On a crisp October morning, more than 400 people have crowded into the café of a conference center in Burlington, Massachusetts. They are here for Innovation 2009, a conference for tech start-ups sponsored by the Mass Technology Leadership Council. There are no programs: No one knows what the sessions will be about or who will speak. But the topics are guaranteed to be relevant to the attendees, because they are about to come up with those subjects on the spot.
This is what's known as an unconference, an event programmed -- and sometimes arranged -- by attendees. For everyone who thinks the highlight of most conferences is the coffee break, unconferences offer a kinetic alternative to keynote fatigue. Canned speeches and passive audiences are out. Instead, attendees create the sessions on the fly, and intimate groups hash over subjects of their own choosing.