinos, which was a shame. Each newbie is paired with a more experienced person who has attended Kiwi Foo before to help them navigate their way around.

Not fully knowing what to expect, it was fortuitous that one of the first things I saw when we got to Base Camp was one of the organisers… a man, wearing a t-shirt proclaiming: “This is What a Feminist Looks Like.” The next day I would see another man wearing a FEMINIST t-shirt. These little signs made me feel immediately at ease.

Kiwi Knowledge

Kiwi Foo lounge
Kiwi Foo lounge

The unconference begins after the three-word introductions, where new Kiwi Foos are given first preference in putting up proposed talks and sessions. The main lounge area has several large posters up around the room with times and rooms available and you take the spot that best suits you. Most people do not propose talks but rather prefer to participate in discussions. If there are similar talks, the organisers will encourage the speakers to join together in the spirit of collaboration.

The talks were surprising in breadth of topic and sentiment. There were talks about new research and innovation; but there were also talks about how to redefine life after surviving cancer; some people nominated their own passion projects or their professional work; but others led discussions on how to enhance collaboration and not for profit work. Almost every talk was an interactive discussion or hands-on session, and few people used any PowerPoint.

Below you get a sense of the diversity of talks I’m going to tell you a little about some of the sessions I attended.

Law, I.T. and the future

Judge David Harvey
Judge David Harvey

David Harvey, a former judge recently turned academic, talked about progressive online legislation. He is set to open a new academic centre on the topic and sought ideas and questions about the type of issues they might cover, as well as crowd-sourcing ideas for further funding. He talked about how slow the law has been to catch up on international patterns of internet use, and how online legal resources were arcane and difficult to navigate. I asked about how to bridge the digital divide given some socio-economic groups barely have access to reliable internet connections, including in Australia. Harvey said dedicated public spaces such as libraries and court houses should support access to online laws.

Taking people with you

Kiwi Foo main hall
Kiwi Foo main hall

Another session on building stronger teams when creating social movements was well attended by people from various backgrounds. Shaun Hendy and Jess Weichler led the session. We sat on pillows on the ground and shared our experiences running volunteer groups. Other audience members talked about methods to leverage corporate sponsorship, and the limits of different approaches, as well as online tools to help connect potential volunteers to particular causes through skills, not just their passions. One suggestion that appealed to many people, including me, was Wellington’s Time Bank, where volunteers are “paid” in time credits, which they can use to hire someone else to volunteer for your cause.

A few of us discussed the challenges in keeping volunteers engaged, by knowing why they sign up and by validating their service in tangible (if not material) ways.

I talked about how one of my common experiences co-managing several scicomm groups is that people who volunteer do so for different reasons, and expectations will vary. One thing that has helped the groups I volunteer with is to set rules and be explicit on what it means to be a volunteer, as well as publicly state our values. For example, in an earlier incarnation of Science on Google+, three women of color moderators would exclusively respond to sexist trolling in our online science community. It helps that, with clear guidelines and new volunteer moderators, we can explicitly say our group is run by feminists, and know that our male colleagues will uphold this.

I liked the suggestion by another participant who said that showing appreciation of volunteers goes a long way, with someone else suggesting that “experiences” are given as trade and “payment.” For example, friends will donate activities (such as indoor rock climbing) that a volunteer group can offer their members, in exchange for other forms of volunteering.

Networking is hard

Kiwi Foo central lounge area
Kiwi Foo central lounge area

Laura Campbell, a lawyer in her everyday life, and Mikee Tucker, founder of record label Loop, led a lovely discussion on how to make networking more diverse and accessible. A colleague talked about how Kiwi Foo was great, but very difficult for an introverted scientist such as himself. He suggested that organisers might consider putting on more one-on-one activities every evening. The first night, there were drinks and everyone was supposed to meet their team leaders. But for people like my travelling companions and I, who arrived late due to international flight and traffic chaos, missed the early team building. Another colleague also missed the introductions due to a delayed flight. Team activities on the first night were good, but still force introverted people into group situations when they are trying to settle in. Games and structured conversation scenarios are more ideal for introverts.

I made a (rather clumsy) point about logistics of networking. Having just organised a series of workshops in different cities, I had become painfully aware that the breastfeeding facilities I’d asked for were woefully inadequate and had led to one participant having to go home. My point was probably lost, but what I wanted to make clear is that networking at events should be inclusive in many different ways. From ensuring that people with caring responsibilities are accommodated, and that disability access is high on the agenda. It’s also useful for networking organisers to think about other matters of inclusion, such as creating social events that aren’t predicated on sharing alcohol.

One woman at Kiwi Foo for example, left a game we were playing because people were starting to drink more heavily. Some people’s religious or cultural beliefs mean they can’t participate in networking events where alcohol is being served. Certainly during the games, those who were drinking more heavily became excessively mean, and were reminded exclusively by women facilitators about the Kiwi Foo rules against excessive drinking. Other people’s rowdy behaviour, edging towards the nasty and confrontational side, made an otherwise great night uncomfortable for the rest of us.

So balance is key: different type of activities, in different types of social arrangements, to maximise inclusion.

Co-design to tackle complex social problems

Jane Strange discussing co-design
Jane Strange discussing co-design

Jane Strange talked about using co-design to tackle social policy problems. This involves not simply gathering data from community groups affected by particular issues, but also supporting community members to lead solutions. Using a set of posters, Strange discussed how two government agencies partnered with an NGO to better engage youth in South Auckland to increase the rates of youth-of-driving-age getting their licence. This area has a low-socioeconomic profile with high rates of youth crime and incarceration, however, many offences begin with minor issues, such as driving without a license. Getting a licence requires a relatively sound level of literacy and additional costs to qualify, and in rural areas where many families are struggling on social welfare, such things are luxuries.

Strange talked about driving licenses as a social justice issue. Eighty percent of youth cannot afford to pay driving-without-a-license fees of around $200. They are duped by the system into accepting community service, convinced by unscrupulous advisers that this is a good way to get work experience; however, this is a gateway into the criminal system. After another offence of driving-without-a-license, youth are less likely to get community service and instead are sent to jail, which exposes them to other criminal activities.

Not having a licence is also an economic justice issue: 70% of jobs in this area require a license. Strange talked about one young person who was qualified as a nurse but had to wait to be able to afford to go for their full licence, which meant working at a burger place for two years, while her qualifications went to waste.

Where driving-without-a-license is the norm, there are family consequences. One youth Strange worked with had been fined and subsequently lost his car. Now he continues to drive his mother’s car unlicensed, which jeopardises his mother’s car being impounded.

In this context, it became clear that the legal framework was failing youth and their communities.

Strange’s program connected youth with agencies, service providers and other community workers so they could together find priority areas during an initial workshop. Beyond traditional community consultation, youth would test their own recommendations by going back to their own communities and testing their proposals. Youth and community members were involved in evaluating and improving the new set of guidelines and public information campaign ideas. At the implementation phase, multiple ministers and a range of government agencies were linked together to find ways to keep the program running long term.

Strange noted that to collaborate in co-design policy, government agencies had to be willing to lose control. While this proves very challenging for policy-makers, the program so far suggests the results are far better than perpetuating the senseless imprisonment of disadvantaged young people.

This Girl Can

Digital strategist, Dan West, discussed the impact of “behavioural economics” in tapping into gender equity themed advertisements. West noted that the UK ranks at around 7th place in the world amongst men who exercise, however it is in 17th place in terms of women who exercise. In comparison, Sweden ranks in 4th place for women. Market research shows that women in Britain refrain from exercise for a mix of reasons:

  • Worried about looks when exercising
  • Concerned about letting their team down
  • Mothers sacrifice the time they would otherwise spend at the gym to spend more time with their children.

For their advertising campaign for This Girl Can UK, West’s team focused on fear of judgement. The campaign was mostly well received on social media, evidenced in encouraging tweets; however, there was some backlash. The advertisement was made by “mostly women” (though West did not elaborate further) and yet the public perceived that the opposite must be true. Some women perceived that the use of the word “girl” infantalised women. At the same time, West reports that the advertisement had success in increasing the number of women who exercised over a 1.5 year period.

During questions from the floor, West addressed the misuse of behaviour economics and brand identity, such as Cadbury chocolates sponsoring an exercise campaign. In another case, Dove’s “feeling hot” campaign focused on women’s hairless underarms.

I’m not a fan of behaviour economics as it overstates how consumer behaviour is supposedly “universally” driven by “irrational” choices. This is a Western European concept that significantly fails to address cultural variability, and it also fails to address the role of structural inequalities when accounting for the motivations behind consumer choices of vulnerable populations (which I have co-researched with respect to social marketing).

What I especially enjoyed about this walk was West’s open-ended reflection on the social justice “foot print” of advertising. He mused: what is the accountability for his field? He used the example of Benson & Hedges, a cigarette company now being held accountable for contributing to decades of poor health, spurred by heavy-handed and misleading advertising. West notes, however, that while the smoking giant has faced public scrutiny, the advertising agencies who worked with them have not.

Ethics and social justice in advertising – a fruitful dialogue that I’d like to pick up again some day.


Kiwi Foo tent city. Werewolf free since March 2016
Kiwi Foo tent city. Werewolf free since March 2016

The two nights at Kiwi Foo we played a fun and sociologically intriguing game called Werewolf. I’ve never played it before but my cousin assures me it’s like the game Mafia. Each player is given a card with their identity. Most are villagers, but at least two players are werewolves, who silently collude to kill off villagers in their sleep overnight. At least one person is a seer who can “check” who might be a werewolf while the village is asleep, and another person is the healer, who can protect one villager in case they are picked for an attack overnight.

The most experienced player is God; the person who assigns village roles via the cards, and who helps the other special players complete their nightly activities. They also keep the village on time; villagers awake to find out who was killed and they deliberate to identify and kill the werewolves before nightfall. As more people are picked off, villagers may choose to support the healers and seers whose identities are secret to come into the open to further narrow down the list of suspected werewolf.

The game is sociologically insightful because, like most games, competition in Western societies brings out extreme behaviour in individuals. Most psychology studies are based on the WEIRD model: Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic participants. This leads to patterns of individual competition and aggression. When faced with a game of competition, some non-WEIRD cultures develop group-based solutions, even if it means some trade-offs for individuals.

The WEIRD response was on extreme display in Werewolf.

The games we played involved at least 20 players and so the game went for a long time, and multiple games were being played in different rooms (other people preferred to socialise individually or in other spaces). At the beginning of each game, when there is no other information, villagers make werewolf accusations based on nonsensical ideas. I kept being singled out because the first question asked was, “Who is Australian? Kill the Australian!” Everyone laughed. The accused then has an opportunity to defend themselves. People were signalled out often for mean reasons and the same people were being picked off again and again. There was an element of primary school cruelty. I wondered about the patterns people were playing out: I think you’re the werewolf because I don’t like your beard; I don’t like your jacket; I don’t like your face. This was easily the least enjoyable part of the game.

Werewolf is based on skilled deception and it a lot of fun, as not everyone pandered to juvenile meanness. I played for hours and even delayed my precious sleep as long as possible the night before my 9AM talk. The sociological aspect is watching the group dynamics during discussions of who should be killed off as a potential werewolf. There were instances where no decision was made which meant two villagers were killed off instead of one.

The Stanford Prison Experiment infamously argues that otherwise law abiding White middle class people turn into despots with the slightest bit of power (though I’ve shown the cultural limits of making universal inferences from this research). Werewolf was a less extreme version: players take glee in accusing and killing off others. It is a nice social experiment and worthwhile playing to see what rationales emerge for accusing werewolves, as well as trusting seers and healers.

It was infinitely amusing that this was the game we played for hours on end, given that the rest of the weekend was spent in serious discussions about collaborating to make the world a better place.

During the fun plenary talks, a member of each group gave a lighting short speech, with PowerPoint slides flashing by to keep them on time. Lisa Wong talked about the use of games at work for team building. She discussed a few examples of board and character based games that require teams to work together, as activities she runs at her work during leisure time. I am a big supporter of adults playing such team building games and generally of play.

The question remains: is there a way to play the Werewolf differently, perhaps less about individual competition, and maybe more in the spirit of Kiwi Foo?

So long and thanks for all the Foo

Some parting thoughts to future Foosters who might happen to read this post:

  • If you get a chance to do an unconference, do it! I found it to be intellectually and creatively inspiring. Skip the PowerPoint slides
  • Opt to stay on site: some people stayed in tents, others in bunks. As soon as you get your email invite, get in early and secure your sleeping place. It took me awhile but I found a lovely place – yet even the short walk (less than 15 minutes) was punishing in the poorly lit night
  • Find ways to make introverted people feel welcome: one-on-one opportunities for networking work a treat. What about a “speed meet” session where everyone talks to a few new people about pre-structured topics? Get in on Werewolf for sure, but maybe create other opportunties for play and interaction, and consider creating no-alcohol spaces. Don’t leave it to women to remind boistrous, drunk men about the rules; this is offputting at best and a bit scary
  • Consider intersectionality: I was impressed that one of the keynotes was Potaua Biasiny-Tule, a Maori entrepreneur who talked about his internet business in a way that told the story of his community. More diverse speakers from a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds and gender balance (including transgender speakers) is always better wherever possible
  • Make feminism visible: I cannot talk highly enough of having the rules of conduct include a statement against harassment and as I noted the men wearing their feminism on their sleeve – or chests – was important in making me feel welcome
  • Cross-disciplinary dialogue matters: By far the greatest success of Kiwi Foo to my mind was in how the organisers brought together individuals from different sectors. I speak about and work on gender equity and diversity every day – but I really needed this space, to speak about these themes as myself, and interact with others on the same level. I hope there is further scope for connecting with the people I met beyond the social media ties I currently have.

Even though it was just a conference, attending Kiwi Foo was a leap of faith which ended up rejuvenating me at a vital time in my life and career.  One of my favourite lines ever about networking actually comes from Guy Kawasaki, ex-Apple and technology “evangelist,” who said this in context of start ups and social media: plant many seeds. Rather than being hierarchical, creating connections with one person “LonelyBoy 15” can lead to big things over time; that’s the power of social media. This is also how I see gender equity and diversity work.

Thank you to the organisers for planting new seeds. I hope to see these ideas grow and cross-fertilise over time.

Read about my Kiwi Foo talk in Part 2: Informed and practical ways to enhance gender equity and diversity in STEMM.


All photos of Kiwi Foo by me are available for use from my Flickr under Creative Commons. In accordance to Foo rules, I asked all participants photographed for permission to take pictures and write about their work on social media (other than the plenaries which were obviously keynote talks).

2 thoughts on “Sociology of Kiwi Foo, an Unconference

Comments are closed.