The Unconference: a participatory, inclusive gathering

The UnconferenceLast week I participated in the second Unconference near Newcastle. According to the Unconference website:

An ‘Unconference’ is a participant-driven gathering. Delegates actively contribute to the agenda sharing lots of dynamic open discussions. Rather than a single speaker at the front of the room presenting PowerPoint slides, there will be ‘Key Agitators’ facilitating conversations and debate.

Theory UAs the quote suggests, it’s a very different experience to a normal conference. Within a framework of Theory U, we used inclusive processes like circle work, world café and open space to explore issues of interest to participants. Essentially we sought to create a space where participants could have meaningful conversations about things that matter. The focus of the three days was shaped by the participants and emerged as we went.

The key agitators (I was one of them) were mainly people who had experience in facilitating these types of processes. Their main role was to help facilitate conversation rather than to provide their expertise on a topic (as is the case with key-note speakers). Because most of the key agitators and most of the participants were connected (by lived experience, or through work or family) with people living with disabilities, this was quite a focus for the conversations.

The Unconference went from Tuesday lunch to Friday afternoon with the following broad shape:

  • Tuesday afternoon – building community
  • Wednesday – discovery and imagining what could be
  • Thursday – reflection, letting go of preconceptions, and opening up to possibilities
  • Friday morning – planning for what could be
  • Friday afternoon – closing.

Each of the full days started (after a check-in) with an overview of a stage of Theory U and a reflection exercise which helped set the tone for the day. The rest of the day was taken up with world café, open space and (on Friday) pro action café and action design.

Based on conversations I had with participants, the main thing people gained from the Unconference was the opportunity for reflection and personal development (in a work context), and building connections. It was also an opportunity to experience the group process used and to learn more about them.

The Unconference centreSome people initially struggled with the lack of structure and found the first full day a bit confusing. By Thursday, most people had got into the swing of things and had settled into the slower, more reflective pace. I think there were a few people who weren’t sure if it had been worth it at the start of Friday, but the greater focus on action on the Friday helped bring the experience together for them.

It was quite a small gathering of around about 50 people. Interestingly there were only two other males (and a third who was there with his partner but wasn’t participating in the full Unconference). While the community sector is dominated by women, it was still surprising that there were so few men. I’m not sure why. I guess these types of inclusive processes are often associated with women, but really they have much broader relevance. I’d love to see more men at the next one.

I found I got the most out of the experience when I let go of my expectations and immersed myself in the process. In particular it was a great opportunity to think deeply about my work. The last post (about focusing more on parenting for the environment) was crystallised through the Unconference. (In fact it was based on a reflection I did on the Thursday.) I also appreciated watching other facilitators at work especially the graphic recorders who helped to document the process.

Graphic record of Unconference

These types of processes can be very powerful and participants at the Unconference were very positive about the experience.

Have you attended an Unconference or something similar? How was it?

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What is a World Café?
  2. A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description
  3. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  4. What is Appreciative Inquiry?
  5. Graphic recorders

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Facilitation & teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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