Is it Time to Host an Unconference?

by Jay Maddock, PhD

Mad About Public Health is a series that looks at the health of populations from varying creative and innovative perspectives.

Last month, I wrote about making the most of attending a scientific conference. The title of this week’s post may make you think that I have moved to Bizarro World, but an Unconference is actually a real thing. As I discussed in my post of attending conferences, networking is one of the most beneficial aspects of attending a traditional meeting. Several people have described the Unconference to me as taking the best part of the conference, the coffee break, and focusing everything around that experience. With just that information, I devoted 2 ½ days of my time to learn to become an Unconference facilitator.

Hosted by the Texas A&M School of Innovation and led by a group from the University of Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala, about 30 of us went through the training. From the first moment, it was clear that an Unconference was a very different and very powerful methodology. The basics of an Unconference involve a series of stations with some basic questions. For our first example, we did a quick Unconference around the future of education. Each station presented a different topic area. As a participant, we were free to come and go as we pleased, staying for as long or as short as we liked at each station. Participants have the freedom to go to as many or as few stations as they want to and are free to take breaks whenever they feel like it. At each station, there is a facilitator and there may be a project owner. These people engage the participants in a conversation around the topic area. Participants write their ideas on post-it notes and these are grouped into themes by the facilitator.

The energy and engagement during the Unconference are palpable. Rarely at a traditional conference do I get fully engaged and excited about the ideas presented. So many times, I look around the room and see people on their phones or laptops instead of engaging with the speakers. This is totally different at the Unconference; since the content is entirely driven by the participants, an environment is created where you listen, think, and contribute continuously. These ideas are captured to create solutions to real-world problems. Our facilitators run the Antigua Forum every year, an Unconference that brings together political leaders, entrepreneurs, and content experts to work on problems around freedom and well-being. At the end of our training, we hosted an Unconference with eight stations developed by the participants. Topics included microcredentialing, improving employee engagement and well-being, research-driven philanthropy, and several others.

Should you think about hosting an Unconference? This process of co-creation is powerful and engaging. It is a perfect tool to search for innovative solutions to problems. It can be done in as quick as two hours or as long as several days. This format could be used in several ways. It would make an excellent preconference workshop at national meetings, where scientists from around the country could collaborate on solving wicked public health problems. It could also be used as a starting point for strategic planning or other engagement efforts. I am quite impressed with this methodology and plan on using it regularly to co-create innovative solutions to some of the public health and organizational issues facing us today.


Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB, is the former Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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