Ways to experiment with conferences

Yesterday I wrote about why I think technical conferences underdeliver. Coincidentally, Evan sent me this quote from Seth Godin's blog yesterday:

We've all been offered access to so many tools, so many valuable connections, so many committed people. What an opportunity.

What should we do about it? 

If we are collectively spending 6 careers at the SEG Annual Meeting every autumn, as I asserted yesterday, let's put some of that cognitive surplus to work!

I suggest starting to experiment with our conferences. There are so many tools: unconferences, idea jams, hackdays, wikithons, and other participative activities. Anything to break up sitting in the dark watching 16 lectures a day, slamming coffee and cramming posters in between. Anything to get people not just talking and drinking, but working together. What a way to build collaborations, friendships, and trust. Connecting with humans, not business cards. 

Unconvinced? consider which of these groups of people looks like they're learning, being productive, and having fun:

This year I've been to some random (for me) conferences — Science Online, Wikimania, and Strata. Here are some engaging, fun, and inspiring things happening in meetings of those communities:

  • Speaker 'office hours' during the breaks so you can find them and ask questions. 
  • Self-selected topical discussion tables at lunch. 
  • Actual time for actual discussion after talks (no, really!).
  • Cool giveaways: tattoos and stickers, funky notebooks, useful mobile apps, books, scientific toys.
  • A chance to sit down and work with others — hackathons, co-writing, idea jams, and so on. 
  • Engaged, relevant, grounded social media presence, not more marketing.
  • An art gallery, including graphics captured during sessions
  • No posters! Those things epitomize the churn of one-way communication.

Come to our experiment!

Clearly there's no shortage of things to try. Converting a session here, a workshop there — it's easy to do something in a sandbox, alongside the traditional. And by 'easy', I mean uncertain, risky and uncomfortable. It will require a new kind of openness. I'm not certain of the outcome, but I am certain that it's worth doing. 

On this note, a wonderful thing happened to us recently. We were — and still are — planning an unconference of our own (stay tuned for that). Then, quite unprovoked, Carmen Dumitrescu asked Evan if we'd like to chair a session at the Canada GeoConvention in May. And she invited us to 'do something different'. Perfect timing!

So — mark your calendar! GeoConvention, Calgary, May 2013. Something different.

The photo of the lecture, from the depressing point of view of the speaker, is licensed CC-BY-SA by Flickr user Pierre-Alain Dorange. The one of the unconference is licensed CC-BY-SA-NC by Flickr user aforgrave.