Unsolved Problems Unsession 2013

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Humans at work!

The Unsolved Problems Unsession took place at the Canada GeoConvention 2013 in May 2013.

This page is part document of record, part notebook for our future selves and anyone else who might organize such an event. We are also writing an article to submit to CSEG Recorder and CSPG Reservoir. You can see the manuscript here.


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We've been thinking about Unsolved problems for a while, and wanted to see a list in our field. This might help new researchers find interesting and relevant topics, technologists build useful and valuable tools, and all of us think about where the gaps in our science are.


Here's what went out:

Calling all bright sparks. The Unsolved Problems unsession at the 2013 GeoConvention will transform conference attendees, normally little more than spectators, into active participants and collaborators. We are gathering 60 of the brightest, sparkiest minds in exploration geoscience to debate the open questions in our field, and create new approaches to solving them. The nearly 4-hour session will look, feel, and function unlike any other session at the conference. The outcome will be a list of real problems that affect our daily work as subsurface professionals — especially those in the hard-to-reach spots between our disciplines. Come and help shed some light.

We also blogged about the event in advance, wrote to about 100 people we know in Calgary, and asked the table hosts (see below) to bother people.


  • Conferences are too one-way, too passive. We want more action.
  • We want open, honest conversations about our industry, and our technical challenges.
  • Bring your most courageous, opinionated, candid self.
  • The stuff you’re scared to mention, or you’d only talk about over a beer? Bring that.
  • The minute you think you’re right, you’ve checked out of the conversation.
  • Listen with an open mind.
  • This is an experiment.
  • Failure is an option, it’s just the least desirable one.
  • Conversely, perfection is the least likely.
  • Whoever shows up are the right people.
  • What happens is the only thing that could have happened.
  • There is no finish line.
  • What we are doing is not definitive.
  • Move fast and break things.

Session design

Rough agenda-tweaking at the last minute.

We designed the session to be as collaborative as possible, erring on the side of breadth rather than depth. Informal consultations with Tim Merry of Myrgan Inc. were very helpful.

Rather than using a pure unconference format, with no agenda and proposals from the participants, we brought some structure to the session. The content was not provided, only the container. We felt that, given we only had 3.5 hours, and that most of the people in the room were unfamiliar with structureless collaboration, and that we did not know if we would be dealing with 6 or 60 people, this was a strategy that would guarantee some outcomes. So we adapted, one might even say bastardized, a couple of meeting technologies for the design: Knowledge Café, and Open-space technology. Neither of these approaches really use agendas as such, so this was something else. A gently guided conversation, or organized brainstorm, perhaps. As our community gets more comfortable with this kind of collaboration, we can experiment with unstructured components. For this event, we had a fairly aggressive schedule, because we had been rather ambitious about the goals for the day.

Start Minutes Who Activity Table hosts
7:00 45 Before Arrive early if possible
7:45 20 All Arrive, get nametags Help ensure everyone gets a name tag
8:05 5 M&E Welcome
8:10 5 All Introductions at tables Start off the introductions: name and favourite geological locality
8:15 15 All Icebreaker — Describe this rock Split the table into 2, each completing a description on a piece of paper
8:30 15 All Why & how is collaboration important to you? Record one surprising thing to report back
8:45 25 All $1B question — surfacing problems Record the ideas for unsolved problems on sticky notes; quantity not quality
9:10 5 Hosts Change tables and quick recap Welcome people and cover any themes or highlights
9:15 25 All $1B question — rank problems and choose 3 Guide the ranking process using the matrix
9:40 10 Hosts Bring the 3 problems Bring the top problems to the wall, read them out, and put them up
9:50 20 All Coffee and dotmocracy Vote and help ensure everyone does
10:10 10 All Reconvene and choose a problem to work on Go back to your tables and make sure people know which problem is there
10:20 25 All Non-unique solution: What are the perpectives? Record perspectives on the solution sketchpad
10:45 25 All Non-unique solution: Approaches Record approaches on the solution sketchpad
11:10 10 Hosts Hear the tweets Sum up the 'solutions' in 140 characters or fewer
11:20 5 M&E Closing remarks
11:25 5 All Neighbour chat — one good thing, one bad thing on stickies
11:30 1 M&E Thank you and goodbye — leave your card to stay in touch!
11:31 After Talk to the videographer if you can

We did not share the agenda beforehand, except with the table hosts. We did share the broad themes (explore, surface, filter, classify, solve). Remarkably, we kept to the schedule quite well, and finished on time. We did quite a lot of last-minute scribbling and tweaking (right).

The only agenda we shared was rather vague and spelled out in large sheets of paper on the wall. As the agenda unfolded, these sheets became the headings for the co-created content generated at the tables.

Table hosts

Each table had a 'host'. We asked seven friends to help ensure participation from the people at their tables, and to ensure that the conversations were captured in some way. Here's what we asked them to do in a Google Doc a week before and a briefing the afternoon before the event:

  • Keep the conversation going
  • Help ensure everyone at the table is heard
  • Make sure the ideas are captured on stickies
  • Report back to the group a few times, or make sure someone is happy to do this
  • Help people interpret the ranking process (see below)
  • Fill out the ‘sketchpad’ for capturing approaches to solutions

Thank you to Greg Bennett, Chris Chalcraft, Tooney Fink, Tannis McCartney, Charlene Radons, Adrian Smith, Jenson Tan, and Cale White for playing this important role so professionally.

Who showed up

As people arrived, they took a nametag from the wall. Tag colour corresponded to discipline (profession, favourite subject, or whatever the attendee felt like) — geology, geophysics, petrophysics, and 'other'. The three main disciplines are the three represented at the conference, which is organized by the CSPG, CSEG, and CWLS. As people took nametags, a barchart of diversity took shape. In the end, it looked like this:

The bar chart showed some of the diversity in the room. And the lack of it: no petrophysicists! The chart is about 1.5 m long.

'Discipline' is just one axis of diversity. We also asked for shows of hands to gauge other axes. At the time of this poll, there were 32 people in the room.

Other aspects of the diversity, from a quick poll of the 32 people present.
Question Number Percentage
How many under 35 years old? 9 28%
How many women? 5 16%
How many work international plays? 3 9%
How many work unconventional? 9 28%
How many are managers or supervisors? 5 16%

There was some debate about what exactly constitutes unconventional resources these days. But the point is that the room had a good mix of points of view — we need as many of these voices as possible to help find and solve the most relevant and pressing hard problems.


The icebreaker exercise was a rock description game, lasting about 10 minutes. Participants worked in teams of 4-8 and, with little instruction, were asked to describe one or two rock samples. We were curious to see not only the methods used, but how diversity and expertise led to a collective description of the earth. After all, in our work we are all looking at the same earth — but with different professional lenses.

The exercises provoked some palpable discomfort in the room. It seemed trivial to some, since this is what many of us do for a living. But all the teams produced descriptions. A few descriptive methods were used by the group, though no team used all the methods:

  • Words, mostly technical, but mostly in disorganized lists.
  • One team did a drawing of their sample.
  • One team provided an estimate of density, and another an estimate of velocity.
  • One team measured their sample in crayon-lengths.
  • One team did a makeshift test of brittless or friability by dropping their rock from a height.
  • One person used an iPhone app to take macro photos.
  • One team enigmatically went with: Rock! Girl?

We will run this exercise again. It needed a little more time, with an opportunity to review in the middle, swap ideas, then perhaps try to describe the most integrated (or most complete, or most useful) description.

Warm up

A histogram of the scores from everyone in the room: a skewed distribution. How geological.

The intent of the next exercise was to get people talking about integration, about our industry, and about why each of us showed up on the day.

We asked the room: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the subsurface profession, or upstream energy industry if you prefer, in integration and collaboration? Write your score on a sticky note, then share it with the table, and discuss.

The hosts gathered the scores and briefly reported back to the room (see image, right). At one table, everyone independently gave a score of 3/10. At least 2 people asserted that 'it depends'. Overall, the message was that it's complicated: our industry does some things very well, but there is much room for improvement.

Unsolved problems

A word cloud of the problems. Not quantitative, just fun.

We identified 150 problems. All of them are listed in this rather rough spreadsheet. We are in the process of cleaning it up and creating visualizations of the data.

Here's the table of how the selected problems fared in dotmocratic voting. During the break, each person present had 3 votes (coloured sticky dots) to cast any way they wished. Few votes doesn't necessarily mean 'unimportant' — there is social bias, and the natural bias in the room. Note that the voting does not account for the base rate of the different disciplines present.

Problem Geophysicists Geologists Others Total
Less secrecy, more sharing / Free the data 9 6 5 20
Improving seismic resolution 14 3 0 17
Acceptance of error — live with it 7 1 4 12
How to get more oil & gas from old fields 5 1 3 9
Water — need to develop national and global understanding & policy 4 4 1 9
How to resolve damage from resource extraction vs environmental protection 2 5 0 7
Lack of science (E&P) acceptance in society 4 3 0 7
Gas hydrates development R&D (×4) 2 4 0 6
Sustainability, right to operate, energy life cycle 1 2 1 4
Applicable technology transfer from medical & other industries (×2) 3 0 0 3
Mantle hydrocarbons 0 2 0 2
Transfer of professional knowledge & experience 1 0 0 1
Slow capital — not frantic results, better results 1 2 0 1
Technology advances GG&E vs economics 0 1 0 1
3D visualization into the reservoir 1 0 0 1
Data integration, upscaling 0 0 0 0
Change of industry methodology (government) 0 0 0 0

Following the dotmocracy, the group selected the following problems to take forward to the solution stage:

  • Less secrecy, more sharing / Free the data
  • Improving seismic resolution
  • Acceptance of error: live with it — two tables
  • How to get more oil & gas from old fields
  • Lack of science (E&P) acceptance in society


We spent about 45 minutes thinking about solutions. There was no hope of solving anything of course, but we had conversations about the depth of the problem, how we might start trying to find solutions, and what resources might be needed. To help guide the conversations, we used v0.1 of the Solution sketchpad to work on possible solutions or approaches to solutions. Importantly, the filled-out sheets do not represent solutions, but are simply evidence of collaboration.

One purpose of a future unsession might be to take a single problem and attack it from multiple directions. An extended hackathon session could even build some rough prototypes to show what is possible when we collaborate with engineers and other problem-solvers.


On their way out of the room, the 25-or-so participants remaining at the end left feedback about the unsession: one thing they liked (green), and one thing they would change (orange). This was a slightly different crowd than the one that started the morning — we think about 23 people stayed for the whole session (including the hosts), and about 29 people came for part of it; there were about 30–35 people in the room at all times.

One thing you liked.

I liked...

  • Great exercise in collaboration and networking!!!
  • Love the sketchpad; like the unsession concept.
  • Really liked the final discussion and the different ideas everyone had in the room.
  • Loved working with different people throughout the day.
  • Fun. Loved insight into the psychology of the old guard. Noble goals.
  • I sometimes fall asleep in sessions. That didn't happen here.
  • Excellent scheduling!
  • The event was fun, in fact is was way more organized than I expected. Maybe the description could be better in the guide.
  • Fruit smoothies.
  • Chance to connect with participants. Awesome concept!
  • Great idea and concept.
  • Different generations.
  • Insight from diverse industry group.
  • Liked working with different people.
  • Very interesting exercise.
  • Great network to create.
  • Interaction between different view points.
  • Great to take a step back and trade ideas.
  • Illuminating.
  • Participation was awesome!!
  • Great communication.
  • Most fun and energy and best discussion around shared passion on ideas — perhaps group earlier.
  • Good movement, progress... keeping on track.
  • Interactive participation rather than passive.
One thing you'd change.

I'd change...

  • Try to mix age groups [moved from green to orange]
  • Do the hack session in the fall; we are very busy during winter drilling & seismic season.
  • Didn't like the world broad topics.
  • Advertising!
  • Need more time to really grapple with the problem in the end.
  • Felt very high-level... hard to get my head around 'how could we solve this?'
  • Not enough big-picture, fundamental problems. No-one cares about ground-roll.
  • More drawing.
  • Nothing. It was all good.
  • Focus the problems.
  • Too much focused thinking wrt solutions; not much out of box thinking on problems to address
  • More exposure!
  • Larger room if fully attended.
  • More promotion — showed up by accident!
  • More time to define the solutions to the problem during the last part of meeting
  • Would love to see a greater representation of different disciplines.
  • Try to ensure diverse mix at table
  • More space to hear everyone when group is large. More people!
  • Better initial description of the goal or purpose or not.
  • Detailed real problem.
  • More space at tables for brainstorming (same number of people).


The event was part of the GeoConvention, so many of the costs were covered: room rental, programme (not that we really used that), volunteers (though ours were used as table hosts and were invited anyway), audiovisual equipment and support were all provided. We're very grateful to the Convention organizers for the chance to run this session.

Everything else was extra — total budget about $6000, not including time and travel. These costs are ball-park.

  • We wanted to capture everything in video and photos. In the end, you have to go for one or the other, so we leaned towards video. Excellent service was provided by Craig Hall Video and Photography, Calgary & Canmore. This cost about $4000.
  • Because we were asking participants to stay in the session, if possible, rather than leaving — for example for the 'Breakfast with the Exhibitors' upstairs — we provided refreshments: coffee and tea, fruit smoothies, biscotti, and fresh fruit. We tried to select healthier, less typical things from the Convention Centre's menu, which is a little limited. This cost about $1000. We probably overdid it a bit, but this is better than underdoing it.
  • We spent about $400 on stationery, but almost all of it can be used many more times.
  • We made some rather good stickers for the participants. Cost about $200.
  • We gave those left at the end a copy of 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics, as a 'thank you' for staying. Those who left early missed out. Those who arrived late lucked out. The books cost us about $150.
  • As consultants, we ought to factor in our time, but this would be rather complicated. A very rough estimate puts the organization time at about 40 person-hours, spread over about 9 months — not too bad. Lots of 'stewing time' in between meetings and brainstorms helped. Then on top of that we spent about 20 hours in execution mode, making things, preparing materials, etc.

External links

'Official' record

If you were there, please contribute to the write up of the unsession. We are aiming to submit this to CSEG Recorder and/or CSPG Reservoir in early August.

Blog posts

The theme of unsolved problems started way back with a post, Unsolved problems.

Then there was a realization that conferences need more dimensions, and a desire to do some sort of event:

Then we were invited to chair a session at the Canada GeoConvention, so we took that as our opportunity:

Then we wrote about it afterwards: