On Monday, the day before the main events of Interop Las Vegas 2008 officially kicked off, a group of about 70 professionals from the technology industry huddled up for an unconference called Energy Camp, which used a free-wheeling, user-driven format to explore the issues of energy efficiency and Green IT.

In preparation for the event, Interop Executive Conference Director David Berlind said, “Getting to the unvarnished truth about what works and what doesn’t and figuring out what solutions really deliver on the promise of energy savings is a difficult task . At Energy Camp we’re going to get the conversation between all the stakeholders rolling. Not only will IT professionals come away with concrete action items and the beginnings of a long term plan, they’ll have an opportunity to give feedback to the solution providers who’ve created all the noise in this space.”

David Berlind (closest to the board) and Energy Camp attendees explore the board where attendees posted their pitches for conference sessions. Photo credit: Interop

The model for an unconference goes back to Harris Owen in 1985 and his concept of Open Space. The idea has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years based around the opinion that the best stuff at conferences like Interop doesn’t happen in the PowerPoint-driven sessions or the swag-driven Expo Hall but in the informal interactions between the attendees, who discuss their IT experiences and share advice with each other.

“Let’s take the coffee break and make that the main event.” said, Berlind, explaining the idea behind the unconference format.

James Governor, founder of RedMonk, offered the alternative, “Let’s capture the water cooler and turn it into a conference.”

Lenny Heymann, general manager of Interop, said, “The ‘unconference’ model ensures an intimate focus on one of the most critical issues the industry is facing today: sustainable IT, delivering another piece of the big picture for our audiences at the forefront of the discussion.”

The event started with a more traditional presentation to kick things off, but then attendees were invited to take markers and paper and write down their idea for a discussion topic. Each person who had written something went up to the front of the room, took the mic, and explained their idea to the audience. Then the attendee taped the idea into a slot on the grid. After all the ideas were up on the board, the attendees gathered around and consulted about which ideas were similar enough to group together, with the permission of the people who originally submitted the idea.

Some of the topics that made the cut included:

  • Alternatives to business travel
  • Building a hyper-energy efficient data center (case study)
  • Best layouts for data centers while staying green
  • Operationlizing green practices
  • It’s the people, stupid
  • HVAC distribition in the data center
  • Best practices for recycling and refurbishing electronics

The last session on recycling/refurbising was a session that I led, and I was impressed by the level of the discussion. We explored everything from companies/organizations that have free recycling programs to internal policies for dealing with old equipment to the differences between the U.S. and Europe in handling electronics waste to opportunities to donate old equipment.

Bottom line for IT leaders

The unconference format can provide a great opportunity to network, share best practices, and do some problem solving if you can find an event in a topic that you are passionate about. Also, if you’d like to see some of the grassroots ideas that IT professionals are thinking about in the area of Green IT, follow the Energy Camp Wiki.