What is an Open Space Conference?

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The concept was invented by Harrison Owen, even if he denies being its inventor. As he states it: “Open Space Technology has been a collaborative project involving perhaps 1000 people on four continents over a period of eight years”. If you want to learn more on Open Space Technologies from Harrison Owen himself, you can read his excellent paper on the subject.

If you don't feel like reading this paper, and still need to know more about it, then you can carry on reading!

Four principles and One law

Harrison Owen wrote those five statements, which are now written on the front door of every unconference.

Principle 1: Whoever comes is the right people

It reminds people that “getting something done is not a matter of having 100,000 people and the chairman of the board”. A meeting is successful when people there care to do something.

Principle 2: Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

Participants should be “focused on the here and now, and eliminates all of the could-have-beens, should-have-beens or might-have-beens”.

Principle 3: Whenever it starts is the right time

Participants should remember that “inspired performance and genuine creativity rarely, if ever, pay attention to the clock”. A meeting is not about following a clock.

Principle 4: When it’s over it’s over

Life is short. Avoid wasting time. Do what you have to do, and when it's done, move on to something else.

Law of two feet

This one is hard. Have you never feel miserable by leaving a conference room where you were just bored, in front of a frowning speaker? Well, in an unconference, it is natural to behave like that. If you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing: just use you two feet and move in another place. Such a place might be another group, or even outside into the sunshine. No matter what, don’t sit there feeling miserable. Unhappy people are unlikely to be productive people.

The Law of two feet tells us that, in an unconference, there is no point in blaming the organizers or the technical committee, because there is none! If you are bored in a session, maybe you can find a solution. Maybe the solution is that you can make it better. And if you don't think that way, then you can move on to another session.

In short:

An unconference is a participant-driven meeting. In other words: you decide what topics you want to talk about, and work on, with whom – instead of hoping a “speaker” will address that topic at least briefly.

If you submit a session at an unconference, all you commit to is to make sure that this session is going to happen. You may have ideas about what to talk about on the subject you submitted, maybe more people will show up and contribute too. Or maybe you know that there are several people in the venue that you would like to hear on this subject, and your goal is just to lure them to your session! What's important is that every participant is happy with the outcome. And if it is not the case, well, you have the law of two feet!