Earlier this year, over 200 artists, entrepreneurs, techies and others turned out at the University of Baltimore’s Thumel Center on a cold and slushy Saturday for CreateBaltimore, the second annual “unconference” on arts and technology, cosponsored by Feats. Billed as a “participant-created conference” for people dedicated to “building creative community,” the event featured breakout sessions on education, arts funding, social entrepreneurship, women in arts and tech and digital divide issues, among subjects. Upon registering, participants were invited to submit session ideas, which were then collated, organized, and scheduled during the morning plenary.
CreateBaltimore is part of a growing genre of attendee-driven event models designed to reduce the rigidity that characterizes more conventional conference approaches while drawing on the creativity and initiative of attendees, rather than relying strictly on a planning committee. Inspired in part by BarCamp, the network of crowd-sourced conferences launched in California in 2005, events such as Bmore Historic, WiseCamp and THATCamp seek to stimulate creative thinking and collaborative solutions.
The audiences for these events tend to be tech-savvy 20 to 40 – somethings steeped in the culture of social innovation and entrepreneurship. Interestingly, we’re starting to see more Baby Boomers not simply “crashing” but being welcomed. The added level of experience as well as deep connections can help accelerate efforts and impact.
Strolling through the anything goes “anarchy room” at CreateBaltimore, one was likely to hear references to bootstrapping, co-working spaces, accelerators and hackathons. In the breakout sessions participants spoke passionately about bypassing traditional methods of funding, working together across disciplines and reducing barriers of race and gender in the arts and social enterprise.
I spent time in the education session. A remarkably diverse crowd of educators, social workers, vc’s and philanthropists wound their way through a wild ride of opportunity – from changing the higher ed learning model to focusing on making our region a hub for ed tech – brilliant and, from the follow-up conversations and emails in the few weeks following, suddenly doable. Wow.
Events like CreateBaltimore, as well as the upcoming InSquared, Bmore Fail and Think Big Baltimore conferences, are examples of how the power to plan and organize can be made more democratic, organic and fun. At their best, they allow the best thinking of all participants to shape the agenda and they foster opportunities for people from different backgrounds and perspectives to connect and collaborate in meaningful ways.
As exciting as this model is though, it has its pitfalls. One of the benefits of the traditional conference approach is that content experts have the opportunity to prepare and present well-crafted ideas and new research. With its looser, more organic structure, the unconference format runs the risk of superficiality, which can be frustrating to participants hungry for quantifiable information. Additionally, crowd-sourcing a conference on the fly can also result in the participants with the loudest voices setting the agenda and leading sessions, while equally qualified, but quieter people feel marginalized. A more traditional conference designer can also invite outside “experts” and influencers to participate, having determined specific areas of focus in advance. Finally, the pervasiveness of tech jargon and concepts at these events can be intimidating to attendees who are not as immersed in the tropes of new media or an otherwise foreign set of topics.
That said, here are four tips for organizers who want to create participant-led events, or segments within more traditional events, to make them both dynamic and productive.
1. (A Little) Structure Can Be a Good Thing
During the plenary session, identify two people who are both passionate and knowledgeable about a topic, and who agree to share the duties of leading the breakout conversation on that topic. This ensures that no single voice will dominate the discussion and that participants are clear about who is facilitating it. Similarly, spending a little time on some facilitation ground rules – e.g., that a facilitator’s role is to elicit input, not to sermonize – can help make sessions more substantive for all concerned.
2. If You Want To Be Inclusive, Be Intentional
If there are particular individuals or groups of people whom you feel would both benefit from and contribute to a successful event, it’s worth reaching out to them through targeted emails, phone calls and/or face-to-face conversations. Better yet, ask them to help you plan the event. Remember that while social media is a wonderful way to spread the word about an event, not everyone is an avid or skilled user, so make sure you’re using diverse channels of communication to reach diverse audiences.
3. Give People Breathing Room
The rapid-fire flow of information at an unconference can be exhilarating, but also overwhelming. Our brains need time to absorb and digest new ideas, so create breaks in the agenda to allow participants to catch their breath, check their email, grab some coffee and regroup. These breaks can also be good opportunities for attendees to share reflections on the session they were just in, exchange business cards and otherwise get to know each other better. Resist the temptation to over-program; fewer sessions can mean more time to process information and build connections.
4. Keep the Momentum Going
Perhaps the biggest danger of a participant-created event is that its charge can get attendees charged up without giving them anywhere to go with all that energy. If this happens, not only will people feel let down, but all of that vibrant creativity that was sparked at the event will find no outlet in action. The organizers of CreateBaltimore wisely scheduled an action session on a few months later where attendees of the January event could brainstorm next steps.
So, go forth and experiment. It’s a brave, new, exciting time to turn old models on their heads and engage more and more in not only the conversation but the process. In the end – more engagement upfront will yield more engaged follow-up and, ultimately, more impact.