“I hope you don’t mind”, says Kerry, “I’ve put you down for leading a workshop on Open Space Community.”  I’ve just arrived at the conference and within minutes I find myself sitting with a microphone in my hand in a circle of people of all ages from all over the world inviting them to join ‘my’ workshop. What on earth am I doing here?

a circle of empty chairs

Open Space: threat or promise?


It’s not a complete surprise.  The reason I’m here at  WOSonOS 2012, this year’s global gathering of Open Space practitioners, is because Kerry Napuk wanted Leith Open Space to talk about connecting and developing a  community through Open Space.  He says we’re unique. Kerry, I should add, is an old friend, an Open Space practitioner and facilitator of great standing and his work with Glasgow men’s health groups was the inspiration for the first Leith Open Space event for ethnic minority communities in 2005.

That’s the back-story in brief. But it doesn’t help me much right now in Stoke Newington Town Hall buzzing with the energy of people who all seem to know very much more about Open Space than I do.

I am not a trained practitioner. In seven years of organising Open Space events I have never facilitated a workshop. To make matters worse I even have some misgivings about Open Space.  Don’t get me wrong, every event I’ve attended generates astonishing energy. People seem genuinely liberated by being given the chance to set their own agenda. This is bottom-up democracy in action (if that doesn’t conjure up altogether the wrong picture). But how do you turn the action points voted on at the end of the event into actions in the outside world. And how do you reach the right people?


Women attending Who Cares open space

Whoever comes are the right people: Who Cares event 2010.

“Whoever comes are the right people,”  one of the mantras of Open Space has often comforted me in those nervous moments before the event, wondering who, if anyone, will walk through the door.  But, gripping the mic, I invite the circle to explore how we might reach more of the right people.  It touches a chord in Andy from LA who immediately offers to merge his workshop on Marketing Open Space with mine.  “You’ve got yourself a co-convener,” whispers Kerry.

The rest of the day, I have to say, is a bit of a blur.  With an hour or so to go to my co-convened workshop I wander through the ‘market-place’. [See the video below]. The conference has been going on for two days which may explain some jostling for position.  All groups go through stages: “forming, storming, norming, performing” and if this one is not exactly storming it is sometimes perhaps a bit more challenging than I expected, though with good humour.

“Excuse me, this space is now reserved for Being in the Moment”, a smiling delegate shifts our overrunning session on How Can We Organise Open Space in the Public Space? It’s time to move…


electric drill on bare floor

Props from Vision for Leith Walk open space event 2012

The Law of Two Feet (another Open Space mantra empowering delegates to dip in and out of workshops as the topics take them) is also exercised much more energetically than I am used to. “We’re more polite in Edinburgh”, as Kerry laconically puts it.

In fact there is so much movement in the hall I enjoy the irony that the session exploring Open Space in Public Space gets the chance to experience what it might be like to set up stall in the street outside.

“Life is Open Space and Open Space is life,” says Harrison Owen. He’s the almost legendary founder of Open Space, the man who started it all after observing that the most enjoyable part of any conference is the discussion that takes place over lunch or coffee.  He is now making what he says is his last WOSONOS appearance. And here he is sitting right next to me, unmissable in his cowboy hat, enigmatically inviting the group to see how well self-regulation works when organisations are prepared to let it happen.

And so to the Open Space Community workshop. Andy, my co-convenor, a lovely laid-back guy, helps to generate a friendly exchange of ideas on the challenges of reaching the right people and keeping active interest going after the event.  Asking the right questions, getting out and meeting real people in real life, organising follow-up events, involving the local media, never giving up… it was heart-warming to hear that Leith Open Space has often been on the right track, stimulating to find how we might do more and very flattering to discover that we are indeed unusual (if not unique) in establishing an Open Space community.

I meet some great people doing great work (Lill from Toronto, Jose from Lisbon, Milda from Glasgow, a lovely lady from Copenhagen whose name I did not catch),  and I make one more significant discovery.  Even at the World Open Space on Open Space the best conversations take place over lunch, in the queue for the Ladies or in those last few minutes when you are saying goodbye. “Open Space is life”.

PS: this year’s WOSONOS was creatively organised by the Improbable Theatre Company as you can see …