In praise of unconferences

Depending on your profession, you likely go to conferences regularly, anywhere from annually to every few months. One aspect of conferences is that they are relatively predictable. They usually have a set schedule that is known to attendees ahead of time. While there may be the occasional session that surprises or an unusual hallway conversation that is unexpected, these are rare. So what if you want to be surprised? Where can you go if you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone? What is a good venue for learning about something far afield from your expertise? Cue a well-organized unconference.

Unconferences are meetings that don’t have a set agenda until participants show up and create one. There is a structure to the timing of sessions, but attendees fill up the grid with whatever topic they deem of interest for a session at the beginning of the in-person meeting. Then participants decide which sessions they want to attend. And if it turns out that they are not enjoying where they are, the law of two feet means that they are welcomed to get up and leave to find another group or activity.

For the past several years, I have had the great pleasure of attending ORDCamp, an unconference held in Chicago in January made up of some extremely creative people (many of whom are from the area, but a good chunk of whom fly in from various parts of the US and beyond, in January to Chicago, yes). ORDCamp is the brainchild of Brian Fitzpatrick (former Googler, more recently founder and CTO of Tock) and Zach Kaplan (founder and CEO of Inventables). Attendance doesn’t cost anything to participants, but it is by invitation only. Google and Inventables have been footing the bill with lots of people and organizations pitching in to provide food, drinks, gadgets to try out, lots of supplies for various sessions, and an embarrassment of riches in the swag bag box.

ORDCamp 2016 was this Fri-Sat and it was the best one yet. About 300 attendees contributed with boundless energy dedicated to sharing passions and interests. I learned about and practiced drawing at a session led by the creator of Darth Vader and Son, Jeffrey Brown and the brains behind Shawnimals, Shawn Smith. I bonded with others who like to send snail mail in a session on “Keeping in touch/Snail mail” by the talented Jenna Blazevich of Vichcraft. I looked down at Chicagoland from space thanks to Google’s augmented reality tools assisted on the spot by Jon Wiley, Director of Immersive Design at Google. I tried out a relatively new party game app and brainstormed about ways to put it out in the App store with its creator Sandy Weisz, a master at games and puzzles. I created a tile with Carvey. I sampled fine chocolates from around the world thanks to the ORDCamp Chocolate Table. And I chatted with lots and lots of interesting people about topics ranging from getting girls excited about engineering to what makes a memorable walk.

I got to discuss existing hobbies and passions with others while learning about new ones. I got to be creative in very energizing ways. Don’t get me wrong, I like many aspects of my work very much, but it is invigorating to dedicate time to different creative undertakings with folks who are experts in and passionate about such a myriad of activities.

I can’t help but think that many people, including and perhaps especially academics, would benefit from such an unconference. These events are not easy to organize, of course. Both the financial costs and logistics are considerable in order to pull off a meeting as expertly as ORDCamp has been doing. But the benefits can be tremendous, to individuals, to organizations and to communities. Such a venue allows for people to find connections with others they did not know existed. It can inspire thinking across domains previously not in conversation. It can help people articulate thoughts and feelings (yes, sessions can be about all sorts of sensitive topics) that do not often have a helpful outlet.

If you have the opportunity to attend an unconference, I highly recommend doing so. But don’t forget, an unconference is very much what participants make it so be sure to bring your enthusiasm, interest, creativity, and passion to the event. Have you ever attended one? I’d love to hear about it.

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