Creating open, democratic spaces, where people can engage with each other on an equal basis

May 24, 2022 by No Comments | Category Children & young people, Guest blog, Our work, Participation in action, Training & Skills

We invited Karen Lawson the collaborative learning lead from the Scottish Government’s Collective Leadership team, to share her ‘open space’ insights.

Photo by Daniela Cuevas on Unsplash

Collective Leadership

In our work for Collective Leadership for Scotland  we are always considering how to create open, democratic spaces, where people can engage with each other on an equal basis, about things that they are passionate about. We host a range of events, using practices that help people connect in a relational way, inviting people to host discussions and raise questions around what matters most. You can see this through the workshops, festivals and, facilitation programmes which emphasise these approaches, and we often get asked about how to create an ‘open space’ event.

Open space event

An ‘open space’ event is an amazing, democratic way for people to host a discussion around a topic that they are interested in. Sometimes this is called an ‘Unconference’, as it’s the people who attend who create the agenda and who host the different sessions.  Recently, we hosted an open space event around how we engage with young people.

We recognised that there are number of policy drivers, issues and strategies in Scotland and globally (e.g. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Citizens Assemblies, Climate Change) influencing why young people should be front and centre of how we shape a future post-COVID world. There is a desire for young people to be systems changers and collective leaders in their own geographic and thematic communities, as well as key influencers of future national policies. Yet, there is often a tension between engaging with young people in traditional forms, devised by adults and really letting go of control.

This open space event was designed to explore how we break the mould of children and young people’s participation.

50 people attended from across government, public services and third sector, all with experience of engaging young people in different ways.

After some introductory scene setting and explaining the way ‘open space works’ everyone was invited to think about topics that they are interested in:

They were asked to consider if they would like to:

  1. explore a participatory practice in more depth (bring along a live issue about your participatory engagement you would like to critically reflect on);
  2. share a method or technique you have found helpful or;
  3. test out something (a work in progress) which you will be using for real at a later date.
  4. bring a challenge or a question

Each person had the opportunity to pitch their topic, and  we, as overall hosts, had the job of merging these into themes, which would become the focus for discussion in each break-out room.  The themes were wide ranging including: employability, designing youth citizen assemblies, adult supremacy, developing evaluations that keep young people’s stories at the heart of the work; how to make changes internally regarding decision making and more.

Those who hosted a conversation then met with participants in break-out rooms for 30 minutes. They were asked to kick off the conversation but not to dominate it. Participants could stay and participate in one conversation or move freely between break-out rooms. They could also take time out to consider what they had heard and also feed their insights into other discussions.

These sessions allowed  for cross-fertilisations of ideas and experiences and a growing understanding of the complexity of how we engage young people. It wasn’t an opportunity to quickly solve issues, but an opportunity to delve more deeply into experiences and challenges. Understanding others’ challenges in an environment of openness and trust has led to more thoughtful thinking around engagement.


Feedback was hugely positive, and these quotes just give a flavour of the benefits of an open space approach:

“I really enjoyed having the space to really dig in to the ethics of youth participation with other people in a way that challenges the boundaries and usual parameters of youth participation. I think this is rare so I’m very grateful for it. I also loved being in a space with people from so many different sectors.”

“My head is still very full at the moment – 1) that adults very much dictate the opportunity and  ‘rules’ for interaction and expression of ‘voice’ for young people 2) that there are many good people who notice this and want to challenge it 3) that adult systems in place don’t necessarily serve young people well despite sometimes best intentions.”

“I really enjoyed the format of the session and loved the group discussion I was involved in and the opportunity to hear about some new ideas that were quite new to me.”

“It is ok not to know the answer. Through engaging with others we can help each other navigate this and find new ways to support young people in our work.”

Get involved

If you are interested to know more about Open Space please visit our website or contact  also check out the regular Open Space events we hold for facilitators.

Scottish Government participation and engagement

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