What Is Open Space Technology?

Lakshmi Sandhana

Open space technology is an innovative form of conferencing that was discovered by organizational consultant Harrison Owen in the mid-1980s. An open space technology conference has no formal structure and lacks keynote speakers, organizational booths, and prearranged schedules. Instead, participants sit in a large circle and propose activities, discussions, and workshops they would like to initiate. The conference is allowed to evolve organically based on everyone's input, going on for a day or several days depending on the agenda and bringing together diverse people in groups from as little as five to more than 2,000.

Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

Harrison Owen evolved this type of conferencing when he discovered that people attending his conferences preferred the coffee breaks to all the formal conducted sessions. Drawing upon his experiences as a peace corps organizer in Africa, he decided to create a kind of village marketplace, where diverse groups of people could come together to deal with complex issues in chaotic but productive manners. While he initially called his idea of self-organizing meetings open space, it was reported in the media as open space technology, and that became the standard for this type of conferencing. While it seems to have no real structure, in practice, it turns out to have a more complex, dynamic, and robust format compared to any management or expert-oriented type of conferencing.

The conference begins with all the participants seated in a circle with the facilitator making short introductions and laying out the central theme to be explored. Those who want to initiate or discuss a particular topic write it down on a large sheet of paper and announce it to the whole gathering. They then post that session on a bulletin board or wall, select a time and place for that particular workshop, and take responsibility for showing up at the venue to take that specific session forward. The agenda for the entire conference is evolved in the first hour or more, and the facilitator merely holds the space for all the participants to organize their own activities.

The only criteria for anyone proposing anything at an open space technology conference is that they be passionate about that issue and proceed with doing something constructive about it. The four key principles that guide any open space technology conference begin with that whoever shows up is absolutely the right set of people because everyone involved in a certain meeting really cares about the topic. The second principle states that whenever a session starts is absolutely the right time for it to start, eschewing traditional formats. Thirdly, whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, highlighting the need to not rehash old material. Finally, when it is over, it really has to be over, and the issue needs to be left behind so that everyone can move on to the next thing.

The one "law" that everyone tries to follow in an open source technology meet, which was laid down by Owen, is the "law of mobility," better known as the "law of two feet." According to this law, if participants find themselves in any situations where they aren't learning or contributing, they are responsible for using their own two feet to move to another place. Participants have full freedom to flit from one session to another and maximize both learning and contribution accordingly. People who move about in this way are considered to be butterflies or bumblebees who cross-pollinate groups, making interactions more varied and rich. Open space technology conferences are applied whenever complex issues need to be solved urgently; it embodies the dynamic spirit of a coffee break, where creativity and chaos go hand in hand.

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