Sadly unconferences have become a fixed model in the minds of some people, just as Open Space Technology has become fixed in the mind of some OST facilitators.
Open Space Technology is a method often used under the title of an “unconference”. It is described in detail in this “users’ guide“. There are less fixed definitions of what an unconference is, but you’ll often find the idea that there should be no charge for it, fixed in some people’s minds. For others there is always an agenda that goes up on a wall somewhere.
For other people using unconferencing and open space, they see it more as an “impulse” or a “spirit”. Opening space means allowing people to open up their own conversations and work together in ways they self-organise. Unconferencing means whatever is the opposite to designing in advance without participant involvement, in letting participants set their own agenda. The spirit of “opening space” and “unconferencing” is about letting go of hierarchical control, releasing, and getting into a circle to design our own agenda.
Many fix unconferencing as a model by referring back to its first ever appearance in the world. Yet others see unconferencing as a spirit, a new way of thinking and doing meetings. But that way can take different forms in different situations.
Harrison Owen, the originator of Open Space Technology says the label “technology” was not created by him, but was a label stuck to it by someone else, early in its development. He says that Open Space “escaped” one day. through him. Unconferences similarly have a history rooted in Legend.
But opening space is no single method, and nor are unconferences.
The spirit of unconferencing, however it is done, seeks to place control of the agenda, the content, and as much of the process as possible into the hands of the community, the self-organising group.
As soon as we fix an unconference it turns into a conference.
As soon as we fix open space, space closes down.
The “un” in unconference, unravels, undoes, unwinds and unties. It frees up, simplifies, and releases. Control becomes spontaneous, developing and emergent and ultimately spurious.
There are no permanent rules for either unconferences or open space. Even their minimum structures may prove unnecessary, irrelevant, or “one less thing to do” on the day. The facilitator is open, responsive, playful and humble.
Unconferencing opens space. Opening space is essentially improvisation. The minimal methods of Open Space Technology and Unconferencing have proved fairly durable over the years. They become useful tools in practising the spirit of opening space. But that doesn’t mean they must become generically applied dogma. For then open space and unconferences die.