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Unconventions and the Toronto Transit Camp
Alex Steffen, 30 Jan 07
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If you want people to innovate, you usually have to bring them together. Conferences can be a terrific tool for getting folks in the same place and talking about the same related set of ideas, but they have a number of problems.

Two of the biggest are that a) planning conferences eats time and money, often obliging even non-profit conference organizers to raise or charge much more money than the event itself costs; and b) the curators of conferences are often not as smart as the conference goers, especially in aggregate, when it comes to deciding who should speak about what to whom in what order.

Unconferences give a model for gathering people in a low-cost, high-impact way. At it's most basic, an unconference is simply an event where a space is offered for the participants to create and share their own sessions.

Perhaps the most famous example in Worldchanging circles is FOO Camp, an invite-only weekend of brilliant geeks overclocking themselves, thrown by Tim O'Reilly and his colleagues at O'Reilly. I've been. It's a pretty amazing experience (even if, I have to admit, I didn't get the joke whose punchline was computer code, and laughed nervously hoping no one would call me out).

But FOO Camp isn't the only model. I've been to unconferences on everything from rethinking environmentalism to developing the next toolbox for democratization activists. Some are highly selective and tightly run, some are anarchistic (for instance, ticked off at the perceived elitism of FOO Camp, other geeks have invented BAR Camp as a way of widening the discussion).

Worldchanging ally Cory Doctorow today blogged about another innovative unconference, the Toronto Transit Camp, which promises

An ad-hoc gathering at the Gladstone Hotel of designers, transit geeks, bloggers, visual artists, tech geeks and cultural creators passionate about transit in Toronto and the TTC [The Toronto Transit Commission]. It is a platform for Toronto's talented design community and enthusiastic transit users and fans to demonstrate their creativity and contribute to a better way for Toronto's transit system. The content and ideas generated in this open unconference will be delivered to the TTC for their consideration in their work.

This seems to me to be a great idea, and one worth widely replicating. My own experience in working with NGOs, public agencies, unions and other stakeholders to try to improve urban planning, design and transportation was that discussions are often restrained by assumptions, plans and agreements made years or even decades before, and that there was really no space to even seriously debate doing things differently. And since, as we know, people won't change their behavior -- even when they know that behavior is stupid -- until they see a model for doing things differently that makes sense to them, having no open discussion of how to do things better practically guarantees that they won't be done better at all.

How do you host a good unconference? I suspect much of it boils down to the same things that make people good party hosts -- creating a welcoming space, having a warm and cheerful attitude, introducing people, making sure that people who are a bit lost in the goings-on don't get left out -- and some of it, in my experience, looks to be as simple as making sure people can find the schedule and that the projectors for presentations actually work. But much more of it is in the attitude that the attendees bring and the excitement they create together. Consider FOO Camp's creed:

Foo Camp is only as much fun as participants make it. Be prepared to lead or participate in a session, ask interesting questions, show off what you're working on, and generally leave your mark on the weekend. It's a little like Burning Man in that there are no spectators, only participants.

And what makes for a good session at an unconference? Worldchanging book contributor Scott Berkun shared a great post on how to run a great unconference session.

We're not just talking this idea up, either. Our annual retreat this summer will be an unconference.

So, here's a question for those of you with unconferencing experience: what works? What practices have served you best? What was the most fun? What sorts of things would you avoid? What resources are worth knowing about?

We'd love to hear your answers in the comments below.


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Alex, thank you for mentioning our little unconference on Toronto Transit. The response and interest has been overwhelmingly positive and we're looking forward to a fantastic day where the unexpected will be commonplace.

The TorCamp Community is looking to this event as a pilot project for other similar events, including one we're developing with some fellow city-building schemers and dreamers that we're calling OpenCities.

Toronto Transit Camp is an experiment that brings together the BarCamp event format and community principles, the best "Web 2.0" social media and collaboration tools, and applies those methods and tools to a difficult (intractable, if you know TTC history) problem area outside tech.

Transit Camp is about creating space for play. It is about leaving our organizational roles and business cards at the door and entering an open space that has been carved out for play, interaction, meaning-making and collaboration. It is a new way of working, for social goals as well as for market activity. It is about creating abundance from scarcity. It is a stone soup.

BarCamp's Chris Messina and Tara Hunt are our touchstones for cultivating and nurturing the open communities that support these events. The unconference format without a sustainable community to support and contribute to it is merely a format. The power comes from what I'm calling Open Creative Communities, which are the life-blood of transformative unconference events that link to ongoing work in those communities and ultimately to tangible results on the ground.

We will be documenting Toronto Transit Camp extensively on the open web and will be publishing a case study (Creative Commons licensed, of course) on the event as an example of the power of Open Creative Communities, how they emerge, how they organize themselves and solve problems and how community gardeners can create space for their emergence. We will also find a way to allow other cities to use the domain to host and organize their own Transit Camps. May a thousand flowers bloom.

Please continue to follow the story as it unfolds (tag=transitcamp). We would love for Worldchanging folks to be involved in future work to develop the underlying concept further and share it with the world. Cory Doctorow is in Toronto for a reading on Thursday, so we'll talk to him about this as well.

Many TorCampers are Worldchangers too, whether we know it or not. :) Please get to know one of Transit Camp's key sponsors, Toronto's Centre for Social Innovation. It is ground zero for these kinds of ideas in the city, and I'm proud to say it is my future office space.

Posted by: Mark Kuznicki on 30 Jan 07

Thanks! Reading all the links. I'd like to hear other people's experiences in scoping and planning projects especially involving people who are less comfortable with technology (certainly not geeks) and where the subject matter is other than technology.

Posted by: Daisy on 31 Jan 07

Clarify: I meant distance - unconferences eg using electronic spaces to interact rather than physical spaces.

Posted by: Daisy on 31 Jan 07

This poses an intriguing idea (or set of ideas) for garnering a wide-range of suggestions on improving urban space. I would like to know more. And, I shjall paass this along to many of our compatriots here in San Francisco.

Posted by: David Habert on 5 Feb 07



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