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Practical experiences with Open Space Technology in Egypt

The Egyptian revolution started literally with an open space: at the Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo. Here it was where many Egyptians for the first time in their lives made the experience of freely talking about politics in public. Since January 2011, many young Egyptians are trying to keep up this “Tahrir experience” by experimenting with new forms of political debate and civic education in Egypt.

Rincian

It was this spirit that resulted in the idea of introducing the Open Space Technology (OST) as a new format of civic education in Egypt. In March 2011 the authors of this article, both working in Egypt for many years, organized the first Open Space in the country. This event encouraged many other national and international institutions and initiatives to adopt and further develop OST in Egypt and other Arab countries. The unexpected popularity of OST in revolutionary Egypt proved that it is in fact the right methodology at the right time in the right context and the right place. OST is a meeting format that fosters dialogue and exchange in a democratic way. It is easy to organize and non-costly. It invites for sharing opinions, discovering common ground, discussing and tackling differences. It helps generating ideas and reflecting about their implementation. This article argues that Open Space (OS), therefore, is a format that perfectly fits the transforming political environment and the socio-cultural setting of Egypt and – most probably – other Arab transformation-states.

Egypt after the revolution: political debates on high demand

Egypt is currently facing a very difficult

transformation period. After thirty, some might even

say after sixty years of authoritarian rule, new and

old political actors are competing for influence and

power. The culminating confrontation between the

new Islamist government and its liberal and secular

opponents is characterized by a general lack of a

political debate culture. This comes with no

surprise. For many years the Mubarak-regime

systematically oppressed free speech, public political

debate and independent political interestaggregation.

‘Divide and command’ was the main

principle of governance.

Authoritarian rule was supported by a strong

tradition of hierarchies and social classes across the

whole Egyptian society. Egyptian children are not

brought up in the spirit of free thinking but rather in

a tradition of dependence from and of subordination

under people of higher status. Many younger

Egyptians are frustrated with events in which they

are only asked to listen (which often enough is used

equivalent to “obey”). In governmental schools and

universities, knowledge is often simply passed from

the elder to the younger. Education is synonymous

to rote learning and memorizing. In religion, politics

and as well in the families, it is similar: Leaders,

authorities and heads have to be respected and

should not be put in question – they have the last

word. Egyptians are now free to talk and discuss

their personal and political opinions and the current

political and religious developments and day-to-day

life offer enough material for engaged and often

heated discussions and debates – and again the

general lack of a culture of dialogue and exchange is

prevalent since two years. Still, in the majority of

cases, open spaces for debates over differing

opinions and controversial issues are not provided

for.

The consequences of these underlying political

and social conditions are even more negative if the

strong oral tradition of Egyptian culture is taken into

account. Since its very beginnings, the Arab-Islamic

culture is very much based on the spoken word, as

e.g. in the tradition and reliability on verbal

contracts. Public speaking skills and respectful

verbal sparring are highly appreciated in Egyptian

media and academia. How an argument is presented

becomes sometimes more relevant than the

argument itself.

When a strong oral tradition meets strong

political and traditional constraints on free speech

then frustrations, polarisation and dissatisfaction

are inevitable. Therefore, the Egyptian revolution

itself was based on the desire to speak up. The

desire to express themselves on topics like politics, religious diversity, social norms, gender and

environment remains and seems to be increasing. It

is channelled in arts, graffiti, jokes, songs,

Facebook-pages, blogs and many other formats.

No surprise, that since the revolution any format

that provides opportunities to talk and exchange fell

on fruitful ground. Since February 2011 numerous

NGOs and social initiatives were established.

Universities, Think Tanks and cultural institutes

organize discussion panels, “Tahrir-dialogues” and

public debates. Institutions like the Goethe-Institute

established so called “Tahrir-Lounges” in several

parts of the country. Here, young people can get

together, discuss and exchange freely.

However the lack of a public debate culture is still

evident. The recent clashes between the Islamist

government and its opponents clearly indicate that

Egypt still lacks a sense of community. In this critical

phase of political transition, the country is in dire

need of a culture of dialogue. For many Egyptians it

is still a learning experience that disagreement does

not mean the end of a friendship, marriage, cooperation

or co-existence. OST might serve as a tool

to provide this experience.

Open Space at work in Egypt

“This is like on the Tahrir Square” says 24 year old

Kazem and looks at a painted poster with the slogan

“Whenever it starts, is the right time”. Kazem who

additionally to his job as pharmacists is engaged in a

youth initiative which creates political awareness

amongst young Egyptians, is one participant of the

supposedly first Open Space in Egypt. “This was

unknown to us: No agenda, no speakers. I had never

believed that this would work”. After three days of

conversations, discussions and collection of ideas,

he is amazed. As the majority of the youth activists

who have met in March 2011 following the invitation

of the Egyptian Youth Federation (EYF) and the

Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) for the first OS in

Egypt he is keen on applying this new format in his

own initiative. “We young Egyptians have done this

revolution because we had enough of others

dictating us what to do and what to think”, says May

who works in her semester break in a political youth

initiative in Alexandria. “The Open Space method

suits us since it demands and fosters creativity,

openness and initiative”.

The idea of open space

What is Open Space about? Open Space is a simple

form of group facilitation originated in the US in the

1980s by Harrison Owen1. After having organized a

conference over a period of months, the evaluation

of this event revealed that the participants appreciated

most the part he did not plan at all: the really

interesting talks took place during the coffee breaks.

So why not creating an event out of the coffee break

and drop anything else? Owen called his idea Open

Space since his main concern was about literally

creating open space in which movement and action

are possible and in which topics can be defined

without constraints, issues can be talked over and

solutions can be developed.

Open Space is a simple method to run productive

meetings in any kind of group and organization, in

every day practice and ongoing change. It enables

self-organizing groups of 5 to 2000 people to deal

with hugely complex issues in a very short period of

time. What does not exist in Open Space are

speakers, group facilitators, defined talking times

and predefined topics for conversation. Only a

proper introduction by a facilitator who opens the

space, and practical support by a core team are

important. The facilitator also explains the few

principles. However more important is voluntariness,

openness, concern, heterogeneity and a broad and

complex guiding theme. The few principles painted

on big posters are explained fast: Everyone comes

and goes, no one is forced or obliged to do anything.

There is no fixed timeline but time slots which

provide room for conversations and discussions. One

poster close to the door sends the participants on

their way with a well-intentioned admonition: “Be

prepared to be surprised”.

How does it work?2 In contrast to usual events, all

participants are sitting in concentric circles of chairs;

this event has neither a key-note speaker, nor power

point presentations, nor a pre-set program. A white

wall is titled “agenda” and the only information it

contains are time slots. The facilitators briefly

introduce the theme, process and guidelines of the

Open Space. Then they invite the participants to

come to the middle and to announce the issues or questions they would like to discuss in the following

breakout sessions. Participants then choose those

issues which, individually, are of most interest and

importance. These topics become the focal point for

all the subsequent break-out sessions, dialogue and

action planning.

Open Space operates under five principles and

one law. This “Law of Two Feet” says that “If you find

yourself in a situation where you are not contributing

or learning, move somewhere else where you

can.” In conventional meetings you might have

experienced that your mind has already left the

room while you had to stay seated, in Open Space

you would follow this call and move to a more

productive place. In contrast to other situations

where this behaviour would be considered impolite

and even rude, in Open Space it is regarded as

disrespectful if you stay in a group although you

actually do not contribute or learn from it anymore.

The four original Open Space principles are:

  • Whoever comes is the right person.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
  • When it is over it is over.
Inspired by the Arab Spring and the

demonstrations on Tahrir Square, Harrison Owen

has developed a fifth principle:

  • Wherever it happens is the right place.
In many Open Spaces in Egypt the street sign of

the square is used as a symbol to visualize this new

principle.

The conveners of the breakout sessions take the

responsibility that the outcomes of their discussions

are captured on documentation sheets by themselves

or participants of their sessions on documentation

sheets. Those are displayed on a Breaking

News Wall close to the coffee break table so

everyone can have a look at the points discussed

and outcomes generated in the different break out

sessions that have already taken place. Based on the

discussions and the ideas of all participants,

potential next steps are identified and discussed in

groups of people interested in contributing to the

realization of the respective idea. All sheets are

collected in a report called “Book of Proceedings"

which will be handed over to the participants or

made accessible online. Follow-up meetings are

scheduled and participants continue cooperating and

implementing their ideas and initiatives long after

the Open Space has been concluded. So the end of

an Open Space event is actually a starting point.

Harrison Owen says Open Space always works –

provided certain conditions are present: For an Open

Space meeting to be successful, it must focus on a

real business issue which is of passionate concern to

those involved. OST works best in situations

characterized by a diverse group of people with a

rich variety of opinions who must and is ready to

deal with complex and potentially conflicting issues

of concern in innovative and productive ways. It is

particularly powerful when nobody knows the

answer, and the ongoing participation of a number

of people is required to deal with the questions.

The 5 preconditions for an OST are:

  • There is a real business issue,
  • a great deal of complexity,
  • lots of diversity in terms of people and points of view,
  • real passion (people care!) and probably also conflict and
  • a decision time of yesterday (genuine urgency)

Debating the revolution: the first OS in Egypt

The idea for the 1st Open Space in Egypt was

created in fall 2010. At this time, an authoritarian

machinery of power had lock on the country. Hereby

but also by traditional thinking and structures, civic

education rapidly had reached its limits. Hierarchy,

seniority and surveillance were order of the day. In

the front, professors, teachers or experts lecture, the

often young listeners are allowed to ask questions,

all of this in most cases carefully monitored and

observed by employees of the abhorred state

security service “Amn Dawla”. So why not introducing

a new format that attracts young people, overcomes

hierarchies, encourages self-organization and opens

space for creativity? In the middle of the preparations,

the Egyptian revolution of January 25th

barged in. Suddenly, the Egyptians could say what

they thought and were called upon to reshape and

reform the future of their country. It was quite plain:

The Open Space method matched the revolutionary

atmosphere to a tee. The motto was obvious: “Egypt

at the Crossroads”. Less than two months after

Mubarak stepped down, 20 young Egyptians and ten

young Germans sat together in a Middle Class Hotel

some 120 kilometres east of Cairo to test the format

for the first time.

To begin with, the participants were introduced in

the Open Space Technology. Then every participant

had the opportunity to write down her/his burning

issues and to announce them together with a chosen

time slot on a wall called “Community Bulletin

Board”. After the first round, the participants had defined 22 issues, some more were added later.

With every round of conversation sessions, the

Breaking News Wall located close to the continuous

break buffet was filling more with new documentation

sheets. While having a cup of coffee or

tea, the participants read what was discussed so far.

Additionally a contact list was developed. Every

morning and evening, the participants gathered to

speak about the daily news and announcements.

After three days, 22 documentations of the

conversation sessions were on hand, 13 new project

ideas were born and their next 3 steps are recorded,

a video clip was taped, a facebook group established

and many new friendships were gained.

What were the outcomes in detail? Analogue to the

“Model United Nations” one participant wanted to

develop a “Model Tahrir” with the aim of representing

and reflecting the positions of different political and

social groups and associations in Egypt in a role play.

A female student from Alexandria wanted to use the

idea in women’s rights projects: “Open Space is ideal

to tackle taboo issues and to train gender equality,

especiall y in Upper Egypt”. And an NGO activist from

Cairo planned to use the method particularly with

regard to the reduction of prejudices.

“We Egyptians believe too often in conspiracy and

hidden agendas. But a format which by definition has

no agenda does not have a hidden agenda. This must

be convincing for everybody. By this method, we can

also reach people having a fundamental scepticism

towards everything new or foreign”. Three weeks

after the event, the idea of freeing a Cairene rooftop

from its waste and to create a space for leisure

assumed already a concrete shape.

The first Open Space in Egypt in March 2011

clearly indicated that a discussion method which

focuses on mentioning own issues and their

discussion falls on fertile soil. Supposedly, the Open

Space method would have worked out before the

Tahrir demonstrations. But after the revolution with

the gained freedom and the drive to test new things,

it seems even more as a fitting format.

3.3 Following up: A new format is gaining ground

The first OS, organized by EYF and KAS, showed

the way forward. The very general title “Egypt at the

Crossroads” was intentionally chosen in order to

capture the atmosphere present in Egypt right after

Mubarak stepped down. And it provided space to

identify more concrete topics for follow-up events.

Here, two issues were immediately obvious: the role

of women in the Egyptian society and the need for

jobs. Consequently, the following OS targeted exactly

these issues.

During the first Open Space a small group of

participants showed interest in learning more about

the technique and its backgrounds. They were

interested in spreading the method and the OST

know-how all over Egypt and in facilitating Open

Space events in Arabic. After having attended the

first three Open Space events facilitated in a row by

Claudia Gross, one of the authors of this article,

some of the participants organized and facilitated

their own Open Space events in English and in

Arabic. This happened in cooperation with social

initiatives or international and local NGOs on themes

that were relevant in the respective contexts such as:

Interfaith dialogues, refugees in Egypt, voluntarism,

informal areas – just to name a few.

Open Space Learning Exchanges (OSLEX) were

organized regularly as a common practice in order to

share experiences and learn from each other. One of

the main outcomes of the OSLEX was not only the

need for Arabic material and Arabic speaking

facilitators but also for sponsors. Given the limited

financial resources of average young Egyptians it

proved to be of high importance to make OST

attractive for international donors. All together,

eleven Open Space events in English and in Arabic

have been organized in 20123. Over 400 young

women and men from over 20 Egyptian governorates

have participated in the events. They are still in

contact and are now working on the next steps

initiatives they have identified.

Eslam Erman, one of the participants of the first

Open Space, joined and supported Claudia Gross

during the set-ups and coordination of the coming

two Open Spaces and documented all steps by

photos and text. Additionally he created a website to

serve as the platform of the internet-based social

initiative Open Space Egypt (OSE) which he together

with a group of Open Space enthusiasts and Claudia

Gross founded in mid 20113. OSE basically wants to

establish a network amongst Open Space facilitators

to further promote Open Space Technology in Egypt

and the Arab region. All services and materials

related to an Open Space event, such as Open Space

posters, checklists, forms, etc. are provided by this

network on their internet platform. Of particular

importance for the work of OSE are the translation of

manuals and posters to Arabic and the training of

Arabic speaking OST facilitators.

As already mentioned, the first OS had already

highlighted the need for trained facilitators who are

able to hold an OS in Arabic and under basic

conditions. Therefore in December 2011, Claudia

Gross designed and facilitated a Train-of-Facilitators

(ToF) workshop held before an OS event that was facilitated by participants of the ToF in Arabic. The

theme of this OS was “Informal Areas”, a topic that by

principle called for participants who would feel more

comfortable to discuss in Arabic, their mother

tongue. This Open Space was documented by the

first clip on an Arabic Open Space and can be found

on youTube under the key words “Baladna Kullina”4.

The ToF was followed by regular coaching sessions

for the whole group of 13 new Egyptian OS

facilitators during and after the OS event. After this

ToF workshop, Claudia Gross was frequently asked

for recommendations for OS facilitators and was

happy to recommend the participants of her training.

In 2012, the newly trained moderators facilitated

successfully 19 OS events for clients such as the

Swedish Institute in Alexandria and German Agency

for International Co-Operation (GIZ).

In 2012 OST gained further ground, even beyond

Egypt. The year 2012 started with an Open Space on

Dec 31st, organized by Khalil El-Masry, a newly

trained facilitator, who invited a group of activists to

discuss the perspectives for their work in 2012. Two

months later, in February, Khalil El-Masry, Eslam

Erman and Claudia Gross travelled to Jordan for a

company retreat in which an Open Space day was

embedded, supposedly one of the first OS to be held

in Jordan. The company had invited all team

members, from senior managers and advisors to the

driver. During this day, the unexpected happened:

Right after the introduction of the Open Space

principles, when the participants where invited to

come to the centre to write down their issues and

then create the agenda, the driver Moussa stood up,

walked slowly into the middle of the circle, wrote

down his issue and there it was: the topic that was

just naming the Pink Elephant, the main issue

dominating the company’s performance which no

one else would have mentioned so clearly, focusing

on the allocation of management responsibilities in

the company. He was applauded for bringing this

issue up. Later the driver convened his session which

was attended by all company owners, the senior

management staff, discussing frankly and in depth

this really existential topic.

In September 2012 Claudia Gross went to Lebanon

for an assignment and used the time to present OST

to a group of representatives of Lebanese youth

initiatives and NGOs. The reaction was very positive

and triggered a lively exchange about first hand

experiences with OS and their possible application in

Lebanon. With some concrete plans to train the first

Lebanese facilitators and to run a first OS in spring

2013, Lebanon seems to be the next country in the

region where the Open Space Technology could be

spread. Or it might be in a refugee camp in Jordan

where starting on the International Women’s Day on

March 8th, 2013, an OS will be held with female

Palestinian refugees.

Until December 2012, the newly trained facilitators

have facilitated 17 Open Spaces by themselves after

their training with more than 550 participants: Over

420 young Egyptians from all over the country have

participated in OS events facilitated by the newly

trained facilitators. Additionally, around 130

participants joined OS events in Germany, Spain and

Jordan facilitated by the newly trained facilitators.

They covered a variety of clients of the development

sector, Egyptian Institutions, NGOs, social initiatives.

Even Egyptian and international companies started to

make use of OST and the services that are provided

by the internet platform OSE.

Albeit the deteriorating political conditions the

plans of the Egyptian OS community for 2013 are

ambitious. The main focus is on a broad campaign to

introduce OS as a method for local NGOs and

initiatives all over the country and on the

establishment of a community of OS practitioners.

Eventually they will repeat the OS at the New Year’s

Eve for an outlook to the year 2013. A far more

ambitious idea is to organize several OS events

parallel in various Egyptian regions or even

governorates. Additionally, more facilitators will be

trained to cater for the high demand of OS events all

over Egypt and in the whole Arab region.

However, OS activities do also have to adapt to the

changing political environment. With the crackdown

on several international and Egyptian NGOs,

including the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, at the

beginning of 2012 the Egyptian authorities again

marked the red lines of independent civic education

activities. The OS community reacts to this

increasing political pressure with a double strategy.

On the one hand, more and more OS events will be

organized for national and international institutions

in “safe” places and within social initiatives and NGOs

private places. On the other hand, many activists try

to establish OS as a technology that also caters for

the needs and aims of official and governmental

organizations, with some success. By the end of

2012, the Egyptian Social Contract centre, which is

affiliated with the Think Tank of the Egyptian

government, asked for the facilitation of an Open

Space related to the development of the National

Youth Policy and an OS facilitators training.

3.4 Lessons learned. OS in practice

The almost two years of rich experiences with OS

in Egypt and some neighbouring countries showed a

couple of promises and constraints. After all, it made clear that OS works very well in a non-

Western environment and can be easily set-up under

different political conditions; however some limits

and adaptations of the technology have to be

considered.

Promises

The experience with using Open Space Technology

in Egypt has clearly shown that the equation of the

revolution "The people want … The people decide …

The people lead" can simply happen by creating an

inviting theme, attracting the right people (in Open

Space, whoever comes is by principle the right one),

and creating the proper space. In an Open Space

environment, diversity is welcomed, expression of

personal and political opinions is encouraged,

exchange and discussion is fostered, and common

ground is discovered jointly in dialogue. The whole

Open Space is governed by self-management and

self-responsibility in action.

Characteristic for Open Space events is the Circle

(or in bigger groups many concentric circles) in

which all participants come together for the opening

of the event and the smaller circles in which they

gather during the breakout sessions. The circle itself

has no top and no bottom, no beginning and no end,

and it symbolizes the equality amongst the

participants. They all have in common their interest

in the theme of the event, their readiness to take

responsibility for their issues and to convene a

session, talk about and contribute their ideas which

they are truly passionate about. So coming together

in a circle (in contrast to a U shape or a normal

theatre style conference seating format) lays the

fundament for the conversations without hierarchies

or borders and within the group of people who really

care about the theme.

This particular format fosters networking amongst

all participants who pollinate and cross-pollinate

their ideas while bumbling from one group to the

other. Women and men use the chance to bring up

their deep problems to the surface. The participants’

moves connect the different participants and

symbolize the network of interests and talents

present in the room. Diversity is discovered as a rich

asset necessary to jointly find solutions for

complex issues. The freedom to choose the sessions

they want to convene and to participate in and the

bumble-beeing foster the establishment of

professional and community relationships across

sector and age groups. Many participants report to

experience this freedom and connection for the first

time. To keep in touch after the event, all

participants are provided by with a list of contact

details of everyone who’s joining the event.

Open Space Technology transforms the control by

one leader to self-management by all participants

themselves, including the organization's or

community's traditional leaders then being part of

the participants’ group. Everyone is considered the

right person who can contribute important experiences,

information and opinions. Therefore an Open

Space event describes a deeply democratic meeting

experience. “I have been heard”, is how Egyptian

participants often comment after Open Space

sessions, realizing that the group they were

discussing with really seeked to understand. The

participants often feel a deep sense of peace,

gratitude and reconfirmation, as participants often

state in closing circles of OS events “I am so happy to

have met you all and to be part of this community. I

feel relieved that this kind of conversations is still

possible, even given the current political situations. I

thank you all.”

In Open Space people work together across

hierarchal, historical and group-related lines, and

indeed when everyone gets back to work it is

probable that they will continue to work and

communicate in a way that is different than the onpaper

organizational structure or the ways a society

has been set up, historically. Experience, also in

Egypt, shows that participants of Open Space events

integrate this unique experience and insects it into

their day-to-day life. They keep on referring to them

and find them supportive in their professional and

private life.

Experiencing (religious) diversity and common ground

In contrast to other forms of meetings usually

practiced in Egypt, in an Open Space event, all

participants share their individual opinions. All voices

are valued and appreciated. While there are no

keynote speakers, no experts, no leaders speaking

from the podium or panel in a one-way

communication to a mainly passively listening

audience, all participants are invited to convene and

actively participate in the session on topics they

consider important. By principle multiple facets of a

theme are represented by the issues proposed by the

participants and discussed during the sessions where

they discovered common ground. Meaningful

conversations take place in multi-way dialogues.

Often enough this safe space is used to discuss

openly and freely about issues the participants are

passionate about , but normally wouldn’t speak-up

about. Especially with regard to religious diversity,

experience has shown that participants of different religious backgrounds and orientations, sometimes

for the first time in their life, took the chance to

speak with each other instead of about each other.

In July 2011, an OS with the title “Unity in

Diversity” was organized in Wadi-.Natrun, close to

Cairo. One of the telling stories of this event is the

following: Due to the variety of religions present in

this event, the young organizers had taken special

care regarding the list of who is going to share the

sleeping room with whom. A sophisticated list was

developed before-hand – and ignored by the

receptionist once the bus with the participants

arrived. Ahmad Khallaf, the facilitator of the event,

was shocked when he realized that people were now

mixed in a random order. When he asked Claudia

Gross, who supported him in the set-up of the

venue, for an advice she referred to one of the Open

Space principles “Whatever happens is the only thing

that could have”. Then they focused further on the

preparation of the Opening Circle. During the event

the organizers realized that during the situation in

front of the reception, a young Coptic man had been

looking around for a partner to share the room with.

He chose someone shaved. They later they realized

that the one he had chosen had just shaved his

beard to present himself to the military service, but

actually belonged to the so called “Salafists”, an

ultra-orthodox Islamist grouping. Without the

receptionist ignoring the organizer’s list, both

participants would have never shared a room with

each other for two nights, seizing the opportunity to

really talk with each other and eventually become

friends.

Another example of this Open Space event is

related to the acceptance in diverse religious groups

of participants: In this event the usual closing

exercise of any OS was almost dropped. Since this

exercise included all participants holding hands, the

organizers considered it to be inadequate given the

variety of religious backgrounds and the presence of

women and man. However, after a while of thinking,

another idea came up: Holding hands maybe would

not be possible but holding something else would

be okay. And what if the “something else” were

pieces of a ribbon in the colours of the Egyptian

flag? An exercise that was close to be dropped

turned out to be a real symbolic closing: in spite of

their diverse religious backgrounds, all Egyptian

participants were united by their national flag.

Taking the initiative, overcoming stagnation

The principle “Whatever happens is the only thing

that could have” formulates a general acceptance of

everything that happens. And it also includes an

invitation to the participants: they are responsible

for what is happening in the event. Everything they

bring in will be discussed and shared amongst the

participants. If they realize after the event that

certain topics they had expected to be mentioned

where not addressed, it has been in their sole

responsibility to raise them. This principle is an

invitation to take initiative and be responsible for

what they consider important. After the facilitator

has explained the Open Space process and the

principles, she/he invites the participants to come to

the center to write their issues and names on a piece

of paper. After joining the OS event at the first

place, standing up and coming to the center

symbolizes the second step of taking responsibility

and being part of the solution.

Taking the initiative and contributing whatever

the participants consider important is also basic for

the breakout sessions. Instead of sitting passively on

their chairs and receiving information while being

stuck and mute, they have the chance to bring

themselves in. During the agenda creation and the

breakout sessions they feel that they are moving

forward, increasing their connections with likeminded

people, generating new energy and creating

a new momentum. This process continues when the

participants take responsibility for the documentation

of the topics discussed by typing it down in

the newsroom and in the action planning session at

the end of a two and a half or three days Open

Space event.

A lot of surprising learning happens in Open

Space in Egypt. This required and generated

creativity: New solutions are found as in the ribbon

exercise described above. Issue and documentation

sheets need to be clipped on laundry ropes in rooms

where the walls cannot be used (or in bedouin huts

where the “walls” are made out of straw). Also, an

Open Space event in a historical mosque, where

nothing could be stuck to the columns, lead to the

realization that the posters can also be laid on the

ground. Seeing ideas facing the open sky created

another connection and frame for the whole event.

Constraints

Need for spaces and sponsors

In Egypt after the revolution, those who wanted to

organize events for 50 participants and more had to

realize that there are very few appropriate places to

rent. Social initiatives and NGOs experience a lack of

public space for gathering and events. Apart from

governmental facilities, there seems to be only

expensive options left: renting halls in hotels.

Downside of this option are the high price, the lack

of enough breakout areas, the inappropriateness of

the formal setting of hotels for events such as e.g.

an Open Space on informal areas, and the usual lack

of daylight in the meeting rooms.

In general, finding a sponsor for an Open Space

event and being invited to facilitate one is a major

constraint. Therefore, Eslam Erman from Open Space

Egypt developed another proposal for Open Spaces

on education in Egypt which luckily was accepted

and supported by the Swedish Institute in Alexandria

in May 2012. The team of Open Space Egypt has

again prepared a proposal for an Open Space

against sexual harassment in Egypt and is currently

looking again for a sponsor. To tackle this issue, a

broader marketing campaign to promote the Open

Space Technology and sharing its success stories in

Egypt might be needed. Another experience shows that inviting potential sponsors as participants of

one Open Space event can convince them

successfully to sponsor an event within their scope

of work in the future too.

Defining the event’s theme and not its outcomes

Harrison Owen always stresses that “The only way

to bring an Open Space gathering to its knees is to

attempt to control it. Emergent order appears in

Open Space when the conditions for self

organization are met” and he continues “Open Space

requires real freedom, and real responsibility.”

Therefore finding sponsors and potential clients

needs to take the spirit of Open Space into

consideration. There is no room for manipulation

and interfering into the agenda creation, the topics

to be discussed will be brought in by the participants.

Consequently Open Space is not the right

technology when the organizers/participants have a

certain target/agenda in mind! Also, like in Egypt, a

highly charged political situation and a lack of trust

in the sponsors needs to be taken in close consideration

when planning an Open Space and eventually

be the reasons why another format will be chosen

first. Another problem emerges when people who

hold power and authority try to control the way that

people work together. In this case OST is not an

appropriate approach. Experience shows that if key

leaders believe they are the only people necessary

for the organization to do its best work, the space

for “best work” never really opens. As a result,

whenever sponsors think they know the answer,

have an agenda, wish to control outcomes and be in

charge, and are not prepared to change as a result

of the meeting, the facilitators won’t be able to

facilitate such an event and will recommend doing

another meeting format.

Assuring the event’s follow-up

In the planning phase of an Open Space event, the

follow-up needs already to be integrated and

scheduled for 6-8 weeks after the event. Ideally

these dates are already announced at the end of the

Open Space event so the transfer and follow-up is

eased. In practice, this need for a follow-up often

seemed to be not attractive for external sponsoring.

Donors usually perceive OS as a one off event, rather

than part of a value-creating process. If the

outcomes of an OS event are not taken into

consideration and business-as-usual continues, the

opportunity for change is missed. Participants

carrying the experience of having opened up and

spoken up in the Open Space event and then finding

themselves back in their closed NGO, company or

community will face a high amount of frustration

and de-motivation. Once the staff feels resigning

and desperate, it will be a lot more difficult to

motivate them again and to start another change

management initiative or event.

Therefore the commitment from the group,

community and/or management to continue the

spirit of the Open Space and make room for the

newly developed ideas is decisive for the events

success after the participants returned back. The

group’, sponsor’s and/or management’s readiness

to support the projects that emerge is crucial

including the provision of sufficient time, energy,

influence to realize the project discussed, identified

and created in the Open Space. They cannot be

solved by a few people; they will need the

contribution of a whole team.

Technical and practical challenges

When setting-up an Open Space, a relatively big

room is needed, ideally in a shape that allows

establishing concentric circles easily. While

organizing OS events in Egypt it surprisingly

appeared to be a problem that staff of venues is

“not able” or even reluctant to prepare a real circle

of chairs. Although told otherwise (and sometimes

having received a sketch of a chair circle in

advance), they often prepare a setting with tables in

the beginning. Once the facilitator arrives and asks

for a circle, first they make a big square with round

corners, then an oval/egg-shape, always leaving

space in front of the imaginary screen, expecting

speakers and presentations – which of course does

not happen in Open Space. When finally following

the instruction to form a circle of chairs, they

establish a real circle, shaking their head full of

doubts and disbelief about the nature of this event.

It might also happen that the budget does not

include the renting of computers for the Newsroom

where all participants would type their documentation sheets. A potential solution is to ask

the participants to bring their laptops, to provide

them with the form and ask them to share their

laptops with other participants. Another situation

might be that the event takes place in a remote area

without copy shops to copy the Book of Proceedings.

Possible ways to deal with this is taking pictures

and/or scanning the documentation sheets and

uploading them when back in Cairo.

Certainly the high rate of illiteracy could be a

problem for the written documentation which is

normally used. Potential solutions include e.g. using

drawings, sketches, and role plays, taping interviews

or videos, using symbols for the different issues

raised when developing the agenda by participants,

as e.g. a water bottle for water problems, a book for

education issues, etc. All these measures are also

ideas when facilitating Open Spaces with children

who cannot read or write.

Acceptance and cultural challenges

The authors of this article have often been

confronted with the argument that Open Spaces

might work in Western but not in Muslim countries.

After two years of practicing OS in Egypt and some

other Muslim countries, this assumption was

empirically proved to be wrong. OS activists can now

refer to these experiences where participants of

mixed religious backgrounds came together, where

Arab women were particularly invited to join and

where even a peace initiative comprising of members

of all religious backgrounds was establi-shed as

an idea of an Open Space event. Just recently the

authors were addressed by a colleague who plans to

organize an Open Space event in Somalia. Unfortunately,

the sponsor of this event rejected the OS idea

because he believes that it does not work in a

Muslim culture. Immediately, one experienced

Egyptian facilitator offered to act as a reference

person.

Another problem is time and punctuality.

Especially in cultures with a polychronic time

concept the principle “Whenever it starts is the right

time” might be very well known and practiced.

Unfortunately, the issue of punctuality regarding the

beginning of the events and its consecutive days is

of high relevance for the event’s success: Ideally

when all participants who care are there during the

opening, the discussions can start. Events in Cairo

started up to 1 hour late since participants just

dropped in within the first hour of the event, cursing

the traffic, while others were there in time.

Therefore, scheduling the event one hour earlier

than it is planned to start might be a measure of

self-defence. A registration time with a coffee and

tea buffet might be the culturally accepted answer to

this issue. When the event is taking place in a

remote area and all participants arrive together in a

bus, the event can start in time and with the

majority of people.

On the other hand, experience shows that when

the OS takes place in Cairo or wherever the

participants live, this measure of staying there / not

travelling and not staying overnight increases the

number of female participants, especially from more

traditional backgrounds. Women can often only

participate if they can sleep at home. Therefore it is

highly recommendable that Open Space events are

not organized in remote places when you want to

increase the number of participants, especially of

girls and women participating.

Conclusions

The consent regarding the first OS events in

Egypt is a thought provoking impulse for political

and civic education in transforming Arab societies.

Especially in phases of political transformations with

an uncertain outcome it seems to be important, not

only to reflect topics, but also forms and methods

of their implementation. “Conventional” conferences,

seminars and workshops are without an

alternative when specific knowledge s hall be

imparted and exchanged. This is nothing an OS can

do. However, where creative potentials shall be

awakened, soft skills trained and the structural

issues of a society reflected, OS is on a new and

cost-effective way. It was a stroke of luck that in

Egypt quasi a whole nation had its Open Space on

the Tahrir Square. Here, the new democratic rules of

the game were tested and practiced. And what

works in Egypt can also function in Tunisia, Libya,

Jordan, Lebanon and hopefully soon in other Arab

countries too. At present nowhere else will open

spaces for discussions of societies’ political future

be of more need than in the Arab world.

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