What is an Unconference?


My Definition

The word “conference” contains the smaller word “confer”. When we see pictures of a group who are “conferring”, they are in a circle, closely huddled around something. They might be conferring about a decision, or even sharing out something- some money or a cake! Conferring involves gathering together around something. We put that something at the centre and we make it the focus of our shared and individual attention.

Traditional conferences tend to do that as well. They decide the content in advance and people then come together to “confer”. Often there’s a lot of listening as people try to present the topic or topics we are conferring about. Sometimes questions and discussion are built in to ensure what our “conferring” isn’t too fixed.

However it is done, what we confer about is largely fixed in advance.

An unconference turns this on its head. It doesn’t fix what we are conferring about and allows the people in the room to set the agenda in that room, in that moment, rather than in being decided in advance. An unconference “undoes” the setting of an agenda and allows it to emerge closer to real time. An unconference is a meeting that allows participants to self-organisation what they want to talk about or do.

The “un” bit of an unconference removes the fixing of the topics in advance and opens it up to self-organisation. Self-organisation means that we, the participants on the day, who have responded freely to an invitation to a meeting, organise the conversation ourselves.

Unconferences arose because people found traditional conferences too structured, inflexible and, in many cases, boring or lacking energy. Setting agenda in advance can over-fix a conference and depress the energy of the event. Unconferences “un” the bits of a conference that disempower, de-energise and depress those involved.

Other definitions

Other people have attempted to define what an unconference is. There’s a good history of unconferences and how the word first got used on Wikipedia. (I notice as I type this page that the word “unconference” isn’t recognised as a real word by my built-in spell-checker, so it is still a term on the fringes of wider acceptability!). According to Wikipedia;

“An unconference, also called Open Space conference is a participant-driven meeting. The term “unconference” has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization. For example, in 2006, CNNMoney applied the term to diverse events including Foo Camp,BarCamp, Bloggercon, Mashup Camp,[1] and Podcamp City Online.[2]

Rebecca Bagley defines it in Forbes as follows:

“The concept is fairly simple. At an unconference, no topics have been predetermined, no keynote speakers have been invited, no panels have been arranged.  Instead, the event lives and dies by the participation of its attendees. They decide what topics will be discussed and they convene the individual breakout sessions. In other words, an unconference has no agenda until the participants create it.” 

Unconference.net which offers unconference service give this definition: “Do you want people to be energized and engaged when they participate? Imagine a conference where the way people interact has more structure than a cocktail party and more excitement than a full day of panels. Attendees learn, share, and exchange ideas dynamically. Complex problems can be explored, relationships built, and new collaborations emerge…. This is an UnConference… Attendees actively create the agenda with the assistance of a skilled facilitator where all the sessions become relevant and engaging.”

There’s a simple definition of an unconference offered by Transparency camp: “Unconferences are events run by participants. Attendees set the agenda for what’s discussed, lead the sessions and workshops that fill the schedule, and create an environment of innovation and productive discussion.”

A few more definitions…

“An unconference is a conference organized, structured and led by the people attending it. Instead of passive listening, all attendees and organizers are encouraged to become participants, with discussion leaders providing moderation and structure for attendees.” (Techtarget)

The definition here highlights the view held by many unconferences that a true unconference is one where there is no fee or charge.

This definition points to the use of “various methods” once the unconference has started. Unlike Open Space conferences which have a specific, minimal structure, some unconferences use a range of facilitated methods to enable different kinds of conversation: “An “unconference” allows participants to create and moderate the agenda, allowing for a wide variety of topics and viewpoints that might never be covered in a traditional conference. Using various sharing methods that focus on drawing out responses from all attendees, those in the room learn from each other in a peer to peer environment.”

In all cases, the creation of shaping of the agenda remains with the participants and not a steering or management group.

Visit the Unconference Realm