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Conferences can lead to both knowledge exchange and impact - we just have to do them differently

Those who know me well don’t bother asking me to go to conferences any more, because they know the answer. I dislike conferences for one reason: they are a monumental waste of time. If I want to get onto the cutting edge of any given area, I would rather invest that time reviewing the latest peer-reviewed literature (instead of relying on the often poor curation of a conference organizing committee) or networking on social media (with an even wider pool of interesting people and the ability to exit a conversation that isn’t relevant or interesting instantly without causing offence).

OK, rant over. I don’t like conferences.


However, earlier this month, I agreed to go to the Transformations conference in Dundee. I agreed for one reason only: a good friend of mine was organizing it (pictured here talking to one of the delegates), and he asked me to come. Knowing Ioan well, and based on his pitch, I thought this conference might be different.

It was.

In fact, it was a revelation: it turns out that it is possible to do conferences in a radically different way. This was less of a conference and more of a conversation, but at a scale that I didn’t think was meaningfully possible. There were over 300 people at the event, and yet it was designed and facilitated to enable learning and ideas to emerge at the scale of the event in a way that engaged every single person in the conference, I have been looking at some of the ideas that emerged with Ioan, and we are now following them up. This is an event that will achieve numerous, measurable impacts, which we will be following and helping facilitate over the coming months.

If all conferences were like this, I might change my mind about going to them in future. So, in the hope that other conference organisers learn from what Ioan and his team pulled off in Dundee, I’ve tried to extract the key things that made this so different – and so much better.

  1. A conversation at a scale you wouldn’t think possible: although this was a conference, the focus wasn’t on presentations. Yes, there were plenary talks each morning and speed talks for those who wanted lots of content. However, the focus was on facilitated conversation, which was achieved through practice workshops, creative thinking workshops and via engagement with the creative arts (see below). Spaces were created to enable you to bump into and have time to connect with the most relevant people to your interests, and at the same time, these one-to-one conversations were cleverly being aggregated into an actual conversation that was taking place at the scale of the entire event

  2. Practice workshops: there were mini-workshops where practitioners demonstrated what they were doing or researchers showed others how their new methods work, and people tried their ideas out and discussed them, while also considering how they contributed to the overall theme of the conference (transformations to suatainability)

  3. ​​Creative thinking workshops: a team of 10 facilitators spent an entire afternoon with the delegates split into small groups, working through a structured thinking process called Three Horizons. There were about 25 people in my room, and we split onto tables of five, so these were meaningful and thought-provoking conversations. We summarized key points from our tables, and each of the rooms summarized the key points that emerged from their room. These were then grouped thematically across all the rooms, to create a structured narrative that connected together all the most important points that had emerged from across the conference. You could probably use a range of different methods for structuring this, but the Three Horizons method forced us to think creatively about radical different futures and how we might get to them, enabling the facilitators and researchers (who worked through the night, fueled by Pizza) to structure a narrative from our present day challenges to the actions we believed were necessary and the futures these actions created.

  4. Creative arts engagement: the conference had a resident poet, cartoonist, and an installation artist to help enhance creativity and connection through the conference. On the first day the installation artist, with help from delegates, created a sculpture that contained messages from delegates about what they wanted to let go of. This was then burned in a thought provoking transition ceremony and was revisited on Day 3. Together, the art work created an inspiring and connected theme through the conference, which helped the delegates situate themselves in their own journey of change during the event.​

  1. Engagement rather than communication with policy-makers and practitioners: rather than talking about what policy-makers and practitioners should do as a result of the research we present, almost half the presentations were from members of the global practitioner and policy community. There was a subtle but important difference in emphasis, where it became clear that the research community had as much to learn from policy-makers and practitioners as they had from us. Even during breaks I was forced to leave behind my assumptions as the person I was speaking to was as likely to be there for their experience as they were for their qualifications. The conference actively sought to encourage those from diverse backgrounds (academic and otherwise) to come together to share ideas. It sought to create a safe space that allowed participants, in addition to focusing on intellectual aspects, to acknowledge and be open about why they worked on what they did. These normative and emotive elements are often held back and ignored at conferences, even though passion and enthusiasm and a desire to contribute to the world in some way is very often the key driver of research and practice. The result in most conferences is that they are dry and impersonal. This conference, however, allowed the emergence of reasons why people were there to surface, while also ensuring critical and academic thought.​

  1. ​​Place-based: most conferences you go to are fairly place-less, but this conference involved a range of cultural activities that very clearly situated it in Dundee and Scotland. Each morning was opened with a musical performance from traditional artists, rather than a speech with each of those mornings set to create a different kind of emotional space (serious and thoughtful on day one, inspiring and stimulating on day two and reflective and considerate on day three. The dinner venue (Falkland Palace and Estate) played a significant role in helping delegates think more about the issues they were discussing and the relationship of these issues to the locality of the conference. Now, rather than remembering things I learned at the conference in a disembodied way, those memories are rooted in a place and with a context, which will help me make sense of those memories and make them more useful and actionable​​

  2. Concrete actions: during the final session, delegates were invited to write a postcard to their future selves, saying what they wanted to remember or do as a result of what they learned. These post-cards will be posted back to participants in a couple of months, to embed what people learned and encourage them to act on their new insights. In addition to this, Ioan and I are mapping actions that delegates have committed to pursue (via the end of conference feedback survey, helping those we can to achieve their envisioned impacts, and putting others together who have committed to work on similar things.

Conferences can be different. They can be transformational. If you are organizing a conference, don’t be constrained by norms and expectations – do something different and make it an event to remember.

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