Open Space Principles

Tools of the Trade

Why is funding for the art better for everyone? That’s the latest issue that Devoted & Disgruntled – a collective of arts activists using Open Space Technology to breathe fresh thinking into old debates – settled to tackle earlier this week at the Battersea Arts Centre.

I sadly had to miss out, but I got to hear more about D&D at the Owning the Arts conference directly from its founder, Phelim McDermott (also Artistic Director of Improbable).

For nearly 10 years, D&D have been offering free, drop-in events to the theatre community – and increasingly the wider arts sector – using Open Space Technology to “connect communities, inspire practitioners and open the door for change”. It’s a conference without an agenda, without keynote speeches, without even an organiser. People gather, decide which topics they will work, divide into sessions, and are free to move from one group to another, at any time. Each D&D event produces a bunch of reports (currently over 1,000 available for download), which can constitute a starting point for further research and debate, policy-making, manifesto-writing, collaboration and probably many other things.

While I knew a little about Open Space Technology through its variants – such as UnConvention, the grassroot music industry unconference which inaugural event I attended in Salford in 2008 and has now reached over 60 editions all over the world, and various specialised Camps such as BarCamp – it was great to hear about it directly from Phelim, who is not just using it for D&D events but has also completely embedded its principles into the creative process of his theatre company.

Open Space Technology was devised by Harrison Owen in the 1980s. It relied on 5 guiding principles and 1 law, brought to life by Phelim in his lively presentation. They don’t just apply to running a debate about arts funding or collaborating towards technological or social innovation: they can be adopted and adapted to shape organisational structures and community relations.


If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.


1. Whoever comes is the right people

It’s all about the invitation: people who care will come, and it’s their contribution matters.

2. Whenever it starts is the right time

Creativity doesn’t happen by the clock. The right moment – kairos – is what counts.

3. Wherever it happens is the right place

This is another way to say that it can happen anywhere, and that even a conventional meeting – or organisational structure, or communication system – can be transformed in Open Space.

4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

It’s not about “ifs” and “whens”: action must be grounded in reality.

5. When it’s over, it’s over

Or “do the work, not the time”. Knowing when to call it a day is a valuable skill.

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Open Space is also a way to think differently about collaboration, by accepting that dissenting voices are a fully integral part of a discussion, and that a strong, resilient community is able to hold within itself what is actually against it.

It also comes with a word of warning about the danger of setting outcomes. As stated on the Wikipedia entry, Open Space is a purpose-led method, and while the invitation to the meeting will articulate this purpose, it will not set goals or outcomes for the day. Being too intent on a outcome can be counter-productive and stifle the creative and discursive process.

Here is a video made by The Art of Hosting that explains all of this pretty well:

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And a few participant quotes from D&D’s website:

“D&D is genuine horizontal engagement! (No – not that kind… unless I’ve been going to the wrong sessions). I genuinely thought I wouldn’t like D&D. It sounds too good to be true. I won’t start wheeling out the clichés but D&D is the biggest circle of people I have ever sat in. And that’s worth something.”
– Rachel Briscoe

“Don’t waste time resisting, like I did. Resistance is futile; presence is fertile. You should come.”
– Chris Goode

“ … everyone is there on equal terms, whether you’re the artistic director of a major regional theatre or a first-year student just beginning to make work. In a theatre world that is often competitive and jealously guards knowledge like a miser, this is a place where expertise and experience are shared with real generosity and no strings attached. Devoted & Disgruntled is not just a talking shop – it actually spurs action and initiatives such as mentoring schemes, the sharing of skills and spaces, and people coming together creatively and making work.”
– Lyn Gardner

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For more on Open Space Technology, Open Space World is an enthusiastic online volunteer community sharing resources in several languages – such as case studies, good practice examples and a facilitator directory.