GOSH Community Member Profile of Greg Austic: “It’s about building strong personal connections”

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This is the ninth post of a series of profiles on GOSH community members who were featured in the GOSH Community Events Framework. You can access the framework, along with this profile in its original format, on the GOSH website at https://openhardware.science/gosh-community-events-framework/.

By Marcela Basch, independent journalist, Argentina. Twitter: @marbasch

Greg Austic studied economics and sociology, was in the Peace Corps, and worked in agriculture in Eastern Europe, always trying to help for a better world.

“I realised that you can’t just show up and help somewhere, it just doesn’t work like that. I thought that making technology better could improve things”, he remembers. So he started working in a small biodiesel co-op and ended up developing tech. “The small-scale biodiesel space was super collaborative, DIY and diverse, from hippies to fanatics who thought the world was going to end and people who just didn’t want to pay for gas, all connecting around the idea of energy independence. We developed a technology and wanted to get it into the world, and the answer was: ‘you have to patent it’. The path was patent, protect, profit, and it didn’t feel right, because we had been working as a community. In 2009, no one knew how to open source biodiesel technology at that scale. We had to patent it and it totally sucked”. That turned him into an open technology advocate. “I found that the fundamental problem was not a lack of technology, but producing technology which fails to have an impact.”

In 2012 he attended an open science conference in California and met Jenny Molloy: they both happened to be couchsurfing with the same host. Two years later, they met again at the Mozilla Fest. “I was feeling that there were a bunch of people working on open science hardware. I thought, ‘we need a conference to connect’. I had no broader vision than that. So I talked to Adam Wolf, the founder of Arable, and to Jenny, who said ‘I’m thinking about the same thing’. And then we met François [Grey]. He had the tools to do it right, because he ran a lot of conferences and had thoughts and connections and noted similar conversations with Shannon [Dosemagen]. Then we connected with Marc [Dusseiller] who came in a little bit later, bringing in a lot of the organisational support”.

Common vision and values

“I think GOSH’s vibe comes from the process that we went through. Establishing strong personal connections is priority number one. Everything else you can do later on, but if you don’t establish strong personal connections people just don’t care that much. We all have lots of things to do, we’re not going to sit in a three-hour meeting unless I really want you to be successful because I care about us. That’s what GOSH is about: building those components to help people connect”, states Greg.

He adds: “The second point is creating a common vision and value statement. That process was key. The comment we get most often is ‘I’ve never been to a conference with this particular set of people and I really like it, it’s a very diverse and unique group’. But that was emergent from values. In the first year we didn’t have an explicit value set in the conference itself. Then we worked on a common vision, the Manifesto, and we set the goal in the Roadmap. So I think that process is what is unique.” Those values could be revised. “I see the global gatherings as the space to look at what we’re doing and update it in its entirety, including values. I think that should be a unique and separate event. Then the local events can be a lot more specific. It’s important to be explicit about the goal of each event, because people will show up with different expectations and you want to make sure these expectations are met”.

On participation

One key thing Greg highlights to ensure participation and openness is looking for real diversity during the selection process. “It’s not only having demographic or gender diversity quotas. We said: in that 50 percent we want maximum diversity across what they do, and we looked into individual details. It took four weeks just to walk through the participants, a big amount of thought and effort. We shouldn’t automate that.”

How to hear all the voices? “Something critical is making sure that everybody interacts with everybody else at least once. We did ‘round robins’ at the beginning where everyone had a moment to speak. They were exhausting but really important. The rest emerges from the values, like there should not be very much of someone talking in front of everybody”, he says. “You need trained facilitators. You want to make sure both that people feel heard, and that everyone else actually heard them. If someone makes a long statement, a really good facilitator can restate it, translate it into an efficient statement. The other thing is making sure everybody in the group has the opportunity to be engaged, to give space every couple of minutes. If it’s two people going back and forth a lot and everybody else is a little bored or confused, you go: ‘does anybody else have thoughts on this?’ Your job is to both make the flow of conversation more efficient but also interrupt it when needed. Those two things can get you a long way.”

The unconference structure is key. “The funny thing about an unconference is that it actually requires a lot more work than a normal conference. Don’t think that you show up and everything happens magically. Actually, you need to be quite specific. There’s a process of identifying interests, then merging them into topic areas, and creating sessions out of that. The process itself has value in everybody understanding what everybody else actually wants”, he explains. He advises: “Groups shouldn’t be too big. You can’t expect to have a discussion about a complex topic with 10 people. Don’t try, just split it, you will have a better experience”.


“Part of what GOSH is, is this continuation of progress towards our common goal. So it’s really important that we contribute back, so everybody knows the progress made”, states Greg. “If you worked on three things of the roadmap, you should post them in the forum, close-out issues, or create new ones, for transparency. It’s really important to get people engaged in the forum, which ultimately is the long-term thread”.GOSH Community

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