Conferences 4.0 – creating community
Coffee breaks are the most productive times. That observation inspired Tim O’Reilly to develop the concept of “unconferences”. The Irish publisher and software developer had discovered that the coffee breaks generated the greatest added value for participants at classic conferences and without further ado he made the breaks the main thing. In 2005 he initiated his first “FooCamp” (Friends of O’Reilly) in Palo Alto, California, an ad-hoc event at which participants spontaneously organise the content and agenda themselves.
Today “unconferences” are one of the innovative event formats that mirror the transformation of knowledge communication at conferences and meetings. In light of the options for information accessibility via just a couple of clicks that the internet and social media offer, today the objective is not so much merely communicating mere knowledge through lectures and exhibitions. On the contrary, the central focus is on personal transfer of know-how through exchanges of experience and networking among the participants.
Added value through talking
“Today conference participants are very well informed and can no longer be convinced by lecture-style presentations,” says event developer Claudia Brückner, who coined the term “event or meeting experience”. “They expect answers to their individual questions and they want to talk about their experiences and approaches to solutions with other participants in order to benefit mutually from one another.” According to Brückner, event organisers face the challenge of developing new, open formats that promote interaction and participation. “Events have to go beyond the exchange of information or communication of knowledge and offer opportunities for community building and genuine collaboration,” she states.
Adrian Segar, the author of the book “Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love”, shares the same view. In his opinion, the strength of conferences lies in their social component. “As useful content is available online to an ever growing extent, conferences should focus on what they are able to do best: Making it possible for people to meet, get together and participate,” he says. Segar thinks that in future conferences will concentrate more and more on getting participants actively involved in what is happening, increasing their level of participation and promoting useful contacts. Segar: “People learn better when they take an active part in the learning process rather than simply listening passively.”
Agenda by ballot
In the meantime, Open Space conferences and BarCamps have become the most widespread formats in which participants develop the content and agenda of an event themselves. The advantage: The expertise of the attendees can be incorporated ad hoc. For example, in March at “DevCamp Karlsruhe” - an unconference for software developers that organises the CyberForum, the network for high-tech entrepreneurs. More than 120 participants compared notes in spontaneously organised groups, lectures and workshops. At the beginning, the attendees proposed possible themes and a ballot decided which ones made it onto the agenda.
The “CarCamp” for people in the automotive industry who are interested in social media works in a similar fashion. In that case, the themes also emerge during a joint presentation session at the start of the event. Online forums organised along thematic lines interlink participants before, during and after the CarCamp. The do-it-yourself event “XOXO” in Portland, USA - an event for freelance artists, film makers and game developers - demonstrates that a huge variety of interest groups are making use of this innovative format. The conference is financed via crowd funding; when it was held for the first time in 2012, the 400 admission tickets were sold out within two days and 700 sponsors donated a total of 173,000 dollars.
Fun as a concentration incentive
The fun factor is an integral part of the programme at events like that: Innovative formats are aimed at appealing to and stimulating all the senses. “Experience has shown that this has a positive effect on the powers of concentration, creativity and productivity of conference participants,” emphasises Adrian Segar. In his opinion, hands-on elements and refreshingly unusual rituals – such as “speed dating” for getting to know people quickly at the beginning of the event – will firmly establish themselves as conference elements in future. The resulting positive and constructive atmosphere not only improves the receptiveness of participants, it also increases their willingness to speak out openly and contribute actively.
That promotes team spirit and a sense of common identity at conferences – which is one of the most important advantages of live events in comparison with online ones. Face-to-face communication satisfies a vital need that human beings have for a feeling of security, trust and belonging together – irrespective of whether a situation involves one-on-one conversation or a group discussion. In addition, communication in person seems more credible than virtual communication. It conveys a more comprehensive picture of the other person, encompassing non-verbal signals such as facial expressions and gestures. There are good reasons why the success of multinational teams at companies is also dependent on the persons involved being able to meet in person at least once.
Furthermore, conferences provide orientation amidst the masses of information and they slow down the rigidly structured pace of day-to-day life, which is picking up speed in the work-related sector in particular. Conference participants consciously treat themselves to a time-out: They want to unhurriedly indulge in intensive exchanges of ideas with other people, conduct systematic discussions and develop networks which will benefit them sustainably.
Event organisers as community managers
New technologies play a key role in that networking. They support conversation before, during and after the event, as Claudia Brückner emphasises. For digital tools and platforms expand the physical event space independently of time – a challenge with future potential for the conference and convention industry. “To an increasing extent, event managers are becoming community managers thanks to options such as these. That gives them the opportunity to sustainably build up a community and at the same time to develop an appropriate business model – not only with the aid of a certain theme, but also by means of their specific approach and the experiences that they design accordingly,” says Brückner.
Even now more and more event organisers already integrate interactive options such as Facebook or Twitterwalls into conferences. They make it possible for participants to provide feedback or ask questions directly. Voting during a lecture – even directly via mobile phone – is a way to liven up a conference and get the audience actively involved.
High-tech for high-touch
The mega trend of progressively wider use of technology will leave its lasting mark on the convention and conference industry by 2030. Michaela Evers-Wölk, Research Director for Future Research and Participation at IZT, the Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment in Berlin, confirms that. Besides connecting people, the future internet of things and services will also interlink devices and everyday objects with one another, which will have an effect on planning, implementing and following up on conventions. “For example, real-time information about “knowledge accumulations”, i.e. gatherings of individuals at interesting discussion locations, can help make events spontaneous and up-to-date. Exhibits can be designed so they interactively provide their audience information about how they came into being and communicate background facts and context,” she says, describing the potential.
For many years, the IZT itself has been practising various forms of participation and interaction in connection with future-related research and consulting projects. New media such as “Hangouts On-Air”, which make it possible to hold and broadcast live events and discussions worldwide, play a key role in that context.
High-tech and high-touch – technology and human interaction – are not a contradiction in terms for Evers-Wölk. She says that there will continue to be a need for “real” communication. Psychologist Georg Stark from the Steinweg Institute in Cologne firmly believes that as well: “Media diversity is growing and media are changing, but people will still need their archaic get-togethers – even in the distant future. Because that is the only way they can discover what they can depend on and whom they can trust – or where they stand in comparison with others."
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