World Café for Building Community and Beyond - An Interview with Shirley Lam

World Café for Building Community and Beyond - An Interview with Shirley Lam

In the last three months, I have hosted various discussions using the World Café format, covering topics ranging from reflecting on your achievements in 2023, to improving the Casual Tech Meetup, and conversations about innovation and intrapreneurship.

Recently, I was interviewed by Shirley Lam, who introduced me to this methodology and also co-hosted the first two World Café events with me.

In this interview, I shared my hosting experiences and discussed the future potential I see.

Q1: Can you provide a brief context on how this series of World Cafe-inspired events started? What are the similarities/differences among them?

A: The first event, "Your 2023 Rewind," on December 12th, was initiated because I wanted to host an event that would allow participants to reflect on their personal and career achievements in 2023.

In the previous event I hosted, the conversations were impromptu, with no facilitation or moderation. Participants would talk about their careers, side projects, and travel stories. For this specific event, I wanted to have a sharper focus that could guide participants in reflection but also be flexible enough for them to interact with different attendees.

Shirley thus introduced me to the World Café event format, which leverages a more structured process that maximizes the exchange of thoughts between participants. I thought this was an interesting idea to try and a new experience I could offer the participants. The result was amazing, participants felt included, energized, and inspired by each other stories. We were also able to generate a big picture of the group for their 2024 aspirations as a closing.

The common themes of 2024 for this group were #Mental health #Growth mindset, translated into AI-generated images

The second event on February 1st, 2024, also utilized the World Café format aiming to distil insights from our previous community participants of Casual Tech Meetup —a community I founded in 2022.

After hosting over 15 gatherings, I wanted to bring back previous participants and gather their thoughts on what they enjoyed most about our previous events, as well as gather ideas on how to run more fulfilling events in the future.

I co-hosted this with Shirley and adopted the same World Café format (using 3 questions, rotating small groups, and final harvest). During the final harvest, we invited participants to come up with their most wanted event features to improve this community. The result was fabulous, I have a renewed understanding of the core values of Casual Tech Meetup, and also felt grateful for receiving 65 new ideas from our 16 participants. I was very satisfied with the result, using World Café as a way to unfold collective wisdom from participants.

Community participants were submitting ideas to help build the next version of it

For the latest event on February 27th, 2024, I was collaborating with a tech company and Michael to build awareness for their new course about Future Design, targeting young professionals working in innovation.

Unlike traditional knowledge-sharing events like fireside chats and panel discussions, which are more one-directional, we wanted an event where participants could interact and engage with the panelists*.

Taking inspiration from World Café's question and guest rotation format, I made a twist on it, and increased the number of participants from 4 to 7 per group, mainly due to the venue limitations. I also assigned 2 panellists to help facilitate the discussion. Participants were guided by three questions in three rounds to share their stories on driving changes within organizations, listening to other's experiences, and discuss on questions e.g. "If you were to describe a key element of driving innovation in an organization, what would it be and why?" to crystallize the essence of innovation based on the inspirations.

The common theme from participants to drive change are embracing failure, communication and experimentation.

*Panellists here are similar to the table hosts in the traditional World Café. They are also participants but will be the first ones to share to set the tone and facilitate the conversations in a minimal.


  • Event Structure: All events featured a rotation mechanism, a structure with three questions, and a final harvest/sharing session.
  • Event Venue: All events took place in locations that offered snacks, food, and drinks - an important condition for guests to feel relaxed and create a space for conversation.


  • Group Size: The third event had a larger total number of participants, tighter time and venue constraints, therefore the group size was increased from 4 to 7, and added two panellists to help facilitate the conversation.
  • Rotation mechanism: In response to the larger group size, I came up with specific rules to move people between tables to reduce confusion.

Q2: How was your experience of hosting? What has surprised you or made you ponder throughout the process?

A: I must say, the impact of these events is significant for both the host and participants. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement from the participants during the discussions.

Initially, I had assumed that people might be more interested in less constrained conversations, and I was concerned whether a 15-minute discussion with four people would be too long for a single question. However, after conducting the first and second events, I truly believe that participants are genuinely interested in this type of conversation. They have expressed that there aren't many opportunities in their daily lives to engage and participate in such discussions.

One thing I noticed about the events is that we need to ensure that guests arrive maybe 30 to 40 minutes before the start of the World Café, so they can socialize and become familiar with each other before the discussion begins.

The most challenging part is coming up with the three questions. It really forces the host to clarify the purpose of the discussion in order to create meaningful questions. The structure that Shirley suggests has been very helpful (past, present, and future; on a personal level, community level, and societal level). I wonder if there are some templates or additional examples to assist hosts in formulating the questions. The final harvest session can also be a little challenging, but I believe that with more practice, it will become easier to facilitate.

Q3: How would you see the potential of using World Café in future events?

  1. I am curious to use it in a business setting. This is how I envision it: when a company or department needs to create its 1-year or 3-year plan, they can use the World Café format as a way to collect and brainstorm ideas. Once the ideas are collected, management can build upon the collective wisdom.
  2. Another use case could be a knowledge-sharing session. Let's say a regional headquarter wants to host one for marketing teams in different countries, where each team can share their observations on the digital landscape, as well as successful tactics and tools they use. The World Café could facilitate this. However, there is a prerequisite for the event: people need to put their titles aside and acknowledge that everyone's input is equal.
  3. In a book club, for instance, participants can read 2 to 3 chapters of a book and use the World Café as a way to share what they have learned from the book and how they apply it to their lives.

Q4: Do you have any feedback or comments for Shirley, not limited to the support received?

Thank you for all your help with the recent World Café event. Your introduction to the concept was awesome and made a difference in how things went.

I especially wanted to thank you for lending us the printers for AI-generated images and bringing the timer to facilitate the event. Those little touches made everything run so smoothly, and we couldn't have done it without your help.

Timothy (left), Shirley (middle) and Michael Tam, the course tutor of Future Design

Related reading on Shirley's newsletter Facilitation Snippet:

Large group dialogue using World Cafe: intro and examples

BTS: 7 design principles of World Cafe