The power of Open-Space Technology

We want Cardano Buidler Fest to be as open an event as possible, to provide space and time for interesting conversations to happen and new ideas to bloom. While “standard” conferences provide this space and time to some extent, traditionally through social events, lunch time and coffee breaks, workshops, the event is still built around a few speakers presenting their work or ideas to a crowd of listeners. And while the requirements for speaking at smaller scale events like Cardano Buidler Fest are not as stringent as prestigious academic conferences like say ICFP with their rigorous peer-review process and low acceptance rate, we know that not everyone feel at ease speaking for forty minutes in front of a silent crowd. Whether our ideas not being solidified enough, or not feeling entitled to speak as a newcomer, or just plain timidity and impostor syndrome kicking in, there’s a myriad reasons to just sit and listen to others.

At the core of Cardano’s values lie the idea that everyone should have the means to feel like and actually be an active member of the community, that the efficiency of delegation and representation should be balanced by the energy of participation and empowerment. It therefore seemed important to us that the organisation of an event like the Cardano Buidler Fest reflects those values, hence the reason why we settled on running one day of the conference following the principles of Open Space Technology.

What is Open-Space Technology?

The Wikipedia page tells us that

Open space technology (OST) is a method for organizing and running a meeting or multi-day conference, where participants have been invited in order to focus on a specific, important task or purpose.

… which is not particularly enlightening. This method is akin to other alternative ways of organising various kinds of meetings, like the Lean coffee to run small meetings, World cafĂ© to break down into smaller groups, Fishbowl conversation to facilitate discussions with a large number of potential participants, or even PechaKucha and other Lightning talks formats. Unconference is a surrogate and flashier word to denote Open Space conferences.

The goal of Open-Space is to maximise engagement from all the participants by removing or lowering the barriers preventing active participation. And the reason why this is important and valuable is because it’s well-known that one learns and teaches better when actively engaged, motivated, and receiving feedback.

More concretely, an Open Space conference follows a structured agenda:

  1. It opens with a Market place where participants publicly and briefly present sessions they are interested in. Note that it’s not necessary to be an expert in the topic covered by a session to propose it, on the contrary,

  2. Sessions are roughly scheduled as they are presented on an Schedule board with a place and a time slot. It’s not uncommon that two or more people merge their sessions when there’s not enough slot available and the topics are close enough, or that a slot be split to accomodate for more sessions,

  3. Once the agenda is defined, the actual conference begins and sessions take place according to their schedule and following a few simple rules:

    • Whoever comes to a session is the right people
    • Whenever it starts is the right time
    • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
    • When it’s over, it’s over
  4. When all sessions are over, all attendants meet again for a Closing session which allows people to share some thoughts about the overall conference, the sessions they’ve attended, the fascinating discussions they have been part of…

The core principle that should drive the participants of an Open Space is called the Law of mobility which states that all participants should feel free to leave a session they are not contributing to, or for which they have lost interest. This is true even if they were the one proposing the session in the first place!

There’s a lot of variations around this basic canvas, but the over-arching principle over such an event is Self-organisation.

This looks weird, is it actually used?

I have been lucky to be exposed to such kind of unconference nearly fifteen years ago and since then, I have attended quite a few Open Space events:

But Open Spaces can be scaled down to smaller teams as we did for the Scaling teams at IOG in September 2023, running a 2 days workshop with about 15 people.

What should I expect?

Open Space conferences are like the fabled Spanish tavern: You will dine of whatever you and other people bring to eat! So come prepared to be surprised, share your energy and enthusiasm for topics and matters you really care about!