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Open Spaces

I suspect it’s been said many times and better before, but I do believe that a sometimes obvious but easily overlooked component of good group discussion—and of a healthy polity—is the ability to create and sustain open spaces for such discussion to occur. That is, having the right kind of spaces—both figuratively and literally—is a “necessary but insufficient” condition to any discussion and especially the kind that IF seeks to enhance and expand.

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum, and in social terms, open space invites—almost demands—us to enter, to add, to play with our ideas, art, graffiti, voices, desires, hopes, fears—ourselves. In my view, the best creative spaces are capacious and inviting enough to draw in others and provide the stage, and even a bit of encouragement, for playful collaboration.

My initial frame of reference for “open spaces” for discussion was figurative. Playing with this metaphor, some of the intersections of space and group discussion might include—

  • The notion of hosting or sponsoring the event, the gathering, the discussion. Someone or some group has to create the event (the space) and make it visible and open to others, inviting or giving permission to enter and talk and play.
  • The space has to actually be open in the first place—there has to be space for others to act and contribute. Long tomes or lectures that fully explicate all the answers don’t create open spaces or opportunities to contribute. At least some degree of incompleteness is required.
  • The space has to be kept somewhat open—or better yet expanding to create more open space for more contributions that build on the original contributions. Facilitators or other discussion participants need to help insure that some don’t dominate the discussion and fill up all the space.
  • And                                                                                            
  • And                                                                                         .

Then this morning, while sitting at the coffee shop with two co-workers, I began to think as well about the literal meaning of open space for public discussion. I’m sure that this idea too has been better mapped by others, but I’ll nonetheless throw out some notions for what I think make for good spaces for discussion:

  • Examples first:  coffee shops, restaurants, pubs/bars/taverns/rathskellers, churches, town halls, city plazas, auditoriums/theatres, lounges, student unions, conference centers, clubs, internet cafes, parks, squares, the UW-Madison Memorial Union Terrace.
  • The [right] size matters—large enough to be open and comfortably inviting for a group or multiple groups (no closets or tight corners), but on a human scale so there are also quieter spaces, corners, tables, and cozy side areas.
  • All the necessary comforts—enough to comfort and relax people, but nothing to annoy or distract them from the conversation. So it helps to have ready access to some food and/or drink, also restrooms, a nice view, artwork, muted colors (no interrogation rooms), comfortable lighting, not too hot or cold, shade, plants, reasonably comfortable and intimate seating—all the kinds of spaces that invite you to sit and linger. No fluorescent lighting, no fast food colors, no 8-foot TV screens, etc.
  • Quiet:  low background sounds are fine (maybe even desirable—voices, the kitchen, waves/wind, etc.), but loud music, distracting Muzak, loud TVs, or other sounds are not helpful. It’s amazing how often restaurants and other public gathering spaces get this wrong—blaring music or TVs when people really want to converse and presumably hear each other.
  • And                                            
  • And                                             

Your turn.