Open Space is a lot of things. It's also not a lot of things: for example a conference, a panel discussion/debate or a lecture. To outsiders, it may have a very zen, almost disorganised approach, but that is why it works so effectively. The key concepts are about empowerment and responsibility, so rather than having a lot of people in a room and having the minority talk at the majority, in open space, everyone present has the freedom (power) to propose and lead a discussion, and to be joined by people interested in the same subject. The responsibility aspect requires the session leader to be willing to accept the responsibility of being present for that session, taking notes during it and writing up a report afterwards.
Let's take the independent dance sector. We have many dance artists who are unhappy with many aspects of our industry - for example not only the gender debate but also the issues of low pay/no pay, shortage of jobs, funding difficulties, career progressions or lack thereof - but who have few opportunities to be heard beyond their circle of friends and sometimes wider circles, eg through Facebook. But over the years, we see that not only does the situation not improve, it gets worse, but also independent dance artists continue to be excluded from many of the discussions and the much of the decision-making.
That situation seems to be reaching breaking point, thanks to some ill-advised comments by Akram Khan in The Stage on 12 January, and artists who were willing to stay silent are getting fed up with the status quo only ever being the status quo.
And that is where open space comes in. Open space accepts that things are exactly as they should be: the people who are there are the right people to be there, the conversations are the right ones, the people who are absent are absent for a reason, and it's all falling into place as it should.
But what it also does is bring all those people together into a room, giving them permission to lead discussions on whatever they want with their peers from across the industry - as opposed to their regular circle of friends - and it's only through doing something like this that the independent dance sector can reclaim its voice and be more than a passive observer in all this.
Because while open space is very fruitful in general events, such as Devoted & Disgruntled's annual events, in giving everyone a platform to discuss absolutely anything they want to discuss at all (eg, I would be tempted to propose 'How can we measure the profitability of cat photos in marketing?' if I wouldn't lose all credibility whatsoever in doing so), it's especially effective in focussing people on a single problem as a call to action, and that's why I chose this format for this topic. For complex issues, you may need at least ten or more sessions on different aspects to unpick it to the extent that we can actually start to understand how to move forward, and not only do panel debates etc not offer that thoroughness, open space manages to engage every participant as opposed to the rather passive and inhibited participant of the typical talking shop.
Another value of open space is that it is non-hierarchical: everyone's opinions have the same value as each other's, and everyone is able to speak freely in front of each other without fear of repercussions; everyone is there because they care about a topic and want to do something about it, not because they want to grandstand. Or, as open space allows, if they want to grandstand, they'll quickly find themselves alone.
This is not a very good definition of open space events, so please watch the video above for far better explanations by a number of experienced open space facilitators and practitioners.