village marketplace with times along the left and letter locations along the top

Open Space Technology: Starting a Permaculture Guild in Santa Cruz [March 2018]

This is the second article in a series about how to start a permaculture guild in your community. It’s based on what we’ve been doing to start one in Santa Cruz, CA. In the first article, we explore what a Permaculture Guild is and how to host your first meeting using the World Cafe process. In this article, we describe how to host an Open Space with your guild.

When was the last time you attended a meeting or conference in which all of the participants collectively created the agenda? If you haven’t attended a meeting like this, imagine what it might feel like for the agenda-setting power to be distributed equally among attendees.

people sitting around a table talking

Although other factors certainly affect where power is held in groups, when we create the agenda together, we’re allowing space for more diverse ideas to emerge.

Additionally, the topics put forth by the entire group represent those that are most pressing, important, or exciting. The top-down agenda creation process that’s common in mainstream work environments limits the scope of possibilities, solutions, and ideas.

We already know that collectively creating inevitably produces more possibilities than doing so in isolation. David Holmgren’s permaculture principle of “Integrate rather than segregate” comes to mind. The same can be true in our meetings and conferences.

Most of our permaculture participants want to host meetings in ways that are inclusive of our diverse perspectives, and yet many of us were never taught how, beyond Robert’s Rules of Order, perhaps. So, how do we host meetings like this?

In this article, we’ll explain the process of hosting what is called Open Space Technology. We’ll use the context of the Santa Cruz Permaculture Guild as an example.

Last month, the newly re-launched Santa Cruz Permaculture Guild hosted the World Cafe process to explore the possibilities for the future of the Guild. It’s described in this article. For our second meeting on March 7, we utilized Open Space Technology and focused on what permaculture topics and actions people in the Guild are most passionate about pursuing or discussing.

What is Open Space Technology?

Open Space Technology, Open Space, or OST, is a format for meeting facilitation in which the participants of the meeting collectively create their own agenda of parallel working sessions around a central theme of strategic importance.

All participants have the opportunity to express what they consider to be important and to take responsibility for their passions.

By allowing everyone to present a topic for the meeting, power is distributed to the collective group, and the energy and passion of the group determines where the discussion leads.

Note: People often hear “Open Space” and think that it’s just free time and get anxious that it’s going to be a chaotic waste of time. Alternatively people hear “Open Space” and confuse it with “Open Source,” thinking they know what the process is. For as simple, elegant and effective as it is, it is surprising that more people do not actually utilize Open Space Technology in their communities and organizations.

village marketplace with times along the left and letter locations along the top

Crafting the Invitation and Purpose

Although Open Space Technology allows participants to create the agenda collectively, someone still needs to organize the gathering, introduce the process to attendees, and facilitate at key points throughout the meeting or conference. We’ll refer to the organizer of the Open Space as “the host,” although this could be a hosting team of multiple people.

As with any meeting or conference, a date, time, location, and purpose need to be identified. Ideally, the purpose is identified in a collective way based on the needs and interests of the group. Once these details are confirmed, the host should prepare and share an invitation to the meeting. We shared our invitation at the end of the February meeting, through a couple emails to our Guild list-serv, and on the Facebook event page for the March meeting.

For the Santa Cruz Permaculture Guild’s Open Space session on March 7, 2018 at the Live Oak Grange, our purpose was to create an opportunity for Guild members to explore permaculture topics they are passionate about together.

Some possible outcomes were to encourage people to get to know each other better and build community, as well as identify possible actions or projects the Guild could collectively work toward in the coming year.

During the World Cafe process in February, we explored questions about the intention of the Guild, what we could each individually bring, and what we could collectively accomplish.

At the end of the February meeting, we invited participants to think about what came up for them that they would want to explore deeper at the March meeting. We only briefly mentioned Open Space Technology but didn’t get into the specifics. Our emails and Facebook event page also only briefly described Open Space Technology. We gave enough detail for folks to come prepared with topics, but not so much detail that they felt overwhelmed.

In addition to inviting folks to attend the Open Space and reserving the meeting location for a certain date and time, the host should also map out how many discussion sessions will fit into the meeting time. Be sure to plan time in at the beginning for folks to trickle in. If you’re having a potluck beforehand (which we did), you’ll want to allow people to eat, mingle, and wash dishes before beginning the session.

If it’s your first time hosting an Open Space, give yourself plenty of time for the introduction so you don’t feel rushed. Each discussion session can be about 20 minutes long. If you can, give folks 5-10 minute breaks between sessions. You’ll also need time at the end for the harvest and cleanup. Note: At all-day or multi-day Open Spaces the sessions are typically 60-90 minutes long. Because our Open Space was two hours long on a weekday evening we opted for 20 minute sessions.

Setting the Context

For a meeting to be considered an Open Space session, there are some key elements that the host should explain during the introduction. These elements set the tone for the Open Space session and create a set of expectations.

At the beginning of this post when we asked you to imagine a meeting in which everyone created the agenda, you may have groaned at the thought of giving everyone the metaphorical microphone. How could that possibly work without chaos? How do you avoid giving power to people who may hog the conversation and steer it toward their own interests? While these are issues that every meeting facilitator must consider, Open Space does have some strategies for addressing them during this context-setting at the beginning.

Write or print out these elements (the four principles, one law, and two animals described below) on paper large enough for everyone to see them while the group is sitting together. For the Santa Cruz Permaculture Guild meeting, we used printer paper because the group was small (about 20 people). For much larger sessions, you should use butcher paper or flip chart paper with large letters. You can also put these on a projector; however, we find it’s best to keep it low-tech. These should remain up in the space throughout the meeting or conference.

As an introduction to the four principles and one law of Open Space Technology, here’s a video by Bat Fish Creations:

In addition to the guiding principles and law, there are a couple roles that are mentioned in the video below. These include convener, bumblebee, and butterfly, which the next video will explain.

One animal who is not invited to Open Space sessions and isn’t mentioned in these videos is the boar (or bore), the person who hogs the floor and doesn’t let anyone else speak. It’s important to mention this animal even though it isn’t invited as a reminder to pause and let others speak in sessions. This is one subtle way to remind folks that Open Space sessions work most effectively as dialogue, rather than lecture or monologue in which only one voice is heard.

black and white drawing of a bee

drawing of a butterfly with blue winds

Introduction to the Process

Once the introduction and context has been set, it’s time to explain the process and then jump right in. We’re sharing a video by NHSR&DNW that shows you in a visual way how the Open Space process works:

When setting up the room before folks arrive, you’ll want to create a matrix like you saw in the video. Along the top columns, label each A, B, C, D, etc. until G (you can add more letters if needed). Each letter will correspond to a place in the room, noted by another piece of paper with that letter hanging up in that area of the room. For our meeting, each table was a different letter. Alternatively, if you’re in a large place that has multiple breakout rooms that are named, you can use the names of the breakout rooms instead of letters. We call this matrix “the Village Marketplace.”

Along the left side of the matrix, make rows for each time session (Session 1, Session 2, etc.). When people announce their topic, they will select a time session and a letter/location for their discussion.

As mentioned briefly in the video above, it’s important to have note-takers at each discussion who can capture the names of the participants and the key discussion points, action items, or anything else that was discussed that should be recorded. Please see this article by Phil Howard, Jan Perez, Tim Galarneau, and David Shaw about note taking at Open Spaces using the Dynamic Facilitation process.

At the end of the session, hang the notes up on the wall for people to read during the breaks. Ultimately someone should type up the notes and share them with the group (or scan/send an image if the handwriting is legible). The best practice is to create a “news room” where the note-takers have access to computers to type up the notes right after the session. That way, the proceedings can be distributed before the meeting is even over! For our meeting, one person collected the notes and typed them into this Google Document to share.


At the end of the session, it’s important to reserve time for a harvest. This is a chance for everyone to reflect on what was discussed or discovered. The host can invite each person to share a brief reflection, or you can ask each session topic to briefly share key take-aways.

For our meeting on March 7, we had each session share back what they discussed. Some groups focused on information sharing and telling stories about successes and challenges with a particular topic, such as worm composting. Other groups identified possible next steps and committed to taking action before the April meeting to report back. Overall it was a fun opportunity for folks to get to know one another better, learn something new, and become (re)inspired. In today’s fragmented society it is important to have opportunities like this for citizens to “flex the muscles of democracy” in small ways.

Although the format of the April meeting hasn’t been finalized yet, we are continuing to move toward the direction of identifying goals for us to work on as a Guild in 2018. We’ll be sure to share another report about what steps we take at our next meeting as part of this series.

Additional Considerations

In addition to the traditional Open Space process, we also had a few passive engagement opportunities for attendees at our meeting that will likely be present at our future meetings.

We asked folks to sign in with their name and email if they wanted to join the email list. Next to this was a stack of scratch paper and some instructions for a Community Asset Mapping project (see below).

instructions for a community asset mapping project

Above: the Community Asset Mapping directions
Below: an example name card for the Community Asset Mapping activity

Piece of paper that says Melissa (she, her), facilitation, gardening experience, writing

We collected name cards from those who participated (not everyone did), and we will share the information on our Guild list-serv.

Attendees were also invited to share various kinds of information. This included needs/requests, resources/offerings, and upcoming events. At our exchange/free table, people could leave items they had brought to give away or trade. Items included seeds, sourdough starter, plants, food, flowers, and more.

These are all ways to help build community among the folks who attend the meetings. For now, we’re collecting information in Google Drive to share with our email list. We may later identify other ways to share this information among our group.

table with a box of food, seed packets, and other items

Sample Agenda

Below is the agenda from our Open Space session on March 7 to show how much time we devoted to each section. We actually started the meeting about 30 minutes late because folks trickled in slowly and didn’t start eating until around 6:50pm. Because we had given ourselves plenty of time for the introduction and re-arrangement of topics, we only ended about 5-10 minutes past 8:30pm. If you are hosting a potluck before your Open Space, we would recommend giving folks a full hour to arrive and eat.

6:00-6:30: Prep for meeting
    • Write out principles, law, draw animals (or write these in advance and bring)
        • When it begins, it begins
        • When it’s over, it’s over
        • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
        • Whoever comes is the right people
        • The Law of Two Feet
        • Bee
      • Butterfly
    • Resources and upcoming events – hang up paper
    • Needs and Resources Inventory – hang up paper with two columns, add example of need and example of resources with name in parentheses
    • Set post-its near food table with pen for ingredients
    • Free/exchange table – Create signs for different sections
    • Exploring “Community Asset Mapping”
        • Put it by the food table and ask people to do it before they get their food
      • Name tag / name tent with 3 assets/resources they can offer – more significant ones in larger font
    • Set scratch paper, pens, markers on tables
    • Create, hang up A-G on wall, with two time sessions
  • Create, hang up A-G around room
6:30-7:00: Potluck
    • Welcome folks
    • Invite them to get food after filling in a name tag or name card (fold in half) with three resources/assets they can offer to the community, as well as pronouns
    • Encourage people to check out free/exchange table, add events, as well as update needs/resources
  • (See note above; we would recommend actually giving folks a full hour to arrive and eat. This was not enough time.)
7:00-8:30: Open Space Session: “Passionate About Permaculture”
    • 6:55 – 7:00: Gather folks to find their seats
    • 7:00 – 7:15: Welcome
        • Raise of hands who’s from which county
        • What we’re doing tonight, setting the context
            • Explain principles, law, animals
            • Share theme: “Passionate About Permaculture”
            • Explain process
          • Ask people to take notes
      • Share an example topic
    • 7:15 – 7:25: Folks announce their topics
    • 7:25 – 7:30: Re-arrange topics if needed
    • 7:30 – 7:50: Session 1
    • 7:50 – 7:55: Transition/break
    • 7:55 – 8:15: Session 2
    • 8:15 – 8:30: Harvest, hearing from each group, collect notes
  • 8:30: Clean up

Join Us!

For folks who live near Santa Cruz and want to get involved with our permaculture guild, please join our Facebook group. You can mark your calendar with the upcoming meeting dates for 2018 listed on our website hereRSVP on the Facebook event page for our April 4th meeting here.

Please connect with us if you’re inspired to host an Open Space session in your community–for a permaculture guild meeting or any other kind of meeting! We have worked with groups from 2 to 600 people, and from 60 minutes to 6 days, to design and host productive and energizing meetings. Our services include hosting World Cafe, Open Space Technology, and Council sessions. We also offer a suite of other practices to suit any occasion or desired outcome. How might your organization, guild, or community host better and more productive meetings? Please contact us through our consultation inquiry form here.

Missed part one in this “Starting a Permaculture Guild” series? You can read the article here.

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