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Thoughts on unConference on Melb's digital future
Posted by Tony on 14th August 2012 at 00:40:22
It was a great way to spend sensible length weekend days, (re)connecting with impressive people and contributing a little for an optimistic cause. Lets look at it from a few angles, first the format.

The unConference/Open Space format (Wikipedia is your friend here) is familiar to others through the likes of BarCamp, but this was a first proper experience for me. As time becomes ever more valuable, it was a big leap forward from traditional conference structures. It places heavy demands on the facilitators, making Mark's final Open Space session on Unknown Unknowns remarkable.

Conceding to lead a session on Digital Playing and Meeting Venues underlined how tricky the balance is between being under and over prepared, and how there could never be enough time between sessions to do significantly better because such time would immediately fill with other distractions. Reporting is particularly tricky, especially if the group initially looks too small to dump it on one individual. The naive idea of all sharing reporting responsibility runs into the barrier of curating and post-processing loads which you can't burden participants with.

Demanding an "unKeynote" early on Sunday to share more contextual detail on the City of Melbourne's scope and roles seemed to help many. It is always too easy to assume random others will have sufficient background in areas where organisers have long been immersed.

Hub Melbourne as venue, supplemented by intriguing basement dungeons, was more than could have been imagined during my year earlier visit. Anything it might have been seen as lacking compared to some imaginary purpose built venue, Hub more than made up for through its ever interesting spaces. Fortunately for my injury/recovery management, the lift was newly working.

Next lets look far too briefly at the generated content. The challenge was to identify initiatives that the City Council should take in the digital space in an update to its Future Melbourne strategy timed particularly for the soon to be elected next council's budget planning cycle. The theory was that Saturday would open up a large space of ideas which Sunday would start to whittle down to a finite action list. That opening up was never going to be easy to turn around.

Across both days, you could not get to 20% of the sessions so I should leave it to others to create definitive summaries and restrict this to the eight sessions I was able to partake in. The first played strongly with the co-working bias of the audience Hub Melbourne could attract and saw a standing room only gathering in what had been set up as the biggest breakout room. It brought into focus the lack of context known to many participants to the point of eliciting a rare wish that there might have been more oldies there. The next two for me were in the same end dungeon where I was the only person to connect neighbourhood knowledge with civic engagement. Back up stairs (lift) in the bigger breakout room, a topic name starting "Complexity, Emergence ..." pricked my Kororoit Institute sensibilities but unsurprisingly scared off all but a select few who proceeded to have a very dynamic discussion, the take away message being that Melbourne has a long disguised capability to be a major centre in digital technology beyond gaming, but we need our civic leaders to incorporate that strongly into brand Melbourne.

As a perfect segue from the unKeynote, our first Sunday breakout tried to map the stakeholders, right down to tourists and the homeless, annotating the map with dollar signs expected to identify directions of influence. My session aimed to extend council's traditional role providing playing and meeting spaces into the digital realm but became even more concerned with the type of physical venues that are needed to serve groups which are organised online. This connected to a session on the Maker community who need to build their positioning as next generation Mens Sheds to tap into established support regimes. The final session was again Kororoit Institute territory: Unknown Unknowns and almost as dynamic as the day before. It was even more notable for Mark Elliott's ability to pull it together while otherwise fully occupied facilitating the whole show.

Lastly, there is a meta point to be made about challenges of exploding interconnectedness. The complexity of the City of Melbourne's operations and constraints or the complexity that stakeholder map starts to suggest are both more than matched by the complexity of the community of interest that the unConference tapped into. From Open Source developers, secular activists and Transhumanists to creatives drawn to co-working spaces, Maker communities and transport/planning advocates a broad spectrum of digitally-empowered fellow travellers is emerging. Most still struggle to escape silo mentalities which often blind them not just to adjacent contemporaries but also to the depth of precursor activity which at worst should provide valuable context. Some of us were working towards digital collaboratories in 1986 but now find it enough of a challenge to keep high level track of leading players.

Reportedly New York City is already accelerating down the digital road and our Lord Mayor has a track record for taking on initiatives from the Big Apple so maybe the invaluable time volunteered to this project will prove justified. Melbourne still too easily forgets that we are a world class city and set our sights too low. It used to be called cultural cringe, but that hardly fits our nowadays energised and diverse culture. We have and/or can attract the talent pools to do anything. Digital dispenses with the tyranny of distance. What are we waiting for? Civic latency?

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Thoughts on unConference on Melb's digital future - Tony 00:40:22 14-Aug-12
Wish I'd seen this before the weekend - Tony 12:14:44 14-Aug-12
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