Yesterday was the first time I ever watched a live video stream from a conference. The event was called Reboot Britain (or #rebootbritain to the Twitterati) and it was quite handy. I watched a couple of presentations by keynote speakers and then got to make my own coffee here at the office, when everyone else had to get up and carry their bags to no doubt some nearby trestle table with an array of plastic cups, sugar and plastic spoons.
I didn’t, in my boredom, need to wander through a maze of stands, feigning interest out of politeness and duty.
Although lots of people think I’m very outgoing, I’m actually not – I’m quite shy. I need familiar people to hold onto at a party, before I collude with them to work the room. I’m just the same at conferences, and I don’t believe I’m alone. Perhaps that’s why exhibitions often accompany them – it gives people who must ply their cause a place of refuge. Something to stand beside, or behind. A place to leave their things. A home.
Two years ago I sat in the opening session at Stockholm World Water Week to watch a member of the Swedish royal family tell an audience of several thousand water experts, under the watchful eye of the media, that access to clean water was vital to everyone, rich and poor. The air of resonance chamber was overwhelming – two hours x 2,000 people is 4,000 hours of expert time wasted on a series of statements that everyone in the room already knew. It was then that I realised that until now an event like this has never really been about actual, dynamic problem solving. Instead it’s been about bringing together people who share an interest to get to know each other better, and using the very fact that these people have come together as evidence to the wider media that something matters. This pool of experts is then available throughout the week to provide quotes on various related topics – it’s about creating a focus on an issue.
That’s the positive interpretation – the more cynical would be that some conferences and exhibitions are a way to generate revenues by fuelling demand based on limited space, where anyone who wants to be a ‘player’ must buy access to a club. But that’s a whole different story.
World Water Week’s been an important annual event as Akvo has developed – indeed the organisation was born as a response to an on stage challenge in 2006 from Stockholm Water Prize winner Professor Asit K. Biswas who announced in front of Akvo founders Thomas and Jeroen (who met ten minutes later) that he was finished with big water conferences because it was always the same people talking each year about the same things. And I must say SIWI, World Water Week’s organiser, has recognised and supported new blood like us – they’ve always found us space and helped us build our profile amongst the establishment.
My conference low-point was in March, at the World Water Forum in Istanbul. This huge, heavily-policed event was, surely, what it was like to be a UN delegate in the 1950s or ’60s. In a session on innovation, I was asked for my impressions. I was scathing. As intimidating as it was impersonal, apart from the presence of mobile phones, I didn’t see anything happening around me that couldn’t have happened here in 1969. Where was the innovation? The format – hour-long plenary sessions with microphones, multi-language audio translation and question and answer slots were surely identical to 40 years ago. A conference newsletter would be printed and circulated twice a day. Reporters would mill around in a press office with telephones, typing. Besuited ‘delegates’ of a rank appropriate to the prestige of the event would wander the halls, printed folders in hand, wondering what time was lunch, or when they might head to the bar, ideally one with a nice view.
Worse was what I didn’t see – there were not many people demonstrating new, low cost technologies, one of the things we care most about at Akvo. I conclude it was just too expensive to rent the space and bring over the gear, unless under a government sponsor. And there were a lot of people excluded – with a heavy police presence and a big contingent priced (or kept) out of the building.
Jeroen, Akvo’s chairman, asked me how I would do it otherwise (he does that a lot). For me a big frustration was that all these people were talking to eachother, but not engaging with, or accountable to, the outside. Crucially, the events shouldn’t be about a prestigious few preaching to an information gathering mass. You no longer need to attend a conference to gather papers. Every participant now counts. My response to Jeroen was immediate:
“I’d put glass video studios around the event, with live two-way feeds to real water or sanitation projects happening in other, similar glass video studios at a community level around the world. I’d have engineers talking from these locations about the lessons they’re learning and the support they need next. I’d encourage everyone at the event to pick up handheld video cameras, capture conversations and share them online. I’d put the emphasis on innovation – everywhere. I’d seed the event with people who would drive such conversations, encourage others to get involved, curate the output online and drive conversations with the outside world. Everything would be about solving problems, making ideas happen, being inclusive, taking a critical but positive stance.”
We talked too about the opportunities for a more flexible agenda:
“I’d only part-formalise the agenda beforehand – the rest would evolve. Delegates can join – and anyone from outside can follow via video stream – whatever sessions interest them, as the week moves on, as they make new contacts and form new coalitions. Many sessions would be defined as the week progressed.”
Am I naive to think it’s possible for such change? I think not. NESTA’s Reboot Britain event featured not only streamed sessions but a lot of audience interaction via tools like Twitter, all available from outside. The TED design conference has created a body of presentation material under a tagline of “ideas worth spreading”.
And that’s just the start. Like the future of office buildings, where we’ll face a ten to twenty year gap between the moment when most knowledge workers can effectively work from anywhere (take this as notice – this change happened about three years ago), and the day we realise banks of workstations are as obsolete as the typing pool. The habit of conferences and exhibitions will take time to evolve in just the same way.
Of course, there’ll always be a place for events – just like people won’t abandon offices. But they’ll look to a wider variety of shared spaces, workshops, hybrid office / cafes and new kinds of workspace driven by digital communities seeking a place to come together – a physical identity for a virtual community.
Just as work is not, by and large, a solitary activity, conferences should never feel lonely. They should create unexpected relationships. They should connect new and old ideas and experiences. They should be accessible, discoverable for the curious, exciting. If they don’t adapt, they’ll wither as others create events that do.
Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo.
Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo.