Saturday, October 24, 2009

Conflicted on Conferences

There are a lot of conferences. And more and more are in the fields of social entrepreneurship, clean technology and green business. Just this weekend, one could attend Poptech in Maine, Social Venture Network in La Jolla or the Energy Justice Program in Boulder. Is this a good thing? What is all this conferring doing to make the world a better place? Here are a few issues that concern me.

1. It's hard to keep up. In the room in Boulder are people who would also be good participants in Maine. Some of the conversations seem to be similar. And we could sure use Esther Duflo in our conversations on energy justice here (maybe next year?). Are we fracturing the chance to get things done by having concurrent conferences and lots of conferences?

2. Inclusion. Always an issue. But it makes me nervous to sit in a room with a lot of people from USA and Europe talking about solving problems in Africa, India, etc. I don't think this is immoral, but I do think it is ineffective if you want to look at action instead of conferring.

3. It is a lot of carbon. At Poptech today, Michael Pollan said that "a vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a meat eater in a Prius."* But what about a vegan that jets around the globe going to conferences to tell people about carbon footprints? (And no, I didn't ride my bike down to Boulder today and I'm not a vegan.)

4. It is a lot of conferring. But not much doing. This is my biggest concern. Conferences seem to attract "idea people" who love to share ideas and network with each other. It is the nature of conferences is to encourage people to talk about BIG IDEAS. But BIG IDEAS are often HARD IDEAS and once everyone heads home, not much seems to happen. This is an intellectual waste, isn't it?

How could we redesign conferences to actually accomplish change? A few ideas...

1. The International Development Design Summit intentionally targets "prototypes, not papers." The Clinton Global Initiative assumes participants will make financial commitments to the programs it spotlights. As the CGI site states, "After attending thousands of meetings during his career in which urgent needs were discussed but no action was taken to solve them, President Clinton saw a need to establish a new kind of meeting with an emphasis on results." Perhaps our Energy Justice Conference could have faculty commit to add energy justice to at least one of their classes, and have students pledge to do one of their class projects on the topic. Organizers, ask yourself: "what could my conference DO? what happens after the final session?"

2. Maybe we should call them "creater-ences" or "do-ances" to emphasize creation and doing, instead of conferring. (I once visited a company that didn't have conference rooms, they had decision rooms. Cool culture.)

3. Change up the schedules. Too much old school, one-way lectures. These are not "conversations," no matter how often the organizers overuse the word. Social media may change this. As more people multi-task, perhaps the discussions will become more robust and more two-way. But instead of defaulting to the virtual world, how about having multiple types of sessions, not just lectures and panels.

4. Leg chains for keynote speakers. A lot of the "biggie" speakers are hit and run. Great message: fly in, fly through your powerpoints, meet with a few elites, fly out. Don't spend time with students, don't visit a few small companies. Very inspiring (NOT). Conference organizers, why not ask your speakers to commit to staying and engaging?

I blogged about this a few years ago, and still agree with myself on this topic.
Addendum 10/30: Thanks for the helpful comments and emails. Here are a few nuggets of interest, or perhaps portents of change?
From Martin Montero (@montero), this link to Dan Palotta's HBR blog on a "Change the World" conference. On Guy Kawasaki's Alltop Good site, I discovered this open source conference for women entrepreneurs. And see Lars's comment regarding changes to Social Venture Network conference agenda.
*Evidently, Michael Pollan didn't do his calculations on vegans very accurately. Ooops. Careful Mr. Pollan- we expect you to research your tasty soundbites, so they don't leave us feeling queasy after we have consumed them.
Addendum 10/31: I will be at BYU's Conference on Economic Self Reliance this coming week (Nov 5-6). Will work on making sure there are some outputs for my session on "Building on BOPportunities: Strategies for Start-Ups."

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