Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Future Of Conferences And Events: Critical Viewpoints From Gerd Leonhard, George Siemens And Nancy White

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While on the web you keep hearing that we are in the so-called web 2.0 era, the age of collaboration, sharing, questioning and having a bottom-up approach, when you go to a physical conference or a live event it seems as if you are taking a time-machine into the past.

Photo credit: Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz edited by Daniele Bazzano

You just sit back on a comfy chair and listen passively to the presenter. There is no interaction, no engagement, no dialogue, just somebody tossing a pre-scripted lecture out there on the podium. There is no easy way to talk or discuss with the presenter, no way to avoid watching an infinite series of boring slides, nor an easy and respectful way to counter or correct what you disagree with.

I don't know about your experience, but I feel very frustrated and angry in those situations when I cannot engage, contribute and exchange. Being forced to listen to somebody without expressing my ideas feels very much like the TV-prison state of mind.

Wouldn't be great instead if the presenter tried to step down from her podium and sincerely tried to ignite a two-way conversation with the audience? Asking questions, sharing suggestions, bringing in new ideas and viewpoints into the discussion are the type of things I, as an audience, am always on the lookout for.

This is why I have taken the time to video interview, on this topic, three critical thinkers and analysts of our key activity of our times: communication. As they recently passed by Rome to attend conferences and events they were invited to speak at, I have captured the ideas and visions of media futurist Gerd Leonhard, education and learning researcher George Siemens, and online facilitation and community-building expert Nancy White, on the topic of the future of conferences and events.

Where are we headed? What is preventing us from changing such TV-like approach inside events? How can we transform this one-way lectures into really engaging get-togethers?

Here are some critical but also constructive viewpoints on our present limitations and mistakes as well as some interesting ideas on what the future of conferences and events may look like in the near future.


The Open Format of Conferences - Gerd Leonhard

Duration: 2' 47''

Full English Text Transcription

Gerd Leonhard: I go to a lot of conferences where I speak and it's kind of funny you ask the question.

I think a lot of conferences where I go to, I end up learning more from them than they learn from me. At least I feel that way.

From the participants or the other speakers, and they are actually quite lucky to get paid to go to conferences and also learn from it, which is unusual.

Robin Good: But you go to very special conferences. There are a lot more events than the ones you go to, there are more academic-, business-like, presentations and showcasing of various kinds. I'm sure you've found yourself in some of those, where you actually get to yawn pretty many times during the day.

You want to know how much time before the next break, you can't wait to talk to people instead of sitting down.

How do you feel conferences are heading in that respect? Are they getting more boring or less boring? Are we realizing that maybe something there is not working right? What do you think?

Gerd Leonard: I think many of them are getting more boring, because the level... again, this is because of the web. The web is allowing us all to exchange and to talk already. That's what we do all day long, we talk on blogs, and Twitter, and Facebook, and Skype...

We already have a pretty high level of buzz, right? So when we go to a conference we expect it to be beyond that, much better than that, even.

The best one I went to recently was Mobile Monday in Amsterdam where I spoke, but there were so many good people there, because of the kind of audience, that it was great to network and talk to everyone. And you could learn a lot. Or PICNIC last year in Amsterdam, which is very much a peer-oriented environment.

I think we're going to find the top-down thing demolished.

This idea that I would listen to some CEO talk about how he made lots of money, except for few CEOs, like the Google CEO - I like Eric Schmidt, I would love to hear that - but in general we're going to find these top-down idea rather demolished, in the sense that there's very few people that would deserve that kind of billing.

It's more like we talk to each other. And therefore the open format is going to be taken over in conferences. And the unconference format, the idea of twittering at the same time... All of these things are going to take over and it's going to remove the distance between the speaker and the audience to be much more of a collaborative effort.

When you have real fore leaders.. If I listen to Yochai Benkler or so - I can listen to him for five hours - but when I have sort of people where I am saying "what's new?", that's not that exciting. We have a lot of that in conferences.

That sort of pitching things and people talking to each other about their products and who makes more money... That is going to go away.


Participatory Online Conferences - George Siemens

Duration: 4' 38''

Full English Text Transcription

Robin Good: Conferences and Events. I can't stand anymore going to conference and events and I feel overwhelmed by the desire to jump out of my seat.

I feel consuming by them talking and me being here by this separation of them apparently having been assigned the role of the experts, the knowers of knowledge and we, us, receiving. It feels like very much TV.

Is there a way you feel that - since we're talking in 2.0 about bottom-up, collaboration, sharing, challenging, questioning - is there going to be some osmosis? What do you see in the future of conferences?

George Siemens: I've been dealing for years with the same kind of feeling. I don't know how to put it. On one hand it seems, for me at least, it's kind of like we're past that now.

That view that you're the expert and I have to listen at your feet. If there's anything that I've at least come to think as the Internet as a whole, is that model isn't valid all the time. There are times where it is.

I enjoy sometime listening to personally a good lecture - I'm not sure what your experience is like - but if I have the opportunity to listen to someone who has thought a long about a subject and then understands it critically well, I like listening to a part of a lecture.

But after that I'm not satisfied just listening. I can listen to a lecture for 45 minutes or an hour. Then I want to ask questions, I want to give my opinion, I want to ask the opinions of people sitting beside me. That's where I find my frustration is that conferences.

There's a great statement I often quote by Roy Pea and he says that in certain events, or certain tools I guess, are carriers of previous patterns of reasoning. Which means: We build into our system, our viewpoints at one time, and even when the society around has sort of changes, we keep those viewpoints and we use them to build new systems.

Let's say you look back in 1900s where you would have the expert, the Einstein coming in and he taught you about physics and stuff like that. That model was built into classrooms, even before 1900s. There was the creation of universities, the lecture halls in some cases already did that.

We've just kept that, and now that we have these wonderful participatory tools available, we've still kept that mindset. We've kept that way of thinking, and we still use that in our current conferences.

We've run through university management, we've run through several - I think - very successful online conferences, and we've had as 7800, as highest 25000, people involved in these events. And people who at the end when we kind of have sent out a few letters or a survey and say: "what do you think?", people have said: "this is the best conference I've ever attended".

I think one of the reasons is that they were able to ask questions, they were able to contextualize. They can personalize it to their own experience.

If I'm asked what's the future of conferences, like you're saying, I have to say we're still keeping some of the human contact.

Meeting you here, in Rome, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the food, there's no way an online conference is going to duplicate that, right?

But there's a way to augment it. And the very fact that I was able to connect with you here was exclusively genuine of the fact that we met each other in virtual spaces.

I think it's going to be a merging of both physical and online, so you'll be at a conference and it'll be... let's say you walk in and you use the social network that you have. It should be able to connect you to people who have similar interests. If they know that you're into emerging technology, into pedagogy, it should be able to suggest recommendations of people that you should meet at the event. That's a very low-level functionality. Any good social networking service does that already. But we don't use ii for conferences yet. That's part of the problem.

We've done a little bit of work at AACE. We did a conference this year, an online conference on how to improve conferences. It's called "Spaces of Interactions" and we have people like Teemu Arina and individuals like that coming who really kind of push the envelope to present and talk about the ways that we should extend conferences.

I guess probably the best way of saying "what will conferences look like in the future", it will be much more you and I creating them ourselves as participants, rather than someone creating them for us and telling us what to do. I think we will be the ones to create that for ourselves.


Conferences and Missing Conversations - Nancy White

Duration: 1' 32''

Full English Text Transcription

Nancy White: First I think is a financial model and that people who are in the business of conferences... If we said: "You're capable of having a conference by yourself. Just get a room, get some coffee, and have a conversation", where's their model for making money?

If we say: "Come and talk to everybody who's an expert" - people don't have faith in the expertise of each other, we require some "big name - then we're not going to come.

I think one is: we have been trained to expect the important people at the podium and we're trained to expect that if we pay you'll do the work for me.

Part of that is: the financial market model makes people lazy. We don't take ownership.

How often have you gone and said: "I'm just going to sit here and listen", instead of saying:

"I insist on participating. I won't go unless this is an open space and it's conversational.

I won't go unless you have a place for the speakers to come and be asked any question they want, sitting around with coffee or chocolate.

I won't go unless there's time for us to have and share dinner together - because we know people say different things over dinner with a beer in their hand - and they don't when they are..."

I think we have to demand it, and I think we have to understand that we sometimes still have to pay and do the work. Because if someone pays for the facility and pays for the food, there's a cost for them. But it's still our responsibility to lead, to participate, to engage.

If we think pay means past, we'll never going to get anywhere. And right now I think that's the model.

Originally recorded by Robin Good for MasterNewMedia, and first published on July 22nd, 2009 as "The Future Of Conferences And Events: Critical Viewpoints From Gerd Leonhard, George Siemens And Nancy White".

About the authors


Gerd Leonhard is a media futurist as well as an author and writer, a media and Internet entrepreneur, a strategic advisor, and a keynote speaker & presenter. If you want to get a good feel for what he does, you can check out Gerd's blog MediaFuturist or visit his Youtube channel.


To learn more about George Siemens and to access extensive information and resources on elearning check out Explore also George Siemens connectivism site for resources on the changing nature of learning and check out his new book "Knowing Knowledge".


Nancy White is an online facilitation and community-building expert. Nancy is the owner of Full Circle Associates, a company that develops collaboration and facilitation strategies, communications, planning and Internet collaboration solutions for non-profits, organizations and businesses.

Robin Good -
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posted by Daniele Bazzano on Wednesday, July 22 2009, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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