I hosted a 3.5 day unconference for climate builders from March 9-12. If you’re curious, here’s what the invite looked like.
The main part of the event was a Friday and Saturday “unconference”, in which participants volunteer to give talks or facilitate discussions about their passions. On top of that, we planned a Thursday night orientation dinner, Friday night outing to a dim sum restaurant, Saturday night pool party, and a Sunday brunch.
What I love about the unconference format is that everyone gets a chance to shine. By the end of a weekend, you’ve heard most of the people around you speak about something of interest, so everyone is just bursting with conversations they want to have. In the end, 40 of the 61 attendees hosted or co-hosted one-hour sessions.
Here are some lessons and reflections from the event.
- Curating the right group is everything. I describe the very elaborate way we did this in another post.
- High participation comes from behind-the-scenes encouragement and expectation setting. I asked everyone to introduce themselves by email 9 days before the event and to share a few ideas for sessions they could host. Then I replied to almost everyone in that thread with feedback on those session ideas, and linked to facilitation advice. The rate at which folks I individually encouraged volunteered to host sessions was about 80%. Otherwise it was about 40%.
- Status-equalizing. In a normal conference, there’s a sense of a “speaker class” and an “attendee class”. An unconference, by contrast, makes it abundantly clear that there are no obstacles to contributing, and that everyone present is interesting in various ways.
- Playful. One group hosted an improv class. Another schemed about “eco-absurdism”, inspired by web-native pranksters MSCHF. Chris Eiben turned his considerable synthetic biology knowledge to the task of designing a living dragon by walking an audience through genes that’d enable e.g. fire-breathing (bombardier beetle acid spray, combined with a mantis shrimp for ignition?) and “love of hoarding treasure” (lyre bird). On the other hand, one of our more impressive climate scientists chose to speak about poetry. It was nice to connect on wavelengths other than the professional.
- Went too hard. Next time, I’ll make the schedule less dawn-to-dusk intense, and add in more time to get outside, take breaks, and exercise. The format called for 45 minute sessions and 15 minute breaks, but for some reason every single session went the full 60 minutes, so in practice there were few breaks on either day. Saturday’s late lunch, homemade Mexican, was the coup de grace. We had our first casualty later that afternoon when Christian Jenq was discovered asleep on a couch instead of at her own session (her fourth, the most of any attendee). I promptly redesignated the theater as Nap Room. By happy hour that night the energy was back. Next time, I’ll add clocks to help people adhere to breaks, leave longer gaps in the schedule for introverted time or 1:1 conversations, start later in the morning, and make time for the outdoors.
- Murphy’s Law. In fairness, my original venue was in Yosemite, and I had planned for daily morning yoga and a Sunday hike to a sequoia stump so large that the 50 of us would be able to do our closing circle on top of it. Unfortunately, Yosemite was obliterated in a snowpocalypse so historic that there was snow on the beaches of LA, and so I had 10 days to re-plan the event. So I found two new venues, arranged accommodations for folks flying in from out of town, and refunded ticket prices by 50%. We ended up hosting in half of it in the gorgeous 50 Years House, a 5-story mansion perched on Corona Heights and overlooking the Neighborhood; the Butternut Mansion, a Hillsoborough private home with an indoor heated pool, tennis court, and multi-level deck and wet bar; and in a dim sum restaurant for a Friday night dinner while the Butternut Mansion hosted another evening event. It wouldn’t be a climate change conference if we couldn’t adapt to the effects of severe weather, after all.
- Murphy’s Law, part 2. What the Butternut Mansion staff neglected to tell me was that their Friday event was a singles event for 60-somethings, and that this required certain preparations. Specifically, they made the place look like a Hallmark vomited on Barbie’s Dreamhouse. If you think I’m exaggerating:
- Bit of a peak experience, honestly. Hearing folks talk about how the group we’d curated was so impressive but also warm and easy to talk to made me feel much more confident that this whole scheme might actually work. Especially by comparison to the nerves I felt the week before the event: this is my first time planning something like this, it seemed like I was copping a lot of bad luck, and the last 35% of the attendees signed up in the final week hours before the event (20% in the last 24 hours). Never change, San Francisco. Paul Reginato told me on Saturday night that the whole event was “very smoothly executed”.
Thank God my sister Melissa had flown out to attend and was there to help. She suggested some slight changes:
And thus, the theme became I Love Climate. If anything, it only made the event more memorable. And it gave me the leverage to demand a $3,000 discount.
At Sunday brunch, during our closing circle, I asked for feedback. The above are a summary of their points, but largely the comments were about the quality of the people — not just that they were so impressive, but also that they were warm and easy to talk to. This is exactly what I had hoped to hear and further raises my internal probability that this Neighborhood scheme might actually work 🙂