what is an unconference?

So, as we begin our journey of exploring how churches and Christian conferences /gatherings could be more creative in they way they are organised, let’s begin with a broad look at what an unconference is.

unconference.net says that an unconference is ‘like a conference, only better’. An unconference 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 high fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization.

The Term ‘unconference’ was first coined in 1998 but Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology: a User’s Guide from 1993 discussed many of the techniques now associated with unconferences. Open Space is at the heart of almost every unconference. It allows groups from 20-1000 people to create an agenda live in less than an hour for a complete multi-track conference. Participants are given simple guidelines that help the day flow. Then, at the close of a day, everyone gathers together to share what unfolded.

There a number of techniques used to facilitate discussions (such as fishbowl, spectrogram and speedgeeking) that we’ll explore in future posts. Harrison Owen has a rule of two feet that all unconferences employ – the rule states that ‘any person neither learning from nor contributing to a group discussion must walk to another one’. Another key element to an unconference is the creation of a wiki where information is collated.

unconference.net has produced a very helpful list pf things that you need to do to DIY an unconference.

1) Think of a compelling topic that could use some focused attention by smart people working in the field.

2) Bounce the idea off some influencers and innovators in that topic area to see if they like the idea of bringing people to talk about it more in-depth over a few days. [These are like speakers but not – you can tell others they are coming and others will too]

3) Scout for Venues. Many unconferences happen in companies offices over the weekend. It is good to have a space that has a large open space for all the participants to be together and breakout rooms.

4) Craft an invitation that will inspire a range of people who could benefit from discussing the topic coming. (run it by the first invitees)

5) Put up a wiki for the event. Post the invitation on the front page. The wiki is used to share who is coming, post suggested topics, Sponsors, Directions to the venue, Nearby hotels etc. As the event happens the participants will use the wiki to document the sessions, links to podcasts, links to blog posts about the event.

6) Set up registration. If you are going to ask people to pay a little something up front set up a registration page with paypal. Fees for an unconference should be at the level that involves ‘chiping in to cover costs.’

7) Invite sponsorship to support the event amongst companies who play a role in the topic you are covering. Sponsors get community links, thank you’s and build community good will.
8) Get the word out. Announce it to lists that are related to the topic area. Ping bloggers who write about the subject – invite them ask them to blog about it. Encourage those who are coming to announce that on their own blogs.

9) Figure out the food.

  • Have abundant snacks
  • We produced breakfast
  • We bought the drinks for breaks and lunch
  • Lunch – it is good to get catered by family owned restaurants
  • Consider how you will support caffeination – we had a barista come in.
  • Find a good restaurant near your venue plan a menu and a fixed price per person.

10) Sculpt the event. Choose participatory process that will support the group address the topics of concern in the community.

11) Event Day. Create a welcoming inviting space for people.

Have name tags that people write themselves. As a bonus let people identify themselves with stickers from the various communities they belong to.

Create the Agenda using the Open Space Technology methodology. Participants are then invited to come to the front of the room and write the name of their session topic and their name on paper. They announce the title of their session to the whole room and then post it on a schedule on the wall. Then once all the sessions have been posted the community standing in front of the schedule wall attendee move sessions around. Sessions are about an hour long with 15 min breaks and an hour for lunch.

The day closes with the all participants gathering in a circle one room and sharing for 20 -30 min the highlights of the day.

Encourage Wikiing of Sessions

Encourage Tagging of Blog posts and photos – Define the tag event initials and then the year is one way.

Encourage Podcasting of sessions and interviews with attendees

Create space for spontaneous interaction
Have a community space that gives people the freedom to meet their needs for connection and interaction

Follow the conversation about the event in the blogosphere by searching for the title of the event and taggs.

So, in a nutshell – that’s what unconferences are all about, we’ll explore some examples of unconferences and open source technologies in future posts…

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