Conferences Un-Done: How the “Unconference” Format Reconnects Participation

By Simon Dunne
Sharing leads to progress. The $122 billion dollar conference industry knows it well. We come together to share knowledge and experiences so that we’ll learn from each other and progress together.

So the blossoming sustainability conference scene is no surprise. Highlights on the schedule include behemoths like Sustainable Brands, the Cleantech Forum, and GLOBE, one of the largest and longest-running conference series on business and environment in the world. Being a topic that is so dynamic and unpredictable, conferences have become a lifeline of knowledge for sustainability professionals.

Or have they? As a former colleague of mine, Marc Stoiber, noted at a TEDx event in Vancouver last year, social media is changing the conference world. More and more, learning and sharing happen online. The internet has made information so accessible that anything we need to know we can find out without getting up. The connections happen on LinkedIn; the learning happens on webinars, newsletters and online calls; the inspiration happens on

When we do attend conferences, we come with toys. At the best of times our attention spans are twenty minutes, but with a Blackberry in front of our faces and a twitter page to coddle, focus flies out the window.

Despite their wired ways, attendees often leave conferences feeling disconnected. One-way communication can create a divide, and although speakers can be enlightening, attendees often leave wondering ‘what now’?

Suddenly, shelling out thousands to attend conferences full of knowledge we can download from our desks becomes a tough sell.

But we still do it.

Conference organizers have been forced to ask themselves why, and figure out how to strengthen their appeal to that motivation.

New conference formats are addressing the fact that information is no longer a primary driver for attendees. Information is easily sourced. People come for inspiration, connections, and creativity. New events are striving to achieve a format that encourages all three and creates a recipe for action that lasts beyond the ride home. Successful conferences are going the way of marketing, towards two-way communication.

Enter the unconference. While the format has been around since the late 80s, our new uber-wired world has helped it flourish. In an unconference, attendees are all crucial to the design of the event: voting on discussion topics, contributing to work groups, and sharing what they know.

Events in the unconference, or BarCamp branded, format have grown virally around the world, with events for every taste from technology to dating (see SingleLifeCamp).

The sustainability world has been keeping pace too, with events like the Green Business Camp in Santa Cruz and the Living Future event from the Cascadia Green Building Council attracting big name attendees like Paul Hawken.

Born of the tech world, unconference formats like these are ironically helping us overcome tech, as we switch off our cell phones and contribute our ideas. They help us form connections with fellow attendees that go deeper than a handshake and a business card, or even an accepted LinkedIn request.

Organizers continue to push the conference paradigm. Events like the GreenerMind Summit, held in the Mendocino Woodlands this June, provide not only a participatory, interactive format, but also a setting that puts attendees at ease and facilitates creativity and collaboration.

It’s a trend I only see continuing as we drive progress through sharing.


Simon Dunne is a freelance Behavior Change Specialist, helping motivate consumers to make smarter choices for the environment.

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5 responses

  1. I think you nail it when you say that people search inspirations, connections and creativity these days when they go to conferences. Instead of organizing conference despite tech gadgets and online tools, I believe one has to use them and the opportunities they provide to make that appeal even greater.

    My company Radical Inclusion for the second time organizes an online unconference called Radical Real Time. The topic is “Making the Most of Collaborative Worlds: Physical, Virtual and Blended Collaboration” The realtime part will be on June 5.

    Check out the conference site and attend:

  2. Since I started co-organizing the Beyond 2020 Unconference (quarterly, 3-hour, open-space event here in Portland, Oregon), I've been noticing a proliferation of unconferences. The problem with many of them (at least one is mentioned in this article) is they're just calling themselves that while retaining the good old conference format — they're unconference-washing, if you will. Unconferences don't have keynotes, workshop proposal processes, or schedules!

    The unconference format, based on the aforementioned open-space technology, comes, as pointed out in the article, with the awesome potential of creativity, connection, and discovery. After each Beyond 2020, many participants, particularly first-timers, remark on the value of open space. It's an exciting format for participants and organizers alike.

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