The Un-Conference (an alternative way to meet)

So Saturday was the first really nice day this year. Sunny,warm, birds chirping, bits of green pushing up from the snow-melted earth … Andwhere was I during this delightful day?

Cleaning the garden? Taking a nice walk on the beach? Nooo,I was proving that the inner geek is taking up with the inner wonk.

I was at an un-conference.

About Government 2.0.

Wait, don’t run away! This is way more interesting than itsounds! For starters, there's the whole concept of an un-conference.

That’s right the UNconference.

Now, we’ve all been to zillions of conferences, right?Someone gathers some speakers about some topics that someone thought wereinteresting. If all the stars align just right, then the speaker chemistry isgreat, the topics are engaging, and we all walk away raving. On the other hand…

Well, you all know about the other hand.

It’s where you end up drawing extensive doodles across thenotepaper and wonder if anyone will notice if you quietly creep out the back,even it will make you feel guilty.

It’s that place where the vendor on the panel won’t stoppromoting her product, where another panelist thinks he is god and won’t stoptalking, and where the moderator never held a microphone before. Yeeks.

You always come away from these saying that all theinteresting conversations happened between sessions and afterward at the bar.

Enter the un-conference.

Un-conferences starting appearing about five years ago. Anun-conference is a gathering, usually free and without predefined agendas. Themost well known of the original un-conferences is  FooCamp, an annual hacker event hosted bypublisher O'Reilly Media.

Un-conferences focus on a topic or theme, usually technicalin nature -- things like a web development environment or an open source tool.

It’s a whole other way of thinking about gatherings. Infact, it’s an awful lot like being in a sort of real world 3D social networkingenvironment. You are your own avatar, meeting, talking, texting, getting inputfrom  your mobile devices, aconference overhead, a white board, and the guy sitting next to you all at thesame time. 

The participants are the speakers and the speakers are theparticipants.  Let me say that again: Speaker = participant; participant = speaker.

Just like social networks, there’s an implied equality.Unlike the typical conference, where the speakers get special ribbons and arelooked at as the experts, in an un-conference everyone is part of the mix.
 
And participants themselves create the agenda, with proposedtopics being moved around and decided upon at the start of the day bythe group.
 
The Government 2.0 un-conference was hosted by HarvardKennedy School's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, andPublicPolicy and held in the Kennedy School building in Cambridge. There wereabout 300 people coming and going throughout the day (hint: that meansI’m not theonly weird one out there!)

I have to tell you, I didn’t know what to expect.

I was picturing chaos. But what I was forgetting is that inchaos, we’ll always create order. It’s like that old experiment, where you tell a group to start clappinghands randomly and within moments everyone is clapping in time witheveryone else.

I  groaned tomyself when the first order of business was introductions.  The room was filled!  But three words – literally - went fastand created a real sense of who was here and why. And it set the stage for settingthe day’s agenda.

Three or four dozen people queued up to propose a topic.Geo-enabling Gov 2.0 … Democratizing Data … Participation in Democracy … Usingonline tools for community organizing … Connecting citizens and governmentthrough data visualization … Open data strategies … The public meetingredefined …

Facilitators wrote the proposed topics on big stickies, stuckthem onto a white board into a time slot and consolidated similar topics. Ashow of hands very quickly voted a topic in or out.

And guess what? No one expected anyone to stay in one place.It was actually OK to leave a session and go to another one if the topic didn’twork for you. And you could walk in late without taking on 100 accusing eyes. 

It’s not fair to say unconferences ‘just happen,” though.

There’s a core group of organizers who pick an overalltopic, get the word out to interested people, make sure there’s a place to meetand coffee to drink. They prepare a few sample agenda items and keep the day movingalong.  In this case they also pre-organizeda handful of dead-stop-at-5-minutes presentations to get things rolling.

Like social media, the un-conference is about the littlemoments. I didn’t walk away with Pearls of Wisdom, but I did walk away with adozen interesting thoughts, some cool examples, and some people I hope to keeptalking to.

For me, the harvest from the un-conference was worth the day.And on the next nice day, I'll garden and walk the beach  and percolate on the Un in theConference.

 

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