Brakman poem
A poem by Willem Brakman on the university’s steps: philosphy makes sense, science explains. But art shows, shows what it can’t say.

I facilitated two unconferences this week, on Monday and Thursday. The Industrial Design professorate at the Saxion University for Applied Sciences in Enschede celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Karin van Beurden who has been leading the professorate from the start wanted to have a celebratory event. Not to look back, but to look forward to the next 15 years. She also wanted to do it in a slightly unconventional way. Karin participated in one of our birthday unconferences, and asked me to help her shape the event. In the past 2 months, Karin, her colleague Nienke and I collaborated on this. It was unconventional in the eyes of the university’s board, as well as for the network Karin invited. So we had some explaining and managing of expectations to do in the run-up to the event.

When the professorate started, the theme of Karin’s inaugural speech was how “oysters turn their irritants into pearls”. Now after 15 years it was time to not just look at the pearls created during that period, but mostly at what the pearls of the future would be and thus the issues of today. Under this broad theme some 50 people participated in the unconference, and it was a pleasure to facilitate the process.

After opening up the space, making everyone feel at ease and explaining the process, we created a program for the afternoon in BarCamp style, listing 15 sessions across four spaces, in a 2 hour program.

the program on a whiteboard

What followed (the way I experienced it) was a carroussel of amazing stories, ranging from financing challenges for research projects, enabling alternative energy provision discussion, the psychological impact of turning breast prostheses from a medically framed issue into a fashion issue, and the use of 3d printing to reduce time needed in operation rooms. Afterwards we had a pleasant bbq and further conversations nearby, and during the train ride back I had further good conversation with one of the participants. It was a pleasant day to be back in Enschede.

FabLab Session
One of the sessions, in the FabLab space
A session in the FabLab Enschede space

Discussing the energy grid
Using pluggable hexagons to discuss energy grid issues

Medical 3d prints
3d printed elements for bone reconstruction

What stood out for me was how various participants encountering the format for the first time, immediately realised its potential for their own work. The university’s chair mentioned how she would like to do this with her board to more freely explore issues and options for the university. A professor remarked how it might be a good way to have better, more varied project evaluation sessions with students in his courses. Also, judging by the conversations I had, we succeeded apparently in creating a space and set-up that felt safe for a range of very personal stories and details to be shared.

20190627_205326
As I had a few minutes before my train left, I got to visit our favourite ice cream parlor in Enschede, our home town until 2 years ago. We haven’t found a comparably good ice cream vendor in Amersfoort.

(At CaL earlier this month in Canada, someone asked me if I did unconference facilitation as work. I said no, but then realised I had two events lined up this week putting the lie to that ‘no’. This week E suggested we might start offering training on how to host and facilitate an unconference.)

I facilitated two unconferences this week. On Monday with our company The Green Land we hosted a 90 minute unconference on (the future of) open government. It was a sweltering day, without much wind. Held on the rooftop of our office building, we had precisely the amount of shade needed to keep all participants out of the sun. With some 20 people from around our network we compared notes on open government, civic tech, and potential collective action. Having built the program with the group I participated in conversations on public versus market roles, what ‘sticks‘ we have in our toolbox when working towards more open government, and the Dutch Common Ground program.

A group in discussion
Groups in conversation

The program
The program

We ended with a fun ‘open government pubquiz’ led by my colleagues Frank and Niene.

(At CaL earlier this month in Canada, someone asked me if I did unconference facilitation as work. I said no, but then realised I had two events lined up this week putting the lie to that ‘no’. This week E suggested we might start offering training on how to host and facilitate an unconference.)

Nine years ago, during/after Pedro’s SHiFT conference, we were ‘stuck’ in Portugal due to the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud. Lane Becker was one of the other speakers attending and Elmine told him about our birthday unconference and how we were planning a new edition that spring. Two years later, in the fall of 2012, we met Lane again, this time in Copenhagen. We talked more about our birthday unconferences and he thought he might do one the next year, for his 40th birthday.

By coincidence Facebook put something Lane posted in my timeline yesterday, and I read some more of what he posted recently. Turns out he indeed has been doing a birthday conference, not in 2013, but last year for his 45th. And he is now organising a second one in Austin Texas, coming September!

Furthermore, one of the participants of his conference last year Kevin Bankston, took to the idea, and is doing a small conference as birthday and farewell party in Washington D.C. this month.

Both these ripples I think are totally awesome. We have Beverly and Etiennes week long retreats in both California and Portugal, from when Beverly participated in the original birthday unconference in 2008. Earlier this month Peter organised Crafting {:} a Life on PEI in Canada. And now Lane’s 2 editions, and Kevin’s spin-off from Lane’s event. I think that in itself is pretty good impact from what was basically a mad idea 11 years ago.

Screen
In between ethics of nanotech and higher-ed policy in Yemen, Elmine’s birthday unconference, at University of Twente’s conference center in 2008

Peter in his circle of friendsPeter in his circle of friends at the start of Crafting {:} a Life (image by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA license

When the first Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, went to space on the D1 mission he had a clear goal. Earlier astronauts upon returning to earth had all responded to the question how it was to see the entire earth from above, our blue ball in the black void, with things like “Great”, “Very moving”, “So very beautiful”. Ockels was determined to find a better description for the experience, by preparing for it, by more consciously observing and reflecting while up there. Yet when he came back he realised all he could say was “So very beautiful” as well. There was no way for him to put the layering, depth and richness of the experience in words that would actually fully convey it.

Experiencing an unconference can be like that. It certainly took me about a week to come back down to earth (and overcome the jet-lag) after spending a handful of days on Prince Edward Island in a somewhat parallel universe, Peter‘s Crafting {:} a Life unconference with around 50 of his friends and connections.

Here too, the description “it was great” “it was beautiful” is true but also empty words. I heard several of the other participants comment it was “life changing” for them, and “the start of something momentous on PEI”. I very well understand that sentiment, but was it really? Can it really be that, life changing?

I have heard the same feedback, ‘life changing’, about our events as well. Particularly the 2014 edition. And I know the ripples of those events have changed the lives of participants in smaller and bigger ways. Business partnerships formed, research undertaken, lasting friendships formed. I recognise the emotions of the natural high a heady mix of deep conversations, minds firing, freedom to explore, all around topics of your own interest can create. I felt very much in flow during an hours long conversation at Crafting {:} a Life for instance.

Reboot had that impact on me in 2005, reinforced by the subsequent editions. Those multiple editions created a journey for me. Bringing students there in 2009, because I was one of the event’s sponsors, was certainly life changing for them. It spoilt them for other types of events, and triggered organising their own events.
In a certain way Crafting {:} a Life brought the Reboot spirit to PEI, was a sort of expression of Reboot as it included half a dozen connections that originated there in 2005. Similarly I feel our own unconferences are attempts at spreading the Reboot spirit forward.

What makes it so? What makes one say ‘life changing’ about an event? Space to freely think, building on each other’s thoughts, accepting the trade-off that if your pet topics get discussed others will do other things you may not be interested in. Meeting patience while you formulate your (half-baked) thoughts. That is something that especially has been important in the experience of teenagers that took part in our events, and I think for Oliver too. That everyone is participating in the same way, that age or background doesn’t somehow disqualify contributions, and being treated as having an equal stake in being there.

How do you get to such a place? I find it’s mixing the informal/human with the depth and content normally associated with formalisation.

What made Peter’s event work for instance was the circle at the start.
The room itself was white and clinical to start in, and people were huddled in the corner seeking the warmth of the coffee served there. The seating arrangement however meant everyone had to walk the circle on the inside to find their seat. Then once seated, after welcoming words, there was music by one of the participants who offered it, first a reflective and then an upbeat song. This in aggregate made the room the group’s room, made it a human room. The post-its on the wall after the intro round led by Elmine increased that sense of it being our room, and the big schedule on the wall we made together completed it. Now it was our own central space for the event.

Splitting the event over two days and marking both days differently (meeting/talking, and doing) worked well too. It meant people weren’t coming back for the same thing as yesterday, but had something new to look forward to with the same measure of anticipating the unknown as the first day. While already having established a shared context, and new connections the day before.

The result was, to paraphrase Ockels, “great”. Clark, one of our fellow participants, found a few more and better words:

Crafting {:} a Life was a breath of fresh air. The unconference dispensed with pretension, titles or faux expertise. Everyone had for the most part a chance to share their story, contribute, and talk. While some asked what I did for a living, it was only after all other avenues of discussion were explored. For the most part one-to-one conversations were much like what I had with Robert Paterson, (“What is Clark’s story” he asked) open ended, personal, and with the ability to discover new things about the other. The activities emphasized small groups and there was no “oh my God my PPT is out of order what will we talk about” that I myself have fallen victim to. There was music, laughter, food and tears. It was genuine, …

I think that goes to the heart of it. It was genuine, the format didn’t deny we are human but embraced it as a key element. And in the space we created there was way more room than usually at events to be heard, to listen. And most of all: space to share the enormous gift of two days worth of your focused attention.

I feel it is that that makes these events stand out. Most other events don’t do that for its participants: Space for focused attention, while embracing your humanity. Reboot did that, it even had a kindergarten on site and people brought their kids e.g. But that approach is very scarce. It needn’t be. It also needn’t be an unconference to create it. A conversation, dinner party, or other occasion might just as well. (I found that video btw on a blog in the rss feeds of one of the participants, which seems apt).

On our way home Elmine suggested doing a second edition of our e-book ‘How to unconference your birthday’ (PDF). I think that is a very good idea, as Peter and us now have experience from both being an organiser and a participant, and we have now several additional events worth of experiences to draw upon. We created the first edition as a gift and memento to all participants of our 2010 edition, the 2nd such event we did and the first we did in our home. A decade on a second edition seems fitting.

Every now and then Elmine and I organize (un)conferences for our birthday party, in our home. We did one in 2008, 2010 and 2014 (with a BBQ party of similar effort in 2012). Each one brings 40-50 participants together, and double that for the BBQ the day after. (The whole thing started as a biannual BBQ in 2004, and we added the conference part to make it easier for friends and peers from abroad and clients to join).

We love the events, and we love the way it brings many from our international network together in an atmosphere that creates lasting connections between participants, as well as the inspiration and energy it gives us. (I think of it as invoking the ghost of Reboot)

But as you see several years can pass between two editions.
They involve a lot of work and energy, cost a considerable amount of money. After each one it takes a while before the itch to do it again plays up, and sometimes major life events get in the way.

After the last one in 2014, Paolo suggested doing these events on a yearly, or at least more frequent basis. I replied in similar lines as above. To which Paolo replied “What do you think you are? The Olympics?” As he’s putting on a yearly conference in Italy himself, simply ignoring his remark does not play. He knows the reality of putting on a proper event every year, let alone our smaller scale lower-key ones. Paolo’s question stuck with me, and has been deserving of a proper answer for the past three years.

I know I’m not the Olympics. I also know the ‘lot of work, and oh the costs!’ line of reasoning isn’t fully true. We started doing the events in our home as a way to cut costs after all (the first edition was in the local university’s conference center). And I organized similarly international meet-ups in my spare time every 2 to 3 months with 20-30 participants, which each event taking place in a different European city, all with zero budget, years earlier.

To me the important aspects that create the type of flow, quality of conversations and energy that make the events such fun are:

  • Picking a topic that fits all backgrounds, so it doesn’t put people off and can attract friends, peers, clients and family alike, of all ages
  • Picking a topic that is challenging as well, as that creates the energy
  • Having participants of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, with most (but never all) having a direct connection to either me or Elmine, but less connections to the other participants
  • Doing it in our home, as it creates an informal atmosphere for serious exchanges, and I think the distinctive flavour of it all
  • Providing excellent food and drinks, for all diets, and plenty of it

The reason it takes so much time to organize is mainly that I try to do it all myself. I’m not very skilled at delegating or asking for help (as anyone who’s ever tried to help me out in the kitchen can attest). Finding a topic on a yearly basis that is at the same time broad enough to potentially include anyone and provoking enough for people to start imagining contributing to it, can be challenging
There is also the suspicion that if we’d do it say yearly, it would attract fewer friends from our international peer network (there’s always next year after all), and overall less sense of uniqueness of opportunity or urgency to attend for anyone. Whereas it’s the mix of people that is a key ingredient.

The time since the last edition 2014, really was a matter of life events getting in the way (2015 a year of multiple losses, 2016 of welcoming a new life, this year of moving to a new city). Now the dust has started to settle, and in the coming month we can look forward to spending a few weeks camping and being away from it all. I am also trying to grow roots in our new city and having conversations with people to better understand the events, spaces and things the city has to offer. Maybe the time has come to use this as an opportunity to solve the “You’re not the Olympics” conundrum.

Asking for help, the location, the scale of it, maybe a bit of funding, setting topics, are all dimensions to play with and to reflect on.

I’d like to do a new event in 2018, I’ve already been imagining it in our new home since we started unpacking boxes (or rather from the moment we were viewing the house already). What will it take to have the one after that not in 2022 but in 2019? Especially if you’ve attended in 2008, 2010 or 2014, what would entice you to join the event in 2018 as well as 2019, what would make you come back?