TAKEAWAY: Constructive dialogue usually goes better with good food. One of Europe’s largest cooperative retailers and an inventive museum join forces to help people meet, talk and connect.
#Danescommunicate – or in Danish, #Danmarktalersammen – is the hashtag symbolizing a special alliance between Denmark’s largest retailer of consumer goods, known as Coop, and ENIGMA, an innovative museum dedicated to human communication. Since 2018, these allies have hosted more than 100 community dinners where local people can meet, share a meal, and discuss issues of local and national importance. The dinners are set in Coop’s supermarket facilities and are designed to encourage conversation and friendship.
Both Coop and ENIGMA have distinctive organizational cultures. Coop is managed as a cooperative enterprise, that is, it is owned and controlled by the people who purchase its products. Coop is both a national force and a local presence. It has 1,100 stores and is a fixture both in small towns and many big-city neighborhoods. With 1.7 million members and annual sales around $8 billion, Coop is Denmark’s largest consumer goods retailer. It also has a banking business and a community investment arm. It is common for Danes to be engaged in the operations of their local Coop stores, many of which double as community centers.
ENIGMA is the relatively new name for Denmark’s national museum of post and telecommunications. Having moved to striking new headquarters in 2017, ENIGMA has expanded its reach beyond the history of communications. The museum delivers new perspectives and helps people find meaning in the connection between channel and content. Besides its traditional role as a museum, ENIGMA actively delves into the challenges and possibilities of the digital revolution through blogs, podcasts and pop-up activities.
Both Coop and ENIGMA share the goal of stimulating dialogue, and both sought a new way to engage people so that their voices on local issues could be heard. This led to a proposal: invite 30 to 50 members of the community to a dinner, held in a Coop store, and anchored by a series of questions for discussion. The twist? Try to invite people who represent a cross section of the community and who may not necessarily be acquainted with each other.
Late in 2018, the inaugural “conversation dinners” were held in four stores, each in a different part of the country. At each dinner, invited guests are welcomed by the host, usually the manager of the local Coop store. After short welcoming remarks, guests are asked to seat themselves at long tables, mindful to choose tablemates they did not know. Food, prepared by the local store, is served in communal dishes that are passed along at the tables, as a way to get people talking.
Each course brings a “conversation menu”—a list of questions participants can pose to those sitting close to them. The questions are composed by the ENIGMA staff and center on local issues, including thoughts on how the community should be developed or how local problems should be addressed. Says Jane Sandberg, ENIGMA’s CEO, “The conversation menu is only a starting point for discussion. We encourage the dinner guest to bring up other topics of interest.”
Sandberg continues, “We chose to test the concept in four different areas of the country to see if there were regional differences in how people reacted to the initiative. All the test dinners were completely subscribed and it was obvious that the quality of the conversations and the enthusiasm for discussion was the same, whether the dinner was set in a small village or in the capital.”
More than 100 dinners have now been held, typically focused on October and November. Local media are invited. Coop and ENIGMA routinely follow up with participants to improve the value of the interaction. It is noted that people attending the dinners go on form their own dinner groups to sustain new friendships and conversations. Also noted: the dinners have proven valuable in integrating newcomers into the lives of their communities. Says Sandberg: “At one dinner a woman got up and told everyone that she was new to the area and looking for friends. By the end of the event she had 16 telephone numbers, and she later, she let us know that she now has a circle of new friends.”