At CITCON, there were no pre-arranged sessions with star presenters. To be sure, some participants to the conference were more renowned than others; some of them had even brought papers and presentations they had written that they thought might be of interest. But nobody had been booked to present them at a given date and time. Instead, the setup used was OpenSpace.
OpenSpace appears to be a way of organizing conferences devised in the eighties. It is difficult to find official reference on it. The CITCON organizers (Jeffrey Fredrick and Paul Julius) referred to an “Open Information Group” that they had founded that promotes it. However, the real information seems to be available on openspaceworld.org.
At any rate, the idea behind OpenSpace is to allow attendants to define their own agenda. In a first common session, people suggest topics. Later, during the sessions themselves, they naturally drive the topic to whatever they are most interested in. If someone feels that the discussion has drifted too much from the original topic, or simply is not interested anymore in it, he is encouraged to use the Law of Two Feet. That is, walk away and visit another session. Also, it is considered good practice, though not necessary, to have a facilitator or a scribe. Note that the organizers of the conference invited 120 participants, considering it is the generally accepted optimal number for members of a “tribe”, a group of people where everyone can still recognize everyone.
Though it sounds a bit counter-intuitive, or even hippie-ish, by and large, it seems to work. I’ve been to incredibly lively and rich sessions, where I had things to contribute (and learn). I must also add that some talks were not that focused. In some cases, it appeared that some “star” topics pulled the attention away from less popular ones. So, sessions that received more than 10 “I’m interested” marks, would actually easily attract three quarters of the crowd, leaving those with less than 4 marks empty.
This setup was great to promote conversations outside the sessions too, which is quite an accomplishment, if I compare that to my experience in traditional conferences. Also, and that came as a surprise to me, it appeared to be useful to people with no experience of the main theme. For one, they could suggest candid topics (“What is Continuous Integration”), knowing that seasoned practitioners could always leave to another session. And second, their topics actually did attract experienced people too, sometimes pushing the talks to a slightly more philosophical level.
All in all, OpenSpace was a enriching experience. I wonder if it would turn out in a different context. Would that work in a less focused conference? What if the people were of vastly different backgrounds? or were involved in traditional trades that are not naturally open to new ideas?