Open Space generates dozens of ideas for UMass Permaculture!

On Wednesday morning we held an Open Space activity for the UMass Permaculture Committee.

Open Space is a powerful tool for engaging large groups in a community visioning process. A big sheet of paper is put up on the wall, or drawn on a whiteboard, divided according to the available times for meeting and spaces available. People are encouraged to put up the topics they would like to meet around or present, choosing a particular time and place. They each make a short announcement, describing their session (10 words or less.) Participants are free to go where they wish. Each session has a notetaker, who types notes onto a computer after the session is over, allowing the entire group to easily and quickly produce a report that can be circulated to participants, and beyond.

Open Space Technology has Four Rules and One Law (the Law of Two Feet).

The Four Rules state:

  1. Whoever is there… is the right group.
  2. When it starts, it starts.
  3. Whenever happens is all that could have happened.
  4. When it’s over, it’s over.

and The Law of Two Feet states that:

“If, during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their feet and go to some more productive place.”

Below are some pictures from today’s class:

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Here is how we ran the activity. After reading to everyone the same description as above, we took 2 minutes to brainstorm ideas individually that we would like to see the UMass Permaculture Committee focus its efforts on this semester. I shared my idea first as an example – a UMass Permaculture children’s book (click here for the background story to that!)

I held up a 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper that said “UMass Permaculture Children’s Book” so everyone could see and hear the idea, then I put a sticky note with the idea on the white board in the 9:31 – 9:38 time slot, in designated Space #3 (the hallway outside the classroom.) Those who wanted to hear more about my idea would come to Space #3 during this timeslot and I explained more. There were also ideas being presented simultaneously in Spaces #1,2, and 4.

If nobody shows up to a Space, nobody should take it personal because (the rule states) “that’s all that could have happened!” The person who proposed the idea writes down the highlights in the group notes, so that everyone can read it afterward Every notetaker puts the notes from each session into a Google Document (that everyone can edit and add notes to.) Everyone can read the Google Doc. which has every session’s ideas – which means regardless of whether you attended a certain session, you can still see the highlights from all other conversations that were had.

The only prerequisite for proposing an idea is that you will host that discussion and scribe the conversation for the benefit of anyone unable to participate.

Some quick after thoughts about Open Space. It’s great for encouraging participation and spontaneity. It’s easy, requires no great skill to facilitate and encourages everyone to take part. It’s a good opening or connecting process but not a process that helps a group set goals, priorities or come to decisions. This last sentence is important and we knew this going in based on reading about other groups who have used this activity. Starhawk writes,

“Open Space is a visioning process – great for generating ideas and participation. But it’s not a process for making decisions or setting priorities.”

We generated A LOT of great ideas today, and it was much better than a traditional brainstorm because it wasn’t just 1 person speaking as the whole group listening: it was 4 small groups all dialoguing, in short time-periods, which was very fun and engaging for everyone.

So this is where we are at now. A lot of ideas have been generated, and now we must decide as a group how to take all of these great ideas and make decisions about which ones to put our energy into. It’s very exciting times!

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