The Digital Agency for International Development

What's the difference between Open Spaces and BarCamps?

By Alan Jackson on 22 December 2009

Having one foot in the world of IT and another in facilitation I keep getting asked

"What's the difference between Open Spaces and BarCamps?"

Here's how I described it to a good facilitator friend of mine (Julian from DecisionLab)...

"I suppose a BarCamp isn't exactly like a pure Open Space. It's got it's own nuance.

For instance it's generally not well regarded to plan BarCamps too far in advance. For no real reason in particular, it's just not the BarCamp way.

People do prepare some stuff to take with them to a BarCamp knowing they will have an opportunity to talk about it - but they make no commitment until the day so they can change it or not give it at all.

Having people declare before hand makes it feel much more like a traditional conference and I think will discourage others from joining in on the spur of the moment.

One thing to remember about BarCamps, the big difference between BarCamps and Open Spaces is the ludic nature of BarCamps - they're supposed to be fun and don't have a particular outcome - they're more like Popular Education rather than group decision making.

I think of it like this. Imagine you're 11 years old and you and a gang of your friends are mad keen on technical lego. You've arranged one weekend to have a sleep-over with a lego theme. You're parents have sorted out pizza and ice cream for everyone. Everybody brings lego with them and you take the half finished robot you're working on. During the lego-fest the gang comes up with an idea - wouldn't it be cool if we put all our lego together and see if we can make a bridge over the stair well.

THAT is a BarCamp. You might prepare something because it's fun. But you're just going along to learn, be inspired, get enthusiastic, hang out with some cool people and have a bit of a laugh.

The idea of getting people to coordinate their talks so they don't have duplicates is I think wrong. You should have duplicates. If that's what people want to talk about - duplicates give more opportunities for people to hear about it."

Dec. 27, 2009, 6:46 p.m. - Chris Corrigan

That doesn't sound very different from the myriad of Open Space events I have conducted where the emphasis has been on learning, hanging out, developing relationships and discovering new things. I'm not sure what you think Open Space IS (simple really, a self-organized gathering using Harrison Owen's four principles and one law), but I think the major difference is that we just call things differently. If I was answering the question, I would say that BarCamp is a specific application of Open Space Technology (although that might not be historically accurate). When self-organizing approaches are used repeatedly over time in communities of practice they take on their own characteristics and cultures. This is what has happened with BarCamps. Open Space Technology is an open source process, has been beta tested for ever and has recently jumped from it's practice enclave amongst organizational development practitioners who were interested in self-organization and complex adaptive systems. in the early 2000s along with the rise of social media, people began looking for meeting processes that made participants producers instead of passive consumers. Many stumbled on Open Space (calling it unconferencing) and the ground was set for the application of this methodology. Here's a podcast from 2005 with some of us who are experienced OST facilitators talking about the future of unconferencing: