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Susan Kistler on Unconferences and Open Space Technology

My name is Susan Kistler. I’m AEA’s Executive Director and I contribute each Saturday’s aea365 post. Last week, I attended an unconference on Data Visualization hosted by tech@state, a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of eDiplomacy. Both the format and the content proved to be transformative. First, let’s talk format – in a later week I’ll raise some key questions about data visualization that we explored during the unconference.

Lesson Learned – What’s an Unconference: An unconference is a form of open space technology that brings together people with a common interest and they, on the spot, set the agenda, become the speakers and contributors, and move from idea to action – both within the conference and more broadly around the issue at hand.

Lesson Learned – What does an Unconference look like: It can take different formats, but generally it involves:

Preconference: A carefully-crafted invitation that brings together people with a common passion.

During the Conference:


  • A (short!) opening statement about why we’re all together, and outline of the format
  • Quick introductions of everyone in the room (whether 100 or 1000)
  • An invitation to identify a topic of interest or burning question and write it on a piece of paper
  • Short explanations by each person regarding her or his topic and then the topic idea is placed on a large scheduling grid


  • Attendees look at the sessions proposed for a timeslot and go to the one of interest to them
  • Presentations during the timeslot can be formal but tend to be informal – usually with the convener framing an issue and asking the group ‘now what?’ and attendees discussing, suggesting, leveraging resources, generating ideas


  • The group reconvenes to identify common learnings and next steps
  • Sometimes there will be time for large-group facilitation of priority setting among what emerged
  • Writeups document sessions, technology is leveraged to keep the discussion going and small groups moving forward around the issue

Lessons Learned – Why bother: Unconferences bring together people with a common interest to discuss, leverage resources, set priorities, and learn what they can accomplish together. As a meeting planner, they are not for the faint of heart. They rely on those involved being engaged, motivated, and willing to contribute. Usually, those who don’t fit these requirements self-select out before signing up to attend, but not always. Some people are likely to be unhappy, while others will be invigorated and find avenues towards solving problems of the day.

Hot Tip: Are you an open space or unconference maven? Or, just interested in trying out a new form of conference and a new way of doing things? Put a note in the comments or send me an email at susan@eval.org and let’s talk about what we might do together to try an unconference as part of AEA’s programs. Note (a) please don’t contact me about your professional services – we’re looking for engaged volunteers, and (b) never fear! this would not replace, but would rather supplement, our existing programs.

This above opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent those of AEA. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice.

3 thoughts on “Susan Kistler on Unconferences and Open Space Technology”

  1. Pingback: Matt Galen on Open Conferences: Increasing Access and Building Networks With Webcasting · AEA365

  2. Hi Susan, I’m the Executive Officer of the Australasian Evaluation Society and we have been looking at ways to increase the membership and sectors general participation but also involvement in ‘designing’ our conference program and we are interested in the unconference approach, I have a question about for broad based professional conferences like ‘ours’ what would be a good way to introduce the practice and what do you think are the risk factors?
    Look forward to hearing from you, Maria

  3. Pingback: Susan Sloan on Future Search for Establishing Common Ground for Action Planning - AEA365

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