FWD50 2018: Circlesquare

Published On May 21, 2018

Over the last few months, we’ve been hard at work on the 2018 FWD50 conference. We’ve already confirmed a dozen extraordinary speakers from around the world. We’ve been digging through attendee and speaker feedback, learning from our inaugural event. We’ve been attending and speaking at digital government conferences at home and abroad. And we’re absolutely thrilled that in the ensuing months, Canada joined the D7 group of digital nations.

But we’ve been relatively quiet about what’s in store this November.

That’s about to change, as we announce our lineup and some new formats. The first of these is an experiment we call Circlesquare, and it needs your input.


One of the biggest takeaways from last year was that we needed a way for attendees to interact better, and to break up dense content. While we loved having so many amazing speakers and ideas, folks said they were pretty saturated, and would like time to discuss and reflect together.

Fw D50 2018 Circlesquare

We heard from dozens of attendees that the best part of FWD50 was having “permission to step back” and work on their jobs rather than in them for a few days.


At the same time, we know people can talk amongst themselves anytime and anywhere; they don’t need a conference for that. And in my experience, a complete lack of structure means those discussions often neglect the central issues we’re trying to surface and work on.

We knew the format had to accommodate a large number of domain experts, and give everyone a chance to speak and listen. And we wanted to focus the conversation on specific technologies, as well as certain domains or departments where digital approaches can have an outsized impact.

I like changing conference formats from the usual panels and talks to other configurations (such as Oxford Debates and Chain Reaction Panels.) So I dusted off a format I created years ago for a network infrastructure conference called Interop. It works well in creating dynamic discussions between diverse groups. But I have yet to come up with a good name for it, so for now, we’re going to go with Circlesquare.


Circlesquare is literally a circle within a square. It’s strangely hard to explain, but easy to understand and join once you see it. Here’s what that looks like:

Fw D50 2018 Circlesquare 2

These are just examples of departments and technologies we might use in the session.


It goes something like this:

  • First, divide a big room into four corners. For each corner, pick a technology (such as AI, or cloud computing, or the Internet of Things.) Here’s Gartner’s 2017 Hype Curve to get you started.
  • Then, draw a circle within that square, and divide it into four “pie slices.” For each slice, pick a department (such as Transportation, Healthcare, Immigration, Agriculture, or Taxation.)
  • Populate the corners and pie slices with experts. These might be tech inventors, academics, policy-makers, or department heads.
  • Give each corner and pie slice a moderator who can make sure the conversation flows and nobody monopolizes things too much, and that the content isn’t repeating itself too much.
  • For 25 minutes, we have a focused conversation, tackling questions like “How does AI change transportation?” or “Will the Internet of Things make Agriculture unrecognizable in a decade?”
  • After 25 minutes, we rotate the circle 90 degrees. Repeat four times.


Over the course of two hours, you get four discussions around any given tech or domain.

  • If you’re a cloud computing enthusiast, you hang out in a corner and learn how four departments will deal with your innovations.
  • If you’re a transportation expert, you move around the room and learn how four technologies will alter what you do.
  • And the moderators come armed with questions for each technology and department to keep things going.

Fw D50 2018 Circlesquare 3

Circlesquare gives everyone a chance to participate, while maintaining focus on specific topics and departments that are critical for the future of Digital Government.


The format encourages many-to-many debates, and offers a chance for everyone to have a voice. What’s more, given the range of experts from around the world that are coming to FWD50 this year, it gives innovators and policy-makers from all over—even those that aren’t on the main stage—a chance to share their knowledge.

Fw D50 2018 Circlesquare 4


When I’ve done this in the past, I’ve literally sounded an air horn and gently ushered people to the next corner for another discussion. In my dream venue, I’d have a gigantic Lazy Suzan to rotate everyone inexorably around the room—but sadly (or perhaps thankfully, given the obvious safety implications) we don’t have the budget for that. Nevertheless, we have some ideas about how to make it fun.


Last year, we based many of the topics and speakers on feedback from stakeholders in both the public and private sector, as well as a discussion with government CIOs about what topics were most critical. We want to continue this practice, so we need your help.


 (Please note that the form is no longer active) 


We’re really excited about the global participation this year, and we’re always looking for ways to make the event more useful, interactive, and inclusive.


Just as digital government is about trying new things and learning from them, so too is creating an event like FWD50. We know it’s important to keep experimenting and innovating with the formats, and Circlesquare is one attempt to do that based on the feedback we received.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

Notice at collection Your Privacy Choices