Tired but encouraged after 5 days at the #AES17CBR conference. The keynote speakers were outstanding this year. Three main themes stood out for me.

In different ways, all the keynote speakers challenged us to question the definition of evaluation being about equipping decision makers – instead we should have higher ambitions and aim to serve the needs of society and the natural world not just the bureaucracy. Sandra Mathison walked us through how the dominant political movements that have influenced evaluation over the last 30 years – from the heady days of libertarianism to the current epoch of neo-liberalism and then terrified us with the spectre of evaluation under popularism (post-truth).  Gill Westhorpe talked about the widening need for evaluation; reminding us of the mega trends that affect our world and the need to speed up evaluation and bring it much closer to other disciplines. Andy Rowe extended this view of evaluation with his notion of sustainability-ready evaluation – he was visibly moved when he questioned what world his grandchildren would inherit. He proposed a model where we consider environmental impacts across all relevant evaluations.

Innovation was another key theme across the conference. Our design and evaluation special interest group drew a good crowd as we explored how evaluation can meaningfully contribute to social innovation -- are evaluators willing and able to speed up and be agile enough to cope with the rapid cycles of prototyping and iteration that are typically seen in designs. Patricia Rogers took a different tact on innovation suggesting we should use innovation to improve our evaluation toolkit. She named three areas for innovation: negative program theory (which I think is an excellent tool for protoyping), QCA, and Rick Davies’ Evalc3 got a mention and of course using big data in evaluation.

Third theme was program theory. Gill and other presenters showcased innovative ways of using theory in evaluation – from evaluation theory, substantial theory of how change works, and getting down into the nitty gritty of theories of action.

And I put my hand up to be the convener of Next years’ conference in Launceston, Tasmania! We are already using design-thinking to plan next year’s conference – exciting times! 

Jess Dart