Ponderings on unconferences

Attending UK GovCamp 2014 started me thinking about unconferences in general…

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I was at UK GovCamp 2014 over the weekend, and it was awesome. There were lots of really interesting conversations with great people. Many I already knew (and don’t get to see enough), and many I was meeting for the first time.

Some of the conversations were about sessions which had taken place (which for me were broadly around how to increase engagement with the political process), but others were around the nature of unconferences in general. And they sparked a few thoughts.

(For those who don’t know what an unconference is the wiki page provides a succinct overview, while a great write up of the event itself can be found here).

Unconferences are shaped by the brave

And/or the people already inside a given community. These aren’t always the same people – although there is obviously a Venn Diagram given that the more comfortable you feel in a situation, the more confident you are likely to be.

To lead a session at an unconference, you need to pitch an idea on the fly – often standing up to pitch it – before people vote on how keen they are to attend. One of the great things about this is it allows for a lot of flexibility and time specific/relevant sessions take place (something hit the press earlier that day? No problem, of course it can be discussed).

However, some people are really uncomfortable with raising their voice in this way. Every time I’ve been to an unconference I’ve spoken to multiple people who have said ‘I really wanted to pitch something, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so’. And these people are often women, younger people or people coming along to a certain event for the first time. And these are different voices, often, from those who already lead discussions in other fora – and will likely have different perspectives and even different ideas of what should be discussed (and possibly solved). Unconferences do provide potential for a wider range of voices to be heard, but many seem to believe that because they are able to voice their opinions and lead sessions that unconferences are equitable. They aren’t.

Outcomes from sessions

Often the best things at conference or unconference are not the actual sessions themselves, but the conversations that take place around them; over lunch, coffee, beer/wine, or during sessions you’ve decided to skip (the so called ‘hallway track’). These conversations can lead to spin off projects and are often really exciting. Yet, there seems to be a lot of potential missing. Sessions often aren’t created with a specific outcome or aim in mind – other than a loose idea of a conversation and picking brains of people in a room. And while that isn’t necessarily a problem, sometimes it’s useful to go into a session thinking ‘what is next’, or ‘what do we want to get from the expertise in the room?’ It seems to me more than possible that you can create a session that has specific focus on a few set questions and/or specific testable outcomes (eg. a short sprint to produce a document, a brainstorm of what a certain project should look like).

So..?

In my mind these two things are joined loosely. And it’s something to do with implementation of an unconference. Don’t get me wrong, I think unconferences are great – I’m just keen to find a few alterations that help make them more equitable, allow other voices to be heard, and help produce something concrete (to change the world after the event ends).

One idea that came to me involves using an online platform to propose sessions ahead of time (and vote upon them the day before an event), making it easier for people who find it hard to pitch something in front of a room full of people they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with. And perhaps rather than just pitching sessions, you could pitch something you want to produce as a result of said session. It may be that what you want is a discussion around a topic, but there would be value in possible session leaders being encouraged to think about what other outputs could be produced. And signalling these intentions to others would help them make more informed decisions about which sessions to head to and where their expertise and interest can best be put to use (without relying on the Law of Two Feet, and the awkwardness many feel at leaving/entering a session half way through).

I’d be interested to know if others have ideas about this.

One thought on “Ponderings on unconferences

  1. I don’t mind the unconference thing myself, have often enjoyed them – but I agree with you that the format favours people who are already ‘insiders’ and is thus a form of ‘tyranny of structurelessness’. I think there’s also a link to privileged education which fosters the confidence and personal skills to flourish in this kind of environment. I tend to prefer pre-structured events – and the kind of polling function (in platforms such as COD) could be a way to do this. However, the effect for people who’re entering the situation or feel disenfranchised within it (for example by gender) is the same – they will be an an event structured by other people 😉

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