open space conference

An open space conference is a meeting style where participants are rarely or never, except in the opening and closing, forced to sit through speeches on some subject they are uninterested in.

One-track "legislature"

Traditional "one-track" conferences subject all attendees to the same speakers and let them ask questions of these in a highly restricted time frame, everyone else being forced to listen to both the "question" (often a frustrated polemic that is a counter-position being forced into the guise of a question) and the "answer" (that there is typically no chance to challenge, given again extreme time pressure). This is more or less a "legislature" model where it is assumed that whatever is being discussed is so important that everyone must hear every word.

Most of the action in a one-track conference happens between those who ignore the current lecture and gather to take refreshment in the halls, and discuss side matters.

"Multi-track" conference

By contrast, academic conferences of any size (more than about 100 people) are today almost always "multi-track", that is, there are several events occurring at once, and they are organized into "tracks" to minimize the interest one will have in an event occuring simultaneously. For instance an energy conference might be divided into technology track, society track, legal track to deal with the energy technologies, the social and economic impact of changing their prices or the reliance on one or the other type of energy technology, and the laws that encourage or prevent this. Most people will have expertise relevant to one or the other, so it is somewhat easier to put speakers into "the right track". Attendees must make choices, but, having done so, they are exposed to a higher proportion of material that interests them than they would have, in a one-track conference.

Open space conference

The open space conference is the ultimate and most flexible expression of the multi-track conference, incorporating feedback mechanisms to decide both the name and number of tracks, and the meeting style that applies within each session within. So, for instance, the same energy conference will not be divided into three categories by the organizers, but in the first hour of the conference the attendees will characterize their interests in, say, "agriculture", "home design", "generating technology", "economy", "society", "law", with a few other categories like "ecology" and "energy conservation" perhaps ruled out because they literally apply to everything, and aren't that useful to discuss "in general".

The actual number of attendees interested in each matter, and the questions that each track is asking, and refining, is considered in setting up the circles. Having thus set their own agenda, the attendees divide for a fixed time period into these circles (some will be too large and will split themselves, some too small and will merge, in the first five minutes, in ways that can't be generalized as they depend on the relation of the source material itself and the attendees' attitudes to it). All kinds of meeting styles might be used, from lecture to tutorial to stick passing to time betting to fixed time limits to - default - speakers list.

Whatever is discussed or concluded, and however it is organized, all meetings end at the same time and the group re-convenes as a whole. It spends a little time to express its conclusions or refined questions and record these, then suggestions are taken as to how to organize for the next round - how to divide the questions? The initial process repeats itself.

In a one-day conference no more than three such convenings and divisions can typically be managed. By the end, having reconsidered the categories of issues four times (once in the initial design of the conference, three more times briefly with the actual attendees as their understanding evolves) the presentation at the end of all the conclusions will reflect:

- the actual understanding of the problem as it has evolved through the sessions

- the choice of the most eloquent and effective speaker on each important topic

- some decisions on the part of participants as to what matters must be pursued, by this group, and which matters they must defer or refer to other groups

- an increased sense of determination and community