Reinventing The Conference

Thinking Digital does the conference model really well. It’s a humane accessible version of TED. Small enough to be friendly, big enough to attract the innovators looking for and sharing new ideas.

The Do Lectures do something amazing between a campfire chat and an intimate mini festival. It’s still the most amazing ticketed event I’ve been to and I feel would be extremely difficult to emulate if you were ‘in it for the money’.

SXSW Interactive calls itself a festival but feels to me like the bloated physical manifestation of Facebook. I love the festival model but when it grows for the sole intention to create more profit it becomes monstrously corporate at the expense of heart and soul. If it’s participants can’t see the added value because nothing stands out as amazing on a menu of mediocre. Then it’s just a shanty town of billboards, populated by the bewildered.

If I was going to create something right now, I’d do something similar to the Elevate festival. Set in Graz, Austria, events were ran in all kinds of places from community spaces to the caverns of a hollowed out mountain.

It would start after a lazy breakfast, late enough for conversations and epicurean enjoyment of a shared meal. With more panels than stand up speakers, the audience could see who could talk around their field and not just about their field. A hefty chunk of panel time was given to the floor with statements encouraged as much as questions. The audience switching effortlessly from voyeur to participant.

After the political, environmental & musical discourse came the DJ’s and bands filling laser lit carved rock walls inside the mountain. The music, conversations and partying continued till dawn.

Once again the spaces either side of the timetabled events held immense value. The panels and talks merely catalysing the social side.

We naturally connect with those around us. It doesn’t need to be timetabled in. In fact some people loath the pressured expectation that in between sips of coffee you will be reciting your LinkedIn profile to whomever you can corner or collar in those precious 15 minutes.

I’m not saying the conference model is dead, I just think there is room for more of the intimate festival feel. Less herding from room to room, more of a flow around the attractions.

If you’re looking at assembling a quick and easy gathering of people in order to impart information in a day, then maybe the standard conference model is still for you. Although longevity in the conversations and connections is where I feel value lies.

If you want the ideas planted in the panels and talks to germinate within in your participants minds, let them socialise organically. Take the time to make the space.

Why have a flash of inspiration when it can strobe.



  1. says

    here is the main question ?

    Do Conferences actually change anything more than the bank accounts of the PR firms that promote them ?

    I am not talking about the collateral damage of opportunity as freelancers pick up new work in the crossfire of discussion but actual; government, social or economic change and growth as part of the event ?

    You can raise awareness sure but even after 20 years the issues that band aid made people aware of are still killing people.

    You can increase content creation but in the sea of media the mass of ideas is melange of mediocrity merely postcarding in the dream of “wish you were here ?”

    A Conference is the new opium of the masses.

  2. says

    Great post. And it looks like you have been to some amazing events. I have been covering traditional conferences and unconferences and ended up writing a post on my experiences –

    I’m a big fan of participation and providing space for people to share and learn. That’s where the value lies in attending a ‘conference’ IMHO.

    I hope that events will spring up based on a need ie a group of people have a shared desire to come together and (maybe) bring in a speaker they want to spend some time with. They then organise. The tools are there to do it.
    It’s ironic that corporates won’t have a problem in shelling out hundreds of pounds to send people on traditional conferences but do have a problem spending a fraction on that for an unconference.

  3. says

    Good post. I’m a big fan of Thinking Digital, and have loads of people tell me great things about the Do Lectures. Love the sound of Elevate.

    Tricky bit is finding the middle road between commercial, even sustainable events, whilst encouraging the best of participation. It’s definitely something that you had to be in for the long haul, which is probably why the conference companies stick to their tried and tested commercial models.

    We’re still experimenting to find the right blend of speakers, sessions, freestyle, unconference, structured round tables to match ticket prices and sponsorship revenue. Its certainly a tricky recipe to master.

  4. says

    Hi Sam, I strongly feel that the low key plugging of sponsors goes a long way to not having the creative space invaded with corporate interests. I didn’t see any sponsorship at Elevate after the intro talk apart from on the backdrop the speakers were interviewed in front of. The do Lectures were also very innovative with their acknowledging of their sponsors.

    SXSW on the other hand was so saturated with logos and sponsors it made me nauseous.

  5. says


    A little late to the party here as ever.

    To start, I’ll strip out the terms ‘conference’ & ‘festival’ and replace them as simply being 2 different kinds of gatherings. And obviously there is avimeo massive variety of gatherings out there. Dinner for 2, birthday party, seminar, conference, festival, million man march & so on.

    Just as a dinner party isn’t inherently ‘better’ than a church gathering I think it’s tough to pick conference v festival. Is Burning Man better than the World Economic Forum? Does Glyndebourne exceed Coachella? Different answers for different people which could well change within any single individual depending their stage in life.

    The trick is, as with so many things in life, to find the gathering that you connect with most for whatever reason. It’s a search problem.

    You and I are similar in that we seek to let content and community win out over the purely commercial. Until 2006 the last thing I thought I would ever do is organise a conference or event. First off, I’m hopefully disorganised and I’ve despised nearly every conference or IT event I’d ever been involved in as speaker, delegate or exhibitor. To me the vast majority do seem a colossal waste of time & energy.

    That all changed when I went to TED in 2006 when TED was still the TED Conference – a carefully curated and produced conference. Today it’s become something both much bigger & different. Less amazing for me though I’m sure better for others. It’s more commercial. I’ve tried my best to capture the spirit of adventure, inspiration & fun from the TED I used to know in Thinking Digital. And luckily I’ve found enough of an audience from good people like yourself & Sam to keep the show growing for the past 5 years.

    The biggest thrill for me is when people tell me about how TDC changed their life in some way shape or form. I’ve even got our own speakers telling me this now and that is just SO COOL for me to hear.

    But there are a lot of reasons why people go to these things. I think some people really do probably get some honest good out of sxsw for whatever reason. I’m also guessing a whole lot of other folks just go cus.. well that’s everyone else is doing. Others to have the company pay for them to get drunk and hopefully get lucky on the road.

    I think the important thing is that folks like your good self are out there continuing to search for & explore the non-obvious alternatives to sxsw, TED, etc. Social media is facilitating the formation of increasingly specific & higher quality communities all the time. You, yourself, are like a 1 man walking virtual online conference. Out there sharing your experiences w your highly engaged army of 20k tweeters on a daily basis and over multiple media. Often with video and audio recordings for later viewing.

    I have no idea where all this is heading but have faith that it will be ultimately for the better. I don’t like to quote Chairman Mao in sounding optimistic about the future but he was onto something when he wrote ‘let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought content.’ It’s just unfortunate that this was his trap to reveal dissenters :-(

    But back to your original point. What I think we should celebrate is that there is so much choice. That for every sxsw there is a Do Lectures or Elevate out there. I applaud the Do Lectures for having the discipline to not simply just get bigger & bigger. This can well be a recipe for disaster especially if you’re building an experience based on quality & integrity.

    I also think we should applaud the sheer diversity of gatherings that we see growing nearly every week. Many of us traditionally go events like the ones you’ve mentioned to experience, see & hear innovative content. And while there’s plenty of great content out there, there’s also alot of the innovation happening around the delivery of the content. A lot of innovation in the formats and UX surrounding the content delivery. And I think much of the best innovation is around helping people connect more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

    I’ll look forward to Doc-Fest sometime in the near future. Oh wait..

    Apologies if I run on too long here :-)