I was watching the Cop15 conference at a distance and I have been thinking that big conferences are maybe not what it will take to shift things. Bigger and more may not be what is needed, or what works. One of the problems is the pressure and expectation that comes from big gatherings – it tends to result in a level of planning and pre-ordained outcomes that actually suppresses emergent behaviour, and emergent behaviour is the mechanism I believe we need to evolve our next level of being, if we are to have a next level as a species.
An exception to my mind has always been the Open Space conference which is built on self-oganization as a mechanism for fostering emergent understanding and work. In fact, recently I have been returning more and more to Open Space in its most pure and extended forms to generate emergent results embedded in sustainable relationships. I find that as a designer I am maybe sometimes a little guilty of frankly pandering to the fears of clients who want me to design results rather than process. The inclination to control is a strong one, to feel like there is much at stake and so therefore everything must be tightly scripted. And yet the reality is that in the world outside of conference, innovation and emergence is happening all the time in fact most conferences, even conferences of amazing and talented people, are a let down because a small group of people – the organizers – seek to control what happens, making sure everyone has a good experience, as if people aren’t perfectly capable of a good experience on their own. It’s a bummer, and real life, where people get to make their own decisions and take responsibility for what they care for, is a whole lot more exciting and productive.
Of course a sole four day Open Space, powerful as it is for fostering surprising levels of emergence and action, still requires much skillful design. I place a great deal of emphasis on the quality and mode of the invitation. How we invite people – how we ACT when we invite people – often says more about the invitation than the text of the invitation itself. Assembling the right people around the right call is a deep art, and in fact might be the deepest art of all the arts of hosting. But once they are in the room, I think most folks, and especially thoroughbreds, like to have the space to run. To be scripted and moved around, have conversations prematurely cut off or started around false or half guessed-at topics, is a travesty. To see a group of highly talented and motivated people create their own emergent agenda and go to work offering everything they can is a truly inspiring sight and to see them doing so over two, three and four days is to watch a community get born. I have experienced three and four day Open Space gatherings a handful of times, both as a facilitator and as a participant and without exception powerful, enduring and totally unexpected results have emerged. And these results have lasted, evolved and morphed into amazing things. I have never seen those kinds of results from other kinds of tightly scripted conferences.
I have been thinking about this for a while, and the missed opportunity in Copenhagen combined with some other observations about over the top conference planning has led me to really question whether the ONE ALL PURPOSE GATHERING has not seen better days. We are so muich more able to work in local and disbursed ways that we don’t need to wait for the big conference to do good work. We can just get on Skype and start going at it. In fact I’m surprised how few people actually do do this. Instead they wait for the big gathering to start something. Having said that, Open Space offers the nearest conference based analogue to this marketplace of life. As designers and conveners, we simply need a powerful invitation, the influence to connect to the right people, and then stand aside as skillful and motivated people connect with one another and find the work they are meant to do together.