How Will an Open Space Conference Work?
Amazingly well! Open Space Technology (OST) is a deceptively simple method of facilitating a conference (or other kinds of gathering) that is grounded in a belief that the Holy Spirit is best able to lead us into the conversations and connections and conclusions we need when no one else is getting in the way by trying to organise everyone and prevent anyone from stepping outside the organiser’s predetermined program.
They keys to allowing the Spirit to move among us in this way are to provide:
- open times for people to self-organise around the conversations or activities that matter to them;
- a simple but effective way for people to find one another for those conversations or activities;
- a culture in which everyone is free to engage with what most matters to them and free from obligations to attend sessions that don’t capture and hold their interest.
This is not entirely new for our AAL conferences. At every conference, many of the most animated and valuable conversations have happened outside of the program. Sometimes they happened in the breaks, and other times people skipped sessions to pursue a conversation, and were left feeling slightly guilty about it. OST simply takes the guilt out of it by declaring it to be the normal organising principle of the conference! There will still be the keynote presentations and smaller academic papers that we are used to, and there will still be daily prayer offices, shared meals, and times to relax over drinks and casual conversation. But anyone who wants to convene another conversation or activity will be free and resourced to do so, either in the breaks or in parallel with other sessions. Nothing is obligatory.
In the opening session of the conference, an experienced OST facilitator will introduce us to the simple cultural principles and operating mechanics of OST, and then open up the space for all who wish to propose activities or topics for conversation for which spaces and times will then be nominated. A full program showing all these available options will be instantly created and made available so that everyone can plan their personal program. Each day there will be a further opportunity to turn new ideas into activities on the constantly updating program menu. People could propose a session in which they present a prepared academic paper. Or they could propose a conversation around a question that they know nothing about except that it matters. Or they could simply say “I’m going for a coffee or a beer or a game of tennis. Who wants to join me?”
These are things that have always happened, but this time, no one need be surreptitious about it. This time, it’s the plan! You know that wonderful energy that happens, often in the coffee breaks, when everyone is having the conversations they really want to have instead of the conversations that some organiser said they should have? Well that energy is a sign of the Holy Spirit in action, and this time, the whole conference is likely to have that energy.