how to host an unconference

exploring the social physics of distributed programming

michael raspuzzi
8 min readNov 9, 2023
dalle-3’s rendition of an unconference setup. note, chairs are recommended, floor seating is optional.

the best all day community experience i’ve been to was an unconference.

i helped volunteer at mit’s tough tech summit run by the engine, which assembled 200+ builders across 4 tracks and 25 different discussions for a full day. in 2023, they scaled that up to 600+ people with the same structure.

one of the most connective evening meetups i’ve been to in san francisco was an unconference.

gen ai collective hosted an unconference style discussion on ai’s role in human flourishing with 100+ people breaking into smaller rooms. they even used language models to make up the structure on the spot based on crowdsourced, live data.

because the unconference style is new, there are not a lot of best practices shared online. as a community builder, i wanted to share some insights in a new style of hosting an event.

in this piece, i’ll break down why an unconference style works, walk through the two above mentioned examples, and share resources at the end.

why unconference style events are so memorable

for those that have not been to an unconference before, it prioritizes emergent discussion and meetings over the single stage audience experience.

  • a conference is a single player game with non stop focus on stage and the people talking
  • an unconference is a multiplayer game where everyone can choose their own adventure

unconferences enable:

  • diversity of experiences making it more engaging for the individual than sitting through one set of talks on a main stage
  • meaningful interaction and discussions for those attending. ‘networking’ is not reserved only for a session at the end, but conversation is happening all throughout the day
  • individual choice for topics that people find most interesting to them in the moment

in the age of infinite entertainment and knowledge online, these considerations are important to make an irl experience stick out from url experience.

let’s see what that looks like in two examples.

walk through of mit’s tough tech summit unconference with 500+ people

all different kinds of experiences and conversations (source)

quick intro to mit tough tech summit

each year the engine team at mit hosts an amazing two day summit.

the hosts: mit’s the engine is a $250M venture fund investing in founders solving hard problems across climate tech, health, and advanced materials + manufacturing

the timing: they have 1 day for investors (lp meeting, pitches, mix + mingle), and 1 for builders. this is highlighting the builders’ day experience.

the venue: this year they supported 600+ people at the westin in seaport boston across 2 floors and 8 rooms.

the event invite page: check it out.

this style of event for 500+ people is a challenge when balancing people of different backgrounds:

  • people with different roles and experiences (researchers, government workers, engineers, executives, product managers, and founders)
  • across different industries (climate, health, manufacturing)
  • across different stages (pre-fundraising, early stage startup, later stage scale up, and longstanding corporate organization).

they did so with an elegant structure that optimized for a choose your own adventure style that lead to a better experience with more immersive discussions.

one thing an unconference structure does well is it champions the individual member experience rather than the sage on stage conference style programming.

for the mit tough tech summit, here’s what they did well to make it unforgettable

  1. started strong — they had 1 keynote speaker for <1 hour. last year it was indra nooyi, former ceo of pepsi, discussing the state of society and this year it was a chat with bob mumgaard, ceo of common wealth fusions. these both were conversations the whole room wanted
  2. intentional invites — they separated investor invitations (day prior) from builder invitations, knowing that when the two mix there’s a power dynamic which changes the conversation away from curiosity to diligence.
  3. choose your own adventure — 80% of the programming was choose your own adventure style. attendees could pick between topics like designing first of a kind pilot plants, combing through regulation, raising money across different stakeholders, tough tech branding, and even personal growth with a ceo coach. this enables people to pick what topics are top of mind for them.
  4. experienced discussion leaders — each topic had a different facilitator which brought unique knowledge and experience (like portfolio founders) as well as could help curate the conversation with a bunch of strangers.
  5. great timing and pacing — each conversation was 45minutes which was enough time for the group to have a meaningful back and forth, while also giving 10–15min for transition and food breaks.
  6. diversity of experiences — they had coffee stations that were full of people constantly talking 1–1. they had space set aside for private 1–1 conversations. they mixed up discussions with 1 keynote and 1 panel. they also hosted case study style sessions where a portfolio company would run through a big challenge they hit this year and have small teams try to figure it out. there was also a library for checking out top book reccs in different topics in tough tech.
  7. clear wayfinding — name tags had the floor plan. each room had a color and a name, and members of the staff were there to help guide you in case you couldn’t find what you were looking for.

👉 more on the agenda and event website here if you’re looking for inspiration.

walk through of gen ai’s collective unconference on human flourishing

h/t mongdb for an epic flexible space to host

quick intro to gen ai’s human flourishing unconference

while the above took a small team a few weeks to assemble and structure behind the scenes to support hundreds of people, this next event was a pop up style unconference with a lot of work done on the spot.

the hosts: gen ai collective (5,000 builder community in the bay) collaborated with ai salon (hosting weekly discussions across the bay)

the timing: 6:30pm-9:00pm on a weekday

the venue: they hosted 100+ people at an epic office in the mission neighborhood in san francisco

the event invite page: check it out.

for this event, here’s what they did well

  1. community collab — there is a lot happening each week in the bay area, and it’s nice to see two communities come together to host a larger 50–100 person event, rather than segment it to two smaller events. there’s cross pollination of different people.
  2. clear, interesting topic — the theme was exploring what role ai will play in the next era of human flourishing. conversations ranged from ai in creativity and education to ai in future relationships (“what if someone wants to marry an ai?”). this was a clear invite for people who wanted to discuss this overlap and also made it easy to organize different discussions.
  3. great co-hosts — matt (gen ai collective) and ian (ai salon) set the intentions for the event with rules for engagement (be respectful and actively contribute), as well as explain why they were doing this: foster more connection beyond a linkedin or twitter follow drive by.
  4. sourcing ideas on the spot — they curated the 8 topics based on what people shared in invite and shared on the spot. they brainstormed different topics and questions people wanted to discuss.
  5. integrated ai into the event itself — this was an interesting thing to see in live time. to parse through 50+ ideas, they fed it into chat gpt to organize 8 different themes and topics. from there, one (human flourishing which was too general) needed a quick update and people were off to pick their own corners across: 1) ai in education + creativity 2) ai in relationships, 3) ai in governance, 4) ai in interface and experience design, 5) ai and economic models

they also tested recording each conversation to transcribe after. i hope they share the ideas as it’s a cool way to compile a write up. i may be biased, but i like the ephemeral nature of unrecorded and off record events.

the results of the above left the room buzzing with connection and ideas, which is rare to find among the networking heavy happy hours that can buzz from the chaos of surface level shouting in a bar like environment.

some ideas to improve the next one

  • stronger start — when i think of a strong start, i think of time to value and time to engagement for the audience. rather than brainstorm ideas, they could take everyone’s info (from application) and make the categories sooner to open up time for 2 rounds of conversations.
  • flexibility to move around — with 1hr to talk, people stayed in 1 group, and it would have been good to break it up to allow for 2 rounds of conversation to double the amount of people to meet.

in a post covid world, people are hungry for great irl experiences

the biggest shift i’ve seen is the move away from panel speakers for 1–2 hours, where everyone listens to someone with a mic, to events like the unconference structure.

  • pre-covid there was not as much content online, but post covid any speaker has a 2–3 hour interview in a podcast that people can stream at their own convenience and own pacing.
  • post-covid people want unique irl experiences that maximize the connection, conversation, and variety of options that comes from the richness of in person.

bonus: if you’re looking for more on unconferencing, this is a cool playbook style write up from another group in the bay.

hey, i’m michael and i host different community events in sf including hardware meetups, hackathons, and art exhibits. i like architecting great experiences.

connect with me on linkedin to see what’s up next.



michael raspuzzi

building something new. previously @tks @harvard @culinaryai