Thinking about events

How do you decide how to structure your event? First, you really ought to decide what you are trying to achieve.

I spent a few days in Amsterdam the other week, attending a meeting of the Cross Innovation project that is being led by Birmingham City University. The project has 11 cities taking part and they are looking into policies that can help the creative industries influence other types of business, especially in more traditional areas of the economy.


One of the ways the project is going to attempt this is by looking at brokerage, which they define as being “services offered by agencies that facilitate connections between sectors and individual firms where none previously existed”. The brokerage services that the project has looked into are often events.

It made me think how different events I have hosted and attended are constructed. Also, I thought about how much or little they focus on outcomes.

I really enjoy the unconference format. Here there is no set agenda, just a title for the event to frame what might be discussed. The first part of the event is dedicated to deciding the agenda for the day. Unconferences are quite purist in their construction and the closest I’ve seen to anybody codifying them is this:

  1. The people who come are the best people who could have come.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
  3. It starts when it starts.
  4. It’s over when it’s over.
  5. The Law of Two Feet (“If you are not learning or contributing to a talk or presentation or discussion it is your responsibility to find somewhere where you?can contribute or learn”).

Taken from’Rules’

To my mind this is the sort of event where you stay as far away from setting any outcomes as you can. Experience tells me that some people will come along and tell you that the format is just great, but if you were just to tweak it one little bit then you’d start to see some real outcomes.

But if you tweak an unconference it becomes something else. And it’s not that an unconference doesn’t have real outcomes, it’s more the case that they aren’t set. ?A lot of the purpose is the exchange of ideas and the chance to meet other like-minded people working in a similar area of work.

Having established HyperWM, our annual local government unconference in the West Midlands, we wanted to keep up the momentum we felt had been established. We didn’t want to run an unconference every 2-3 months though, so we established Brewcamp.

These are bi-monthly events that travel around the West Midlands, aimed at people who work in, or are interested in the work of, local government. Each event will have three speakers who will talk about some work they have done, or a topic that interests them. This is an adaptation of teacamps, which describe themselves as:

informal gatherings for digital people who work in and around government and also outside of government . ?They are usually two hours long including a slot for a speaker and chatting over a cup of tea, hence the name ?teacamp?.

We strongly discourage the use of presentations, preferring it when people use their talk to lead into a discussion that everybody can contribute to. But we do ask people to take some time to think about what they want to speak about and as a result we have something that starts to look a bit like an agenda before we meet.

We also put quite a bit of thought into the speakers we choose. We want Brewcamp events to be supportive environments, but we also want to avoid it becoming a mutual back-slapping exercise and we aim to have at least one challenging speaker per event.

The other type of events that I’ve been involved in recently have been hack days and weekends. In recent years the open data hack has become quite popular, sometimes with organisations making some of their data available for people to hack with.?Here I think there is often more of an expectation that something tangible will result from the event. After all, the express purpose of hacking is to create something.

I’ve experienced quite different approaches towards organising hacks, some of which has developed over time. At their most simple/least organised, they might just be a group of people getting together with a few ideas and trying to create some kind of software application.

When I was working in Digital Birmingham and we wanted to host a Random Hacks of Kindness hack, we were mainly interested in how digital technologies could help during a crisis. So, we asked Birmingham Resilience, our local emergency and disaster planning organisation to give a short talk at the start of the event. They described their work and some scenarios they felt could be helped by digital technologies.

As a result a proof-of-concept application was built that enabled Birmingham Resilence and the emergency services to open and close muster points and direct people to their closest centre during an emergency, such as a flood. This was not a piece of work that was then followed up. I think this was because our outcome was to raise awareness of the possibilities of digital technologies and nothing more than that.

As such, it was a success.

As people have become more mature in their thinking about what a hack might achieve they have thought about the ways they can organise them to get what they want. For instance, Rewired State have a good overview of the different types of hack day they will arrange. These might have intended outcomes from the following:

  • demonstrating the concept
  • giving developers exposure that could lead to paid work
  • helping a political or social cause
  • as part of a company’s research & development
  • introducing ideas from the digital/creative sector to other sectors of the economy
  • creating a network.

Last year I was involved in the Arts DevLab which was put together by Lara Ratnaraja and Big Cat and supported by Rebel Uncut as part of the Hello Culture 2012 programme of events. It was also supported again by Digital Birmingham, building on their previous experiences of organising hack events.

Here, there were a couple of main outcomes in mind. Firstly, a softer one which involved actively brokering conversations and relationships between arts and cultural organisations. Secondly, helping them move past an idea or a proof-of-concept to a project, by making them aware of a variety of opportunities including funding possibilities.

This involved a lot more than just putting geeks in a room with creatives. Instead there was a programme for the first day, towards the end of which people were forming partnerships and starting to do some work on potential projects. By the end of the hack we had some proof-of-concept work completed, but more importantly we had brokered some relationships with people who otherwise would almost certainly not have met each other.

Out of this we know that some people are doing work together already, one project is putting a funding bid together for Nesta’s Digital R&D Fund for the Arts and one of the technology companies has been working with the University of Birmingham’s Digital Heritage Demonstrator project.

All of these outcomes are successes for the ArtsDevLab.

The above is a somewhat meandering summary of quite different events. While all of them involve brokerage, they all look quite different to each other. I’ve an inkling that they can be broken down and categorized further in useful ways, but for now I’ll end with something succinct.

In summary, and this might be stating the obvious somewhat, the more specific and determined your outcomes are, the more structured and planned your brokerage/event needs to be.


  1. Thanks Kit. I ought to have found Owen Harrison before now, but haven’t.

    Reading between the lines, did you not find Open Space Technology a useful method for the consultation about reorganisation??

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