Methods vignettes: Open space technology



Open Space Technology (OST) is a way to run a workshop or meeting for addressing a broad issue or theme in an open way. Essentially it comprises of the following stages:

  • First, an initial gathering in which the theme is broken down for later break-out sessions by a self-governing participatory process.
  • Next there follows repeated dispersals into break-out groups to discuss identified topics.
  • The group as a whole is re-convened at the end of each day to report back headline news.

Workshops are self-organising, very bottom-up and aim for inclusivity. All participants work together to create and manage their own agenda of parallel break out groups around the central theme of importance which has brought everyone to the event. It is therefore extremely important that everyone present has buy-in, energy and commitment to the event’s theme. It is only through commitment that the self-organising nature of the event will work and be sustained.

OST has been used in a huge range of settings from corporate strategy meetings (Averbuch 2005) to street children in Bogota deciding how better to engage with employment opportunities (Holman 2005). Other specific examples include agenda setting for disability planning at the State level in the USA (Lightfoot, Pappas et al. 2003), exploring possibilities of peace between Israelis and Palestinians (Owen and Haramati 2002), network creation for social transformation through intercultural learning (Nauheimer and Ilieva 2005) and how Transition Towns might operate after the age of cheap oil. The open nature of the approach means that, given suitable and sufficient space, groups from as small as 5 up to 2000 can be involved.

With respect to the STEPS Centre’s research, this approach may be of greatest relevance in the scoping stages of a research project – exploring the framings of different possible pathways around an issue, or at the end of a project when responses or interventions to a situation are being explored.

What’s involved?

Because OST is a self-organising process, very little content preparation is needed, compared to other sorts of workshop. This approach promises a lot of potential to open an issue up, but this does require a variety of individuals to attend voluntarily. So the invitation to the event which details the issue/theme to be broached is really important, as is getting it to the widest diversity of people possible.

Owen (2008) suggests using only one facilitator who convenes and explains the OST process, and ‘holds the space’ when everyone is gathered together (i.e. engenders an atmosphere of equality, participation and responsibility). However, this does assume that everyone at the event has similar feelings of entitlement to participate, will happily mingle and speak truth to power in mixed groups. Given that STEPS research often works in contexts of power asymmetry, this may not automatically happen. A number of facilitators, sensitive to group dynamics, may be needed to ensure that everyone is able to participate in the break-out groups, and/or some participants may need some pre-workshop engagement so that they understand what will happen. If you are conducting a workshop using OST at the beginning of a research process, where you may not be well attuned to local power dynamics, then this needs to be discussed and managed with people who are familiar with the context.

A key part of OST is that each breakout group has a self-appointed scribe and that the contents of the discussion are immediately written up and printed at a bank of computers provided. This write-up is then posted on a designated area of wall to be read by others not present and by group members to ensure fair representation. By the end of the event all discussion write-ups are compiled and a comprehensive report is printed and in the hands of participants before they leave. It details the most important ideas, discussion, data, recommendations, conclusions, questions and plans for immediate action arising from the meeting. Alternatively the report can take an online form like a blog or wiki page.

Again, this might be difficult to achieve in some research settings – where electricity, computers and printers are not abundantly available or where literacy is variable. But immediate accountability of reporting is crucial – that there is comprehensive documentation of the diversity of issues and ideas arising from the event that people can refer to afterwards and through which momentum is maintained. So this element might need adapting to specific research settings.

Broadening Out and Opening Up?

OST enables an issue to be strongly broadened out, by being defined in accordance with the whole range of interests and priorities associated with those who are present. What begins as a very general theme, like ‘how can we address issue X?’, will become much more nuanced – with a specific (potentially very large) set of problems, areas of uncertainty, a set of potential responses.

Traditionally, the idea of an OST event is that you invite as many people as you can and see who comes to it, because those who come are those who care enough to make it work. But it may be difficult to truly broaden out perspectives if there are issues at play that make it difficult for some groups to ‘self-select’. On the other hand, because large numbers of people can be handled with the approach, it is a way of either moving beyond the ‘usual suspects’, ‘experts’ or professionals, and focussing on the voices and input of marginal groups or ‘everyday’ citizen-stakeholders. Or OST can be used to get everyone together.

Depending on the time available and subject matter, OST can also involve proposing and prioritising actions arising from the break-out groups. This might include proposing new areas of policy importance or changes to practice that open up existing ways of doing things. Furthermore, an emphasis on everyone leaving the event with a document detailing all the working groups their discussions and outcomes, seeks to continue the desired sense of empowerment, action and openness.

An OST workshop emphasises passion and responsibility: passion because without it people aren’t interested, and responsibility because without that nothing gets done. Consequently the process can be very empowering and people can take ownership of what is discussed in their break-out group and the overall theme. How a workshop comes to an end and the potential for future next steps needs to be carefully thought through (perhaps on the hoof during the event, given that it is difficult to pre-determine what will arise!) so that this is maintained and not left hanging.

Fits and Limits

Proponents suggest that OST works best when the issue at hand is complex and there is no clear way to deal with it, there are diverse people and ideas involved, there is a desire to address the issue and an openness to what emerges. The principles of OST are breached if any sort of control or restriction is placed on outcomes or what exactly is to be addressed in the process of OST. Similarly, if the issue at hand has already been closed down with non-negotiable responses (such as legal frameworks or policies), the process may be frustrated by feelings of powerlessness.

Resources and References

  • Averbuch, T. (2005). Israel: Movitating and retaining people in a high tech organization – the story of a division gathering around the question: ‘Creating a division in which we would love to work and be proud and happy to belong to – how shall we do it?’. Open Space Technology. New Stories from the Field. H. Nauheimer (download as PDF)
  • Holman, P. (2005). Colombia: How can I contribute to employers not cancelling work for us now and in the future? . Open Space Technology. New Stories from the Field. H. Nauheimer (download as PDF)
  • Lightfoot, E., V. C. Pappas, et al. (2003). “Starting Off Right.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 14(1): 7-16.
  • Nauheimer, H. and E. Ilieva (2005). Bulgaria: Creating Networks for Social Transformation through Intercultural Learning. Open Space Technology. New Stories from the Field. H. Nauheimer (download as PDF)
  • Owen, H. (2008). Open Space Technology. A User’s Guide. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Owen, H. and A. Haramati (2002). Italy: An Open Space to Explore Possibilities of Peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Open Space Technology. New Stories from the Field. H. Nauheimer (download as PDF)


Material for this vignette was contributed by Dr Becky White.