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To Conference or Not To Conference

Creative Commons: Close to 1,000 delegates attended the International Green Building Conference 2011

“I discovered that I stopped going in to hear the speakers, and I would spend all my time chatting with people in the lobby about what they’re working on. The real value of these events was the conversations and the relationships that were created between people. What if a conference was about conversations and relationships, not content?”

I came across that quote from venture capitalist David Hornik in reading Adam Grant’s Give and Take. I don’t know why anybody does go to a standard conference anymore. There are so many ways to gather information of the sort delivered at conferences, yet there are so few meaningful ways to “gather” relationships. Relationships inherently require a behavior that is at odds with typical conferences, which is why relationships with genuine connection and belonging arise in conference lobbies, hotel bars, and breakfast rooms.

The rise of the so called Unconference is a reaction to this, and they have the merit of being participant directed and, to some extent, agenda free or attendee-derived. The pitfall Unconferences face is that they still have a mediating structure. They can tend towards outcomes or problem solving, instead of allowing for the possibility inherent in uncertainty at the fringes of our experience. As Sartre said, “We are our choices,” which can be a frightening responsibility, especially when we can be comforted by the preprogramming of a conference or even attendee-driven Unconference content.

Sherry Turkle identifies our inability to control the unexpected as one reason why we fear conversation. We don’t need conferences. We can benefit from Unconferences. But what we must have is conversation at every professional and personal point in our lives.

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