Using Open Space
What is Open Space?
Open Space Technology is one way to enable all kinds of people, in any kind of organization, to create inspired meetings and events. It is a very useful format for Transition meetings, whether you’re organising a meeting of 1000 students and staff as part of your Transition Vision phase or for planning and managing Steering Group or Action Group meetings.
Open space is a tool that enables groups of any size to address complex, important issues and achieve meaningful results quickly. It functions best where more traditional formats fail: in situations involving conflict, complexity, diversity of thought or people, and short decision times.
In Open Space meetings and events, participants create and manage their own agenda of parallel working sessions around a central theme of strategic importance. For example, at a Transition Vision open space event, your central questions might be: “What is our vision of a low-carbon, lower-energy, futureproof university that we can all work towards to create?”.
How does it work?
Here is a set of guidelines for facilitating an Open Space session.
The Open Space Facilitators
It’s a good idea to have one or two facilitators completely removed from the content of the session - your job will be to explain the Open Space format to participants and provide the structure and space for the session to occur in. Take participants through each of the explanations below:
What To Expect
In this session, participants will learn and participate in a group discussion technique called Open Space Technology. This is a tested approach to the enhancement of group effectiveness. It can be used with groups of 5 to 500. It is particularly effective when a number of people must address complex and/or conflicted issues in a short period of time, with high levels of innovation, ownership, and synergy.
The circular chair arrangement signifies that all are equal here—both as knowers and learners. Participants are all facing each other equally, with the opportunity to work together to discuss and resolve issues, if they so choose.
Passion and Responsibility
Open Space runs on two principles: passion and responsibility. Without passion, nobody is interested. Without responsibility, nothing will get done. Obviously, different people feel passionately about different things and it is also obvious that people will not take responsibility for something they are not passionate about. In Open Space, people come together around topics they care about. Voluntary self-selection is absolutely essential for participation in the Open Space event.
Stating the Theme
The facilitator should tell the group that in a few minutes they will be asked to (and not everyone has to) identify some issue or opportunity related to the specific workshop or conference theme (such as “How can we achieve a low-carbon, low-energy, future proof university?”), issues for which they have a genuine passion and for which they will take real responsibility for discussing. For example, these might revolve around renewable energy, food, waste or transport issues. They should be thinking of powerful ideas that really grab them to the point that they will take the responsibility to make sure that something gets done about that issue. The facilitator should remind the group that if nothing occurs to someone, that is OK, and if someone has more than one issue or opportunity, that is OK too.
The facilitator should introduce and make flipcharts for the following concepts for Open Space:
The Four Principles
- Who ever comes is the right people
- Whatever happens is all that could have
- Whenever it starts is the right time
- When it is over, it is over
The Law of Two Feet
The Law of Two Feet implies that if you are part of a session you are no longer interested in or contributing to, you have permission to leave. The law puts responsibility for your own actions on your own shoulders.
Bumblebees and Butterflies
Bumblebees and Butterflies are for those people who wish to use their two feet and “flit” from meeting to meeting. These people can pollinate and cross-fertilize, lending richness and variety to the discussions.
Additionally, you should…
Put the chairs in a circle, and set the tone by presenting the theme and explaining the process and purpose of setting the agenda.
Determining the Topics:
The facilitator should then tell the group that once they have their issue or opportunity in mind, to come out into the centre of the circle, grab a piece of paper and marker and write down a short title and sign their name. Once done, each should stand in front of the group and say “I would like to address _____”, or “I’d like to talk with people about _____”. After each person has announced their theme, they should take the piece of paper and tape it up on the blank wall.
Proposing an area for discussion, and taking responsibility for it does not require that the proposer be an expert or that a formal presentation be given. Either or both of those could be true, but it is equally possible that the proposer could be virtually ignorant of the subject and was looking for some people with whom to share the ignorance and develop some knowledge. Taking responsibility means the proposer will designate a time and space and then convene the session.
Developing the Community Bulletin Board and Agenda
After people have stood to announce their sessions, they should pass by a blank chart and affix their issue to it. Once the community bulletin board is created with all the possible discussion group topics, the facilitator should move on to talk about the market place.
Creating the Agenda
Now that all the possible topics are on the wall, people need to develop an agenda by determining when and where the session/discussion will be held. Give people time to discuss together, negotiate, combine similar session topics, and move sessions around so that most people can attend the key sessions of their choice.
By the time the agenda is complete, the community should have specific discussion groups determined, as well as the time and place for each group.
A number of groups should run simultaneously.
The facilitator should determine if the group wants each session proceedings recorded. If so, designate the facilitator / proposer of the session to use a recording form and ask for a volunteer to record critical and important ideas and points raised during the meeting.
It is a good idea to get contact details for all participants and to upload the outcomes or key points of each session to a wiki or other online space after the session.
Suggested Timing for Open Space
Take about 15 minutes for the overview of the session and technique and spend the next 30 minutes with the group creating the topics and working though the bulletin board and the market place.
These can take as long as necessary within the constraints of the workshop
Watch Open Space in action at a Transition Towns event
To find out more about Open Space, there are a number of online guides and resources available online. You can also request a Going Greener follow-up workshop which includes skills training on Open Space by emailing us
A brief User’s Guide to Open Space Technology by Harrison Owen who created Open Space Technology