Open Space Technology

© 1999 John E. Perkins, III
5201 22nd Ave. NE Ste. 201
Seattle WA 98105
206 524.4496

Open Space Technology (OST), a simple yet profound method for facilitating community meetings and conferences, has been gaining recognition and favorable reviews in The New York Times, Washington Post and Training Magazine, among others. In essence, an Open Space Event runs entirely on the passions and interests of the people who attend.

Since its development thirteen years ago by Harrison Owen, OST has been used around the world by communities, large church denominations, corporations and schools to facilitate creativity, problem-solving and enthusiasm. When the citizens of Pueblo, Colorado held an Open Space Event about the future of their school system, 800 people showed up and totally re-wrote the book on how education is done in that city. Cities and townships all over South Africa are using Open Space to deal with the complexities they are facing. Last November on Vashon Island, over 90 young people used Open Space to organize themselves for a full day of deep conversations on sexuality, racism, violence, conservation, and drug abuse prevention.

With Open Space nothing is planned in advance, yet the people who come have a full one, two or three day agenda within the first hour of the event. How does it do that? By providing any group (from 6 to 600) with simple but universally understood means of organizing itself.

Using less than one hour, no matter how large the group, the facilitator outlines the procedure for creating topics to discuss, the 4 principles of Open Space, and the One Law, or what I call the Sole Law.

Anyone with an interest in a topic writes it on a rectangle of newsprint with their name, announces it to the group and tapes it up on the designated part of the wall with a room/time assignment Post-It. Before the Open Space the facilitator has decided on topic discussion lengths, usually 60 - 90 minutes. After all who want to have made proposals for discussions, people individually show their interest in a topic by signing the same sheet with the topic statement. Topic conveners and potential attendees negotiate changes such as combining groups or changing times or room assignments.

The Four Principles are:

  1. Whoever come are the right people.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time.
  3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  4. When it's over it's over.
This prevents a lot of wishful thinking and "If only" type regretting.

The Sole Law or, as Owen named it, The Law of Two Feet, states that at any time a person feels a meeting is not contributing to their learning needs they have the responsibility to themselves to get up and move, that is use their two feet or four wheels to move to a more interesting place. Naturally, this creates two roles: Bumblebees and Butterflies. Bumblebees fly from group to group cross-pollinating the discussions while Butterflies sit around looking relaxed--interesting discussions emerge around them as people find them and pause to chat.

After the initial instructions and sign-up process people meet in small group discussions for hours until the whole group gathers for closing reflections.

The advantages of this approach are clear. Leaders and community organizers can proceed with rock solid confidence about what people want and will support. As people takes responsibility for what they care about most and meet with others with the same concerns, they form the nuclei for action committees to follow up on ideas generated during the Open Space.

John Perkins received his training in OST in January of 1994. Since his training he has led and sponsored several Open Space events, including introducing over 170 high school students to the power of Open Space in 1994 and 1995. He also played a key role in sponsoring the three days of Open Space events that Tobacco Free Washington held of February 25, and April 20-21, 1995 to begin its restructuring efforts.

See my paper on Open Space to learn more about this exciting innovation.