Phillip Smith

Progressive unconferences

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the whole unconference movement that has been exploding across North America and is landing hard in Toronto this weekend, with back-to-back events, including DrupalCampToronto, BarCampTdot, and the Mesh Conference (which is really more of a traditional conference, but provides a nice book-end for the other two). Specifically, I’ve been wondering what it would take to catalyze a movement of similar events that focused on building the capacity — and links between — progressive non-profits across Canada? Perhaps something similar to the non-profit technology events known as Penguin Day.

When David Crow pointed me to Workshop for Good — a software training weekend that will donate its proceeds to a local charity — it really got my neurons working. Okay: so donating all of your proceed to a local organization is really cool… but it would be even cooler if those local organizations could come together to explore the systemic challenges that they’re facing in an environment that was fast, dynamic, participant-focused, and instantly recorded.

Although many people would say that this current movement of unconferences is drawing on the rich history of Open Space Technology for convening, I personally feel that the characteristics of BarCamp-like events are quite different. Here are a few of the differences:

  • Self-organizing: basically, these events are somewhat contagious and spontaneous and tend to come together quite organically. The Open Space events that I’ve attended usually exhibit a lot of logistics, planning, and organization before the actual event.
  • Wiki-powered: replacing dead-trees with the modern-age digital notepad, these events are largely organized and recorded in real time. This is possible thanks to the popularity of modern Wiki software, software that makes it possible for organizers and participants to collaborate on a group of Web pages that detail all of the logistical needs and learning objectives.
  • Unorganizers: largely, the spirit of these events is altruism and voluntary cooperation (just like Richard Stallman would have wanted). The events are participant focused and the organizer(s) tend to fade into the background. These events usually involve a lot of donated energy and a small amount of financial sponsorship to make the convergence possible. So, all-in-all, it’s quite ad-hoc and the model is very contagious. (David has a nice post on the unconference "revolution" here)

So, what does all this mean? Well, what would happen if we applied this model to organizations working in the public interest? To social-service agencies or national advocacy networks? What would a progressive unconference look like for these communities? I had a couple of ideas off the bat: like GreenCamp, JusticeCamp, and DemocracyCamp… however, it was in discussing the idea with my partner Melanie that I realized the implications of extending this into the “less sexy” areas of our progressive movement; areas like disability, health care, and racism. Could a grassroots movement of spontaneous and easy-to-organize events be seeded and evolve the BarCamp idea to include things like HealthCareCamp, DisabilityCamp AbilityCamp, and RaceCamp? I think it’s a novel idea: why don’t you tell me what you think?


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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