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."


Unknown said...


I couldn't agree more with every point you made. I am the Director of We are putting together a full brief on how to change conferences and panel discussions to make them more collaborative, effective and actionable. I will certainly reference this post and ideas of yours. Thank you!

Dave Peery said...
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Dave Peery said...

Not sure if you heard of the Opportunity Collaboration that took place in Mexico a couple weeks ago, but it was revolutionary. Honesty, the first 'conference' that fixed about everything that is wrong with conferences and made it into a productive, meaningful few days.

Michaela said...


Only just found you through @socialedge and already like what I read. As to the point you make about inclusion, the sheer cost of conferences (and festivals) excludes many who might make a valuable contribution or might take away improved understanding to share through social media/networks. For example, attending the Dutch Innovation Day costs 999 euros. No start-up innovator or interested private individual can afford such an outgoing. Attending festivals is worse. For example, the Toronto Hot Docs event and the Amsterdam IDFA are hardly accessible to Latin American and African documentary makers. Sponsoring a number of 'poor' ("charming people", Monty Python) might be an option.

Secondly, to get things 'done' rather than discussed only, conference organizers might include a 'dragon's den' (goodsearch this programme [preferably on behalf of Building New Hope, Pittsburg] if you're not familiar with it) i.e. financiers/orgs (Gates, ThinkSocial, Google &c) looking to invest money and expertise into viable projects or social enterprises in particular walks of life can be pitched to.

Michaela = @calceolaria

Darren said...

Great call to action man.

I was at a conference this week that intentionally centered on the speakers taking realtime questions from the audience via text message as well as frequent times for discussion during main sessions and breakouts.

I would like to see some form of commitment or follow-up action as a result of conferences. I'm going to take this with me into some things I'm planning.

SaraJoy said...

Well said.
Another positive deviant in this sector is the Social Venture Partners conference.
I attended last weekend in Dallas as a volunteer (so as to dodge the registration fee) and was pleasantly surprised at the way they "walked the walk" Here are some highlights:
- Only one short plenary session each day, always followed up by a 1/2 day workshop from the presenter.
- "Peer Learning Sessions" that were actually just that: 10 minute conversation starter, then 60 minutes of person-to-person interaction, divided into 20-min work sessions with group "shake-ups" in between, and 15 minutes of recap at the end.
It was a refreshing experience.

Bopreneur said...

Thanks all, for your comments and suggestions. From the comments and tweets, I guess this has touched a nerve for some.
I will be attending a conference next week at BYU, and am changing my approach to try to integrate audience into the program more. Would appreciate any cool things you have seen out there that you liked as session participants.

Lars said...

Hi Paul,

Sorry you couldn't make to the SVN conference, as I think we did a good job of addressing some of the very legitimate concerns you raised. The focus of this fall's SVN conference was on collaboration, and in order to make it happen we built in 6 sessions whose express purpose was to foster conversations amongst attendees for collective action and collaboration. All of the traditional sessions were at least 1/3 Q and A, so it gave the event a real dialog feel. You can see the agenda at:

Check this post to get a feel of the event from one of our attendees:

Francis Bell said...
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Anonymous said...

Still relevant after three years! While I like events for the inspirational aspects/connections, I see what you mean re: action & CO2 footprint (this coming from someone that attended BGI from Boston!). Of course, as with marketing lead generation, I am sure there are results that come later through a connection made at an event that is not necessarily linked directly to that event. I've attended Bioneers by the Bay here in MA a few times and like the idea of a virtual connection with the main Bioneers event in CA and regionally/locally focused content and workshops. With the advances in web conferencing, seems the travel element is no longer 100% necessary. Also, don't discount the genuine enjoyment some people may take from both attending these events as "vacations" and being able to brag about it to their friends. Might not help achieve results, but I bet it happens.

Bopreneur said...

Understanding this is an old post, and no one will probably read this, I still have to say that I think Paul Graham has nailed one of the problems with conferences in this March 2012 Post:
See, conferences generally feature good speakers; people who will fill the room. And, as Paul G puts it "Being a really good speaker is not merely orthogonal to having good ideas, but in many ways pushes you in the opposite direction."

Bopreneur said...
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