Rethinking Development Cooperation, conference in Bonn, September 2018
Rethinking Development Cooperation, conference in Bonn, September 2018
parto Zukunftswerkstatt Akademie
parto Zukunftswerkstatt Akademie

Open Space: Rethinking Development Cooperation

In Bonn (Germany), September 2018, parto facilitated an Open Space event. It was one of the highlights in a two-day conference at the venue of the German Development Institute DIE (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik).

Freedom is coming to the conference

As the Open Space action had just been over, a young woman took photos of the posters with the principles, the bumblebees and the butterflies. I asked her if she'd liked the setting. She told me with eyes aglow: “When you introduced the Open Space I sensed that now freedom is coming to the conference.“ Actually nothing more needs to be added to tell about the impact of an Open Space action.


More than 35 years ago, Harrison Owen who is a US-American Civil Rights activist, captured the feed-back to a conference, that coffee breaks and other unorganized encounters were the most productive parts of formal meetings. On the basis of this information, Owen created a framework for productive and energizing conferences and called it Open Space. Open space conferences require very few advance elements: There must be a clear and compelling theme, an interested and committed group, time, a place, and leadership.


The leadership of an Open Space event is at once simple and very tricky. The simplicity derives from the fact that the group itself will, and has to generate its own leadership. The tricky part comes in letting this happen, giving no anxious thought to possible failures. Leadership in Open Space is to provide a focal point for the direction, and not to mandate and control a plan of action. The details must be left to the people – that means to trust to the people.

Four principles and one law frame the action

There are four principles and one law which serve as guides to everyone:

  •  Whoever comes is the right people
  •  Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
  •  Whenever it starts, it is the right time
  •  When it is over, it is over


Finally there is the unique Law of Two Feet. All participants should observe it, otherwise the process will not work. Briefly stated, the law means that every individual has two feet and should be prepared to use them.


Responsibility for a successful outcome in any Open Space event resides with exactly one person – each participant. If anyone feels that he/she can no longer make a difference in the present group, it is necessary to take responsibility and move to a new place where you can make a difference.


In a deeper perspective, taking the metaphorical roles of bumblebees and butterflies means to rethink conferencing. It means “thinking out of the box“: open minded, open-hearted, open willing.


At the conference in Bonn, September 2018, we announced the overall question: How can we work towards

  • developing new cooperations,
  • showing more relevance,
  • better influencing policies and practices

as part of a forward-looking development cooperation?

Bring together diverse areas and mindsets

The participants signed for almost thirty subjects for the self-responsible agenda. Writing the minutes had been an obligatory task for the groups. A manual on how to manage working groups in Open Space had been offered to the participants. They were supported by three different templates for the minutes:

  1. Planing for a new practical project realisation,
  2. Exploration for a new focus in key activities,
  3.  Seeking ideas for a better future.

The conference aimed to bring together diverse specialist areas and mindsets from around the world for exchange and critical discussions. This included the Open Space action which created free space for all the issues and questions that arose from the formal conference program, or even for those that could not been covered by the other sessions. It was free time for encounter and exchange driven by the participants themselves.


After five hours of self-organised collaboration, eighteen minutes with final conclusions had been pinned to the board. They reflect the broad spectrum of free interest, passion and willingness to contribute to “Rethinking Development Cooperation“.


If you are seeking information about Open Space events worldwide it is recommended to use this free internet service: Open Space Worldscape