What is an 'un-conference'? I was lucky enough to be invited to Sci Foo 2010 at Googleplex in California and now know. In this case it involved a group of about 300 fascinating people with loosely-connected interests in science, data, open access, new media, psychology, neuroscience, physics, astronomy, biomechanics, philosophy, science fiction, comedy, online publishing, computing, and probably quite a few other areas as well.
What made this an un-conference was that there was no prior agenda. No schedule. It wasn't on a specific topic. It's aim was stimulation and cross-fertilisation amongst a group of pre-selected 'campers'. Before the conference some basic information was placed on a wiki, and participants linked to weblogs and so on, but until the first night, there was no plan. All we had was a grid on which participants put ideas for sessions written on large post-it notes. There were numerous parallel sessions - even the length of sessions wasn't completely fixed, there were hour-long slots, but some chose to fill them with a succession of five-minute lightning talks... This wasn't a place for death by Powerpoint, but an opportunity to meet and talk to some brilliant people, both within the more structured environment of a session or the congenial environment of Googleplex which provided an unending stream of delicious free food and elegant Californian wines. The heady mix will inevitably produce cross-disciplinary collaborations and at the very least was incredibly stimulating and liberating.
Why wasn't this anarchy? What made it so successful? The Friday evening began with drinks and a meal followed by introductions by the co-hosts Google, O'Reilly (the publisher) and Nature (the journal). Larry Page set the tone : Ask yourself 'Is what I'm doing going to change the world?' If the answer is 'no, then maybe you should do something else.' I looked around - well, there were Sergy Brin, Larry Page, Peter Singer - three people at least who had changed the world - and probably another twenty or so candidates in the room. With such a stellar list of attendees - this couldnt go wrong...within an hour I had queued for dinner next to someone who had flown the English channel with a jet-powered wing strapped to his back, had a drink with Andrew Marr and a chat with Peter Singer and so it went on for the next couple of days...I'm still buzzing.
Actually, I think it could have gone wrong. One fascination for me was the subtle ways in which the co-ordinators from Google helped this to work. It was an obvious advantage having such an impressive range of brilliant people circulating. These were people who had got things done, so the talk wasn't just talk.
There were a number of ways in which risk of a damp squib was minimized. One was that we had to wear our security passes at all times - these were on a lanyard and our names (no affiliations or titles - first name in larger font) were written on both sides - so whoever you met, you could see instantly who they were...no worries about forgetting names, but no intimidation by title. To help locate people and identify their interests a wall of photos was created with a few words about them. Before that we'd each stood up and given a three word (or three-phrase) summary of what we do and care about (mine was 'Philosophy Bites - podcast - clarity') Then we had a great location at Googleplex with plenty of spaces to sit down or stand and talk informally as well as a range of room sizes to suit big and small sessions.
Energy and enthusiasm were contagious...The most stimulating sessions I attended were on the Antikythera Mechanism and on The Singularity ...but the lasting effect will flow from the conversations I had and the connections I made.