Dispatch 05 — Convening

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To feed a discussion about a potential get-together, a client recently asked me to gather some interesting event formats. After asking for pointers on Twitter, I was asked by a number of people to share my findings. I repurporsed some things from the report, fished some out of my “archives” and decided to first share all of that here with members. The article will likely then be opened up publicly in a few weeks.

The first SXSW Interactive I attended was in 2006. I think there were probably around 6000 people, some of my friends and their more international connections were already saying it was done, too big, uninteresting. Even though you could still meet a lot of interesting (and sometimes well known) people randomly, it was already starting to outgrow the convention center and it was harder to benefit from the vaunted “hallway conversations.” Since then I’ve seen for myself, and read or heard many many times how various events were too big, you couldn’t get in the after party you wanted, there were 30-40 minute lineups to get into certain talks, couldn’t get to someone you wanted to talk to, had no way of meeting the kinds of people you hoped for. And so I’m always spending some attention to new formats or different ways of doing things.

In the mean time I’ve also been “care taker” for the local blogging community, which met in person once a month for a good eleven plus years, started a coworking space where multiple meetups and communities were born, did some matchmaking to play a small part in bringing a European event to Montréal, was one of the co-founders of the local chapter of Creative Mornings, and participated in multiple “camp” or “open space” events. So I’ve been involved from the inside of a good number of small to medium sized events.

Nowadays I’m vaguely imagining what kind of smaller events I’d like. Lets say sub 50 people or even sub 15, where actual conversations can happen, where you’re not missing half of what’s going on, where there is no “sage on the stage” format. Perhaps with some speakers, yes, but always in a more conversational tone and on the condition of also being present as participants, not just as “keynotes.” And actually, there are even a few examples included below that are really more “getting people together to work on something” than anything normally called an event or conference (hence the title “Convening”) but I think the whole spectrum of things included helps reflection in a certain direction.

This is in no way comprehensive, just writing this dispatch I remembered other examples and added them. I’m sure re-reading this in a few weeks I’ll have more ideas. Note that I haven’t attended the vast majority of these events, so how well reality matches up to their websites, I can’t say. They are here for inspiration, not all as recommendations!

Features

First are some of the “features” I look for, encourage you to consider, or would hope to produce myself if involved in getting something together, followed by some of my favorite live examples of those ideas, as well as good reads on convening and organizing.

  • Small size.
  • One track.
  • Space to wander / organized walks or visits.
  • “Speaker dinners” for everyone.
  • Something more interactive than talks and panels.
  • Something co-organized (à la unconference).
  • Questions that aren’t comments and with time to discuss properly.
  • More than yearly (depends on the exact combination of features, but some variations could be held two-three times a year).
  • Ongoing exchanges between events.
  • For some combinations, think of streaming and leaving proper archives to make some form of asynchronous “attending” possible.

Boyer’s dim sum table

The quote below is a footnote in a post from years back but it’s come back to mind a good number of times since then. I’m starting with this one because it’s a good example of what I’m looking for in this dispatch; hints of useful formats, ideas of how to gather people, even when it’s just this small detail: the size of a table. (The actual article is a good read on some of Bryan’s experiences organizing studios, a coworking space, and more.)

Through empirical study conducted over the course of 13 months I’ve concluded that the perfect table for a social gathering of 8-16 people is 2 meters in diameter. At this size a group will be able to maintain a single conversation without any one individual being so distant from their complement on the opposite side that it is not possible for them to discuss. Likewise, the round shape allows all to share a single conversation if they choose, without preventing people from breaking into smaller subgroups.

Hours Beirut

Held last year, ticks a lot of the boxes from my list above. Fewer than fifty people, a mix of activities to create a three day conversation, even though the core programming is a series of speakers. There were common meals, a day of music shows, themed walks around town, and the city itself was picked for how it symbolized the theme. Finally, they had “pop-up talks” at some stages of the walks.

Hours Beirut is a three-day rocket aimed to utilize the energy of a city, the energy of convening a group of humans and a digestive meditative sound experience. The overarching goal is to boost creative and empathetic undertakings. It’s a day of city exploration, a day of talks and a day of music.

Hours Beirut is designed to shine light on perspectives outside of our everyday sight. To twist and bend topics of relevance in our beautiful, yet fucked up, world. To provoke new feelings by intellectual as well as emotional experiences.

Inventing a truly smart city – an interdisciplinary salon in NYC

This one integrates two different formats, and the participants were accompanied by artists and designer. First phase was something like speed dating to have multiple discussions and ideas, while the second phase had students advancing / prototyping some of these ideas, the results were open to the public that night. (Check out the 5 min video for a better idea.)

Together with the environmental artist Natalie Jeremijenko, Matt Jones of Google Creative Lab and Nick Yulman of Kickstarter the guests developed over 150 ideas in speed datings on topics such as privacy or automation in future cities. […]

In the afternoon, the students of «Parson the New School for Design» developed the ideas further into practical solutions. The interdisciplinary teams focused on the needs of various target groups and developed scenarios, services and products to meet the challenges of the ageing society, climate change or solidarity in an increasingly fragmented society.

Future(s) of Power #3: Algorithmic Power

Small scale design event, the selection process was super interesting.

Superflux is holding a discussion to collaboratively explore how we might rise to new challenges to freedom and democracy as we know it. We invite you to submit an application to participate in this event using the link below. We intend to create a space for fair and engaged participation with a small group of around 30 people, so applications will be selected using the principle of sortition. Sortition is a form of random selection used in Ancient Greek democracy for populating assemblies with a representative sample of people, to help make decisions which are informed, fair and deliberate. Guest experts will be on hand to contribute knowledge and advice, but won’t be involved in decision making. […]

Everyone is invited to apply and applications from people of all ages; non-binary individuals; women; BAME individuals; and those who consider themselves disabled are specifically encouraged to ensure fair representation. We hope to actively represent a microcosm of society so this event is as representative as possible. As applications are selected based on random selection, not everyone who applies will be able to attend the event, but we hope to accommodate as many people as possible.

Pilcrow House

Absolutely love this format and the framing of what they want to achieve and how. Dinner for a small group, discussions around a topic. Also, it’s organized by Allison and Sean Blanda who are taking it slow and steady, growing a community around these events.

We follow a version of “Jeffersonian Dinner Rules.” This means:

* Listen. During dinner, there will be a single conversation taking place between all present. There will be time for side convos before and after our delicious meal.

* Trust. What happens at the table stays at the table. Candor is only possible with discretion.

* Be present. Step out if you need to communicate with those outside the room.

* Prepare. We may ask you to do some light reading before attending. Bring your curiosity.

Other examples of events around a meal: Shokunin supper club and Good People Dinners.

In/Visible Talks, Salons

Somewhat like a meetup but I like the “salon” framing, which often announces a mix of speaker and get together.

Salons are ongoing, intimate events that In/Visible Talks hosts throughout the year to to foster dialog and connections in the creative community.

Original Thinkers

Interesting mix. Instead of simply having “panels,” they also have shows and integrate multiple speakers in discussions on a theme, they also include movie representations in the programming. Each show is in a different place.

Ten Shows. Ten Ideas. One Space. Each highly curated show features riveting speakers, unforgettable films, mind-expanding art and performance providing a multi-dimensional look at these individual big ideas.

Helsinki Design Lab, In Studio

I’ve always loved this format and have discussed it with a few people either as is or in a potential “editorial process” format. The link above is to the book detailing their method for a week long studio to have a deeper discussion. Starts from a thorny question, they invite people well versed in the topic to participate in this conversation. The whole thing is well documented and becomes a report.

School of Disobedience’s Seminar

I’m not sure I’d call this an event per se but it definitely shares some elements and I love what they are proposing. Theoretical. Practical. Supports the teams working on projects.

Each seminar consists of two parts, one more theoretical and one very practical, and the heterodox approach to learning and doing is reflected in the diversity of the student body in terms of profession and nationality. […]

We look for concrete outcomes of each seminar and support the teams that are formed in getting their projects off the ground; we offer guidance and a network that reaches far beyond the time and place of each seminar because we believe in collaboration and process. […]

This seminar will invite participants to engage with a variety of such texts, artworks, design projects and films.

Bond

Super focused topic, and the idea of the office hours is something I really like, especially for an event were a lot of the attendees might have similar questions and interests.

Join us for Office Hours, a day of conversation, advice, and short talks from knowledgeable experts and experienced independent creators.

The Next Page

Just one of a few remote events I’ve seen, usually either because it’s for “only” a couple of speakers and they don’t want to host a whole event, or for environmental reasons, not encouraging flying. There was a parallel chat for attendees and the talks are archived online. Mini-trend that’s sure to grow.

How to unconference your birthday

I’ve seen this a few places, this is the best write-up I’ve found. I’m changing decades in March, and vaguely considering organizing one of these for myself, although it’s probably getting a bit late already for planning! Anyway, I like the idea.

… know a lot of really great people. Friends, family, clients, and peers from around the internet. A lot of them fall into more than one category. They form our personal global village. While all of them know us, they often do not know each other.

So every now and then we throw a party to get them in the same place. Not just a party, but a combination of a conference with a barbecue party. One day of intensive interaction, followed by a party on the next day.

It’s exciting to bring all those different people together, and see how well they get along.

Blogging the City

From back in 2012, I’m including it here because it was one of the first times I saw the afternoon and night programming idea. One program in the afternoon in one venue for those who can leave work, and a night program in a different venue, in a different style.

Blogging the City will have an afternoon program with a limited number of seats, that will take place at Pakhuis de Zwijger’s. The night program, that starts at 20:00 h., is being held in the Studio Grote Zaal.

The Snarkmarket Seminar

From what I can tell I’m not sure if this happened and it’s only very loosely something one would call an event but the original idea was definitely a format I find extremely intriguing.

Second, we have to create the syllabus.Starting Sunday, January 6th, we’ll have a weekly discussion led by a different seminar participant, focusing on a different set of texts. During the month of December, each participant will volunteer the text (or texts!) they want to discuss during their week at the virtual podium. It can be anything, of any vintage – a video, a book, an essay, a story, a game, an artwork – just as long as it says something fascinating to you about media today. Once we’ve identified the full set of texts, we’ll arrange a lecture calendar (with a few breaks for holidays and whatnot).

Weekly discussions get underway the week of January 6th.We’ll try to find a regular day and time that’s agreeable to as many members of the group as possible. The day after each discussion, the next participant at the virtual podium will introduce us to their text with a post telling us why they find it fascinating. Our weekly homework assignment is to participate in the comment thread about this post (you’re not getting graded on responses, so they can be short; “I’m not sure I saw the same resonances you did in this video” is a perfectly legitimate reaction).

How to run a coffee morning

Matt Webb’s quick write-up of a coffee morning, probably the most lightweight format here. I like the idea so much that I’ve been doing this myself extremely irregularly under two different names. Currently under the name Les ponts.

Convening not chairing. I announce a week ahead of time, and send reminders. I circulate my own perspective afterwards. If I’m having relevant meetings, I ask people to come to the coffee morning instead; that helps set a tone. I also collect names: Everyone gets added to a mailing list where they get all the updates. But at the thing itself, I just chat.

FutureFest, The Long Conversation

Great idea, will be looking for post-event coverage to see how it worked.

For the first time at FutureFest 2020 we will be hosting a Long Conversation. Over 30 surprise speakers will take it in turns to interview and be interviewed in an epic relay race that will challenge your perspective and leave you feeling inspired about the future.

Further Reading

  • Priya Parker: How to Have Transformative Gatherings. Podcast episode of Hurry Slowly. I haven’t re-listened to extract quotes but I loved this discussion and it provides good insights for small scale convening. “The importance of having a specific, disputable purpose for your gathering; Why the best gatherings give people permission to express themselves in new ways; When you’re inviting guests, remember: ‘your who is your what.’”
  • 10 Lessons from Hosting Idea Exchange Dinners – Self Starter’s Guide. “About a year ago, I started thinking about putting together a meetup centered around sharing ideas, a sort of intellectual show and tell. I wanted it to be rigorous yet unpretentious, and intimate — no loud crowded room or straining to see a stage, but rather small and comfortable.”
  • How to: disturb the public. “In an effort to defy this standardization, a group of cultural agitators from around the world gathered to reimagine what an institutional event can be, which publics it can serve, and how.”
  • How to Host or Attend a “Tiny” Conference. “My favorite trips have had around 10-12 attendees. I found this to be small enough to spend plenty of time to deep-dive with everyone on the trip.  This is large enough to enjoy the full-group sessions, but small enough to break into small groups of several 2-4 person conversations at times.”
  • Event Experience Design / Service Design Drinks Berlin

Some favourite I haven’t attended


Header image: Mini park in Memphis, photo by Khara Woods on Unsplash.

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