Home Newsletter 2012 Open Space Technology: experiences and prospects

by Grazia Felli, PNGSL

The final conference of the LIFE EX-TRA project included a participatory workshop developed with the “Open Space Technology” (OST). It was managed by a facilitator and involved over hundred persons active for various reasons in nature management and coming from different countries in the world. Similar to other participatory methodologies the OST is able to trigger creative learning processes and, differently from normal planning meetings, it creates a reciprocal sense of commitment among the involved persons. This is principally based on the desire of the participants to develop projects and initiatives in which they can recognize their own input.

The OST has been developed as a result of a series of meetings carried out by Mr. Harrison Owen in the first half of the 80s in which he had noticed that people considered the coffee breaks to be the most fruitful time. When he looked into the reason for this, he discovered that it was a particular space and time in which the participants felt free to converse.

Hence, the crucial part of an OST is the spatial organization which, in itself, expresses the organizational principles of the meeting. People are seated in a circle, which on one side faces a wall of notice boards on which they can stick their personal proposals of issues to be discussed. After this initial, plenary phase, the participants divide into discussion groups according to their personal interest. Also in these groups the chairs are placed in circles and the doors remain open in order to indicate that each person can join or leave the groups as they wish.

The OST technology is ruled by four simple principles: 1. whoever is suitable to join any group; 2. whatever happens is acceptable; 3. whenever it begins, it begins; 4. whenever it finishes, it finishes. Also the singles meetings have a very precise ritual: every work session lasts an hour and twenty minutes after which it is interrupted by a gong. At this point the work must be ended to enable the representatives of the various groups to each write their summary of the discussion. Each report from the group work is then inserted in an instant book, which is given to each participant at the end of the day meeting.
In the past it was seen that the results of this kind of meetings are truly extraordinary both in terms of the quality of the final proposals and the type of relationships established.

During the OST meeting at final conference of the LIFE EX-TRA project the overall discussion theme was: “what is needed for conservation to work?”. The discussion issues proposed by the participants dealt with the role of the socioeconomic conditions for conservation, the central role of local communities and their traditions within the ecosystems, the dynamics of residents and visitors, the building of trust between conservation technicians and local communities, the importance of information exchange in decision-making, the transparency, the optimism, the flexibility of laws regarding conservation and the application of rules.

The meeting highlighted the value and importance of having adopted a participatory methodology with the technicians and experts involved in nature conservation. The discussions, proposals and reports were managed autonomously by the participants during the group work. This increased the energy and synergy, which is typical of OST, and stimulated the technical – scientific community communicate in a critical and constructive manner.