What can conferences achieve? Why do we go to the great expense of holding them?
I have been to two conferences in two weekends, and they could not possibly have been more different.
TAM London 2009 was a meeting aimed at humanists, skeptics, scientists and atheists. There were many notable, highly entertaining speakers – from the cause célèbre Simon Singh to comedians like Tim Minchin. For the privilege of seeing all of these speakers in one go, guests paid up to £200, with discounts of only £10 for students or members. It was incredibly entertaining and perhaps gave some sense of community to people who do not otherwise bond based on their beliefs. However, from what I could see it ultimately served as a fundraiser for the James Randi Education Foundation, a non-profit which seeks to educate the public about pseudo-science. With this money, it will pursue its aims
Power Shift 2009 (London), on the other hand, was a conference organised by the UK Youth Coalition on Climate Change. It cost about £20 to attend. There were talks held throughout the weekend – but usually aimed at young people with short attention spans, lasting no longer than 15 minutes, and aiming to inspire or lead by example. Over the course of the weekend, participant learned campaigning skills based on public narrative, and bonded in gradually larger groups through the use of story-telling. It was very 2.0 – training plus inspirational examples plus social networking, all in one weekend. It culminated in a day of action this Monday, with flash-mobs on the South Bank and in Parliament Square – video here and Guardian coverage here. Not only did this generate a media-friendly campaign action that generated decent press coverage, the shared experiences of the weekend can be built for future action. In my mind, this is a far more effective and lasting way to use a weekend of like-minded people coming together.
So to those of you organising conferences, take heed: tapping into the networking aspect of conferences, usually reserved for corridors and coffee-breaks, can lead to an entirely different experience for attendees and a lasting effect.