VIDEO FEATURE The rise of the unconference
A lot of people ask me what an unconference actually is.
An unconference is a participant-driven meeting. The term "unconference" has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as high fees, sponsored presentations, and organisation.
You get up early on a Saturday to go and meet people and spend the whole day talking about work-related topics - except this is an event where there are no advertised speakers, no conference theme or title, and no programme.
There are no name badges either, but you’re given a pen and a sticky label and invited to write your Twitter ‘handle’ on it. If you don’t do Twitter, you probably won’t even find your way to an unconference.
Then, after coffee and some networking, you’re invited - along with the maybe 100 or so other people there - to tell the whole group who you are and name one or two topics you’re interested in.
If you want to, you can then ‘pitch’ a session idea to the rest of the delegates. You can tell if people are interested by how loudly they cheer your idea, and you’ll be allocated a place on the timetable and a room size on this basis.
That’s how an unconference starts. It sounds completely mad and, before I saw it in action, I wouldn’t have believed that it could possibly work.
So good is the unconference formula that I’m increasingly impatient with traditional conferences that now seem tired, slow, boring and self-serving. And that’s before you take into account that unconferences attract no attendance fee.
The events I’ve been to have mostly been about web and digital development, open data and related topics affecting the public sector. They include UKGovCamp, which is now a regular feature in London at the end of January, and Localgovcamp, which has just run for the third time in Birmingham.
Unsurprisingly there’s a strong tech and geek element at these events, including some participants who seem to be – and probably are - talking online with the person sitting next to them. There’s also a pretty male culture about, with a lot of joshing and competition to make the funniest quip and get the biggest laugh. That said, people are open, friendly, respectful of others’ contributions and not a bit cliquey.
Because unconference content is completely ‘user-generated’ or ‘crowd-sourced’, its pretty unlikely the programme won’t contain something you are interested in. With lots of parallel sessions, the problem is not what to attend, but rather what not to attend. The ‘law of two feet’ is impressed upon participants at the outset, meaning it is completely acceptable at any point to leave a session that’s not delivering for you, and join another one.
Unconferences are brilliant for content, contacts and above all inspiration. Post event tweets and blogs are full of talk about heads left bursting with ideas and sleeplessness induced by over-stimulation. Discussions in social media often can last a week or more – and how often does that happen with a traditionally-organised event?
Another key feature of unconferences is that people are there as themselves, not as their job title. I’ve seen chief executives participate in sessions on equal terms with graduate trainees, with both ends of the equation finding the experience equally liberating.
People have left their public status at the door, and are attending in their own time, seem to be more, not less, willing to share what they know, and it is this rich exchange of knowledge and learning that is behind the rise of the unconference.