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What is an unConference?

At unconference/open space events, 5 principles and 1 law are usually articulated in one form or another.  Since not everyone is familiar with this concept, I think it would be handy to have a description of what makes an unconference special.  (modified from the wikipedia article).

  1. Whoever comes is [sic] the right people The event can be big or small, but it’s filled with passionate people. In every class, the people who come are the people who want to be there.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time …reminds participants that “spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.”
  3. Wherever it happens is the right place …reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. We will find a way to make any space work.
  4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have …reminds participants that once something has happened, it’s done. Each event is unique and special for what we do.  We don’t want to recreate the past, we want to make the future.
  5. When it’s over, it’s over …reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to discuss an issue.  Some talks may be short, and that’s all the time it takes to convey the idea; other discussions may be longer.

Law of two feet

As stated by one of the developers of the open space:

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on, the “polite” thing to do is going off to do something else. In practical terms, Owen explains, the Law of Two Feet says: “Don’t waste time!”

But… how do you have programming in advance after all this talk about how unconferences are spontaneous?

Pragmatically, as an event organizer, people often want to know what they’re buying a ticket for, presenters sometimes need time to prepare, and it’s nice to discuss topics in advance.  The general idea remains the same though… attendees are encouraged to ask for what they want, to present if they are able, and to take an active role in making their conference into what they would like.  We try to stack the odds in our favor by bringing in some amazing people to teach what they want to teach.  Our “schedule grid” is a Google document editable by everyone interested in presenting.  The schedule grid is usually filled in about 2 weeks before the conference, and is fluid up until the day of the convention.  At the convention, the schedule grid is hung up on the wall, and can still be amended or reorganized if needed.  Additionally, attendees are encouraged to ask for “encore” performances of classes they couldn’t make it to.

For NEEHU1, which was entirely an unconference, we balanced out the unconference programming by including a “101 track” for people who are new to the topic so that new people knew that they would have something at their level to enjoy.  And it’s kinda stuck.