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Un-conference uses technology to make democracy more participatory

“How do we re-imagine government and governance in the age of participation?”

On Saturday, January 24, 140 participants attended an un-conference – a term applied to participatory-style conferences that seek to reject conventional notions of a conference, such as participation fees – held at the MaRS Centre in Toronto. The event was part of Change Camp, an initiative designed to explore the question of governance in the age of participation.

Change Camp is led by Mark Kuznicki, a media and social change consultant with an interest in creative communities. It seeks to re-draw the line between government and citizens, to explore what citizenship between elections can mean, and to examine how public policy makers can engage members of the community in formulating laws and draw upon their expertise and knowledge.

Change Camp came about after this past November’s Web 2.0 summit in Toronto – an exploration of the role of the Internet in government. Kuznicki felt that more discussion of a re-envisioned government was in order.

“[There was] an openness, a readiness, to think about the issues of participation and technology,” he said of Change Camp’s beginnings.

Participants at the un-conference included technologists, designers, social innovators, and public policy representatives, including City of Toronto officials. Kuznicki stressed, however, that participation in Change Camp is not limited to professionals

“There’s [also] the curious, the people who are coming out because they have a sense that there’s more that they could be doing,” explained Kuznicki.

The Un-conference’s main goal was simply to bring to light the idea of an open government, and to ignite discussion on how this might be achieved. According to Kuznicki, tangible progress was made in ideas for web and software applications that help make government more transparent, and on ways to further the City of Toronto’s open data initiative – a commitment to making more public information available in the public realm.

Change Camp is itself a highly participatory event, and uses imaginative ways of organizing ideas, information, and people. The movement takes advantage of Web 2.0 technology; during the un-conference, participants live-blogged and took video, allowing rapid communication to occur and key ideas to be on record for future development. Platforms such as Twitter, which allows account users to “follow” one another as they post updates consisting of no more than 140 characters, were also used.

Daniel Goldberg, faculty lecturer in the department of art history and communications at McGill who teaches Communications and Democracy, commented on the power of recent web innovations like Twitter.

“These technologies are still in their infancy, really, but they are already showing their potential for vast mobilization of committed individuals and the dissemination of new and socially innovative ideas.”

Technology is not the only unique aspect of Change Camp. As Goldberg explained, the participatory nature of such a platform also makes things interesting.

“When we talk about an un-conference, we’re really talking about embracing the concept of ‘open everything’ – information is free, content is shared, and the collective builds upon the innovations of the individual.”

The content of the un-conference is fuelled almost entirely by the ideas and conversations of the participants. It is facilitated only by an opening question, a set of conference rooms available for groups of participants to utilize as they begin to naturally form discussions and ideas, a few ground rules, and lots of space to record the plethora of solutions and conversations that ensue. The goal of such a format is to brainstorm without inhibition, and to catalyze conversations and interactions between participants which might not otherwise occur. The model of the un-conference is in many ways analogous to the shift in government that it seeks to catalyze; leadership and organization forms from within the group, derived from discussion and consensus, rather than simply being implemented by an authority.

Kuznicki is confident that hosting a conference without dogmatic leadership, and without the limitations of a strict agenda, will bear fruit.

“I think the ideas, the conversations are powerful. Talking is doing,” he said. “By talking, you’re propagating an idea into other people’s minds that they can take and run with and do something with, take action with.”