Space to Think

So thinking can develop

FOO Camp as model for Dialogue

What if we could get passionate, smart and enquiring people together for long enough in the kind of environment that encouraged ideas to bounce off one another, new and surprising thinking to emerge and everyone’s ideas and questioning to be equally valued?

Too often we gather for a purpose and the purpose dominates, or particular experts or presentations come to define a sort of orthodoxy and so limit thinking, or the structure of gathering requires or encourages posturing and reacting. It is hard for anything new to come in such settings, and yet this is what most professional and academic conferences take as inevitable. If we gather around a purpose it may surpose that we already know what matters. If we gather around an expert or acclaimed expertise it may surpose that the thinking has been done. Peer review and scholarly debate and questions rarely recognise the limits of the accepted paradigm, and rarely bring expertise from different disciplines into a dialogue of equals.

We have recently had a NZ version of FOO Camp. It got some good coverage on Radio New Zealand National. The interviews are worth listening to. They can be found for a short while here (Kim Hill interviewing Nat Torkington and Ian Wright live at Kiwi FOO Camp.

FOO stands for “Friends of O’Reilly”, as in O’Reilly publishers. The background can be found on Wikipedia here. Basically this is a limited invited crowd of interesting people who take the space and time to interact and share. Stuff happens.

As the Wikipedia entry says:

Foo Camp is an annual hacker event hosted by publisher O’Reilly Media. O’Reilly describes it as “the wiki of conferences”, where the program is developed by the attendees at the event, using big whiteboard schedule templates that can be rewritten or overwritten by attendees to optimize the schedule. The goal of the event is to reach out to new people who will increase the company’s intelligence about new technologies, and to create opportunities for cross-fertilization between people and technologies that are on the O’Reilly radar. Some have described it as a meta-birds-of-a-feather session, that gets smart people together to discuss technology issues. This style of event has also been described as an unconference.

The model that they use seems to draw on an approach I have used in the past and found very creative. It is called Open Space Technology. This is a way of organising that allows participants to go where the energy is.

Here, in NZ, Nat Torkington collaborated with Russell Brown to organise the NZ version of FOO. Russell has reported on his blog Public Address | Hard News

It’s nice that the Bar Camp model has been established here without rancour. Anyone can do it. The trick is to put away the hierarchies — the new kid is as important as the head of department — and to invite people like you’re planning a big dinner party, and let them set the agenda.

This approach to conferencing takes some courage, but it can produce a quality of dialogue, creativity and innovative learning that is very hard to do in the conventional conference model. To give some idea of the flavour, have a look at an extract from Tim O’Reilly’s invitation posting to participants: HomePage – Kwiki

We’ll put the program together on Friday evening at about 7:30pm, so if you want to lead a session, sign up for a slot then. Don’t worry if you arrive late, there should be enough sessions to go around. We’ll have a variety of spaces–conference rooms, open areas, and meeting-room-sized tents outdoors. Several of the rooms have projectors, but we could use more, so if you have one to lend, do bring it along.

The idea is that participants bring ideas, stuff to share, topics to explore; there is a way of linking these offerings to a space and time and then “marketing” the ideas so people can chose where to go for each ‘session.’ It is also a good idea, although I don’t know if they do it at FOO, to have a way of gathering together insights and loose ends from the sessions. I think that the FOO ideas were gathered in a dedicated wiki.

Anyway, what excites me are any ways that help generative dialogue to happen. I think the FOO Camp / Open Space approach is a great framework for this. I have been enthusing about and trying forms of dialogue for some time, mainly influenced by the work of David Bohm and the development from that work by people like William Isaacs and Daniel Yankelovich.

Yankelovich identifies three components without which he would not think of an encounter as dialogue.
His three are:

  • equality and the absence of coercive influences
  • listening with empathy
  • bringing assumptions into the open

I would add to this the significance of establishing the expectation and practice of enquiry. The work of Argyris and Schon on balancing advocacy and enquiry is relevant here. To present an idea and/or to engage with another’s thinking in an environment of effective equality, attentive empathy, intentional enquiry and an exploration of assumptions requires a quality of gathering not found in most conference programmes. It needs people from diverse disciplines and none. It requires naive questions as well as expert questioning. It requires an environment open to high levels of self-organising as themes emerge and thinking develops.

I delight to think of the FOO Camps as modelling such a space and hope that the high profile that these events have won will spawn new ways of gathering and thinking.


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February 5, 2008 - Posted by | complexity, dialogue, learning | , , , ,

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