16 Jan 2007
10 First Steps for a Transition Town Initiative #5. Use Open Space.
Open Space Technology is an extraordinary tool. It has been described as *’a simple way to run productive meetings, for five to 2000+ people, and a powerful way to lead any kind of organization, in everyday practice and ongoing change’.* In theory it ought not to work. A large group of people comes together to explore a particular topic or issue, with no agenda, no timetable, no obvious co-ordinator and no minute takers. Yet by the end of the process, everyone has said what they needed to, extensive notes have been taken and typed up, lots of networking has taken place, and a huge number of ideas have been identified and visions set out.
The most basic principle is that everyone who comes to an Open Space event must be passionate about the topic and willing to take some responsibility for creating things out of that passion.
The four key principles are:
1. Whoever comes is the right people.
2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
3. Whenever it starts is the right time.
4. When it is over it is over.
* It brings together the majority of the people interested in a particular subject (i.e. food)
* Within that, it brings together people interested in particular aspects of that subject (i.e. allotments or veg. boxes)
* It is a great research tool, for drawing out ideas and visions within the community
* If timetabled properly, it also creates time for people to just be with each other, to chat and eat.
* If you run an event a few days before with a dramatic title (i.e. “How Will Totnes House Itself Beyond Cheap Oil?” or “Feeding Totnes; Past, Present and Future”) and then the Open Space, and promote both heavily, it can bring that issue to the forefront for a lot of people. This can be very powerful for the TT process in terms of identifying what is already happening in that area, and who are the main movers and shakers.
In Transition Town Totnes we have now run 3 Open Space Days, with more to follow in the next programme. Ours would generally run like this;
10.05am. Explanation of the Open Space process and of how the day was to work.
10.15am. Invitation to start putting up ideas for workshops and to then design the day’s agenda.
10.30. First Session Begins.
12. Second Session Begins.
1.30 – 2.15pm. Lunch (sometimes with entertainment).
2.30- 3.40pm. Third Session
3.40pm onwards. Feedback and closing.
We also posted the ideas generated in the event live onto our website. These have been on Food, Energy and Housing. This requires someone prepared to ‘scribe’ the notes that emerge from the different groups, access to broadband, 2 laptops, a memory stick or writeable CD and someone able to upload onto the website. A digital camera is also useful. The beauty of posting it live onto a Wiki site is that anyone who is following the event anywhere in the world can send in their thoughts on the subject. It also means that at the end of the day you don’t have loads of notes that some poor soul has to take home to type up, but that all the outcomes of the day are typed and available for people to muse over and add comments to when they get home.
Something we didn’t do but which would be very useful, is to specifically invite certain people to the event. We relied on the right people coming along, but it would also have been good to send specific invites to key people who you would like to attend. A while in advance of each Open Space, draw up a list of the key people you feel should be there for that topic. Send them a personal, not a generic, invitation. Make them feel that you have specifically invited them because of their expertise on the subject.
There are other tools which are similar to Open Space, such as World Cafe, which have many of the same outcomes. The essence is to get people talking, building relationships, discussing ideas and making connections. It can do a great deal to identify priorities for the work ahead in relation to that subject. The essential reading on Open Space is Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, and you will also find Peggy Holman and Tom Devane’s The Change Handbook: Group Methods for Shaping the Future an invaluable reference on the wider range of such tools.