The Conference 2018: The good, the real & the in-between

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Where we learned how it feels to shit in zero gravity

and other interesting things.

Words and photos by Sabina Fratila

 

There’s a trend I noticed recently, of writing reviews for cool events half a year after they happened. So I’m officially adopting this trend as an excuse for only now reviewing the wonderful The Conference from early September this year.

Someone once told me that the best event ideas are born while attending bad events. This could be the case for the organizers behind The Conference, confessed conference haters. During my talk with program manager Cecilia Frankel, she pointed out how most conference formats these days are still so passive, with little interaction among participants, and almost none between speakers on stage and attendees in the crowd. How it all feels formal and scripted. That’s why The Conference did things a bit differently. Here are a few of them:

They didn’t have a so-called green room for speakers, which were expected to mingle with the rest of the participants throughout the day, and throughout the week.

 
 
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I mingled with Regina Fasel and Rudolf Hilti from  THE HUS.institute , a Liechtenstein-based think-tank proposing their microstate as a living test-lab for innovations that are meant to shape our future.

I mingled with Regina Fasel and Rudolf Hilti from THE HUS.institute, a Liechtenstein-based think-tank proposing their microstate as a living test-lab for innovations that are meant to shape our future.

 
 
 

The Conference lasted 2 days, but the organizers planned a week of activities and meetups outside the main venue, packaged as The Festival. All speakers were encouraged to stay in Malmö for longer and helped to organize their week there. Most of them stayed at the same cool hotel, where we all had late night parties and did many other crazy things we’d never admit to.

 
 
Charlotta Ahlberg  and  Oobah Butler  enjoying some beers

Charlotta Ahlberg and Oobah Butler enjoying some beers

 
 
 

They put a skinny-dipping session on that list of activities. If all else fails, jumping naked in the Øresund with other strangers will definitely work as an icebreaker. No pictures available from that session, though.

One day before the conference, they hosted a big family dinner where anyone could join and break bread with the speakers and the local community. I got to talk about neuroscience and Swedish accents with Charlotta Ahlberg and Alexander Silva Lopera. It was cool.

 
 
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For the 2 conference days, they set up a “Lunch with new friends” thing, so we were randomly assigned to a group of people to eat lunch with. That’s the main way I got to connect with other participants. It wasn’t awkward.

 
 
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They had this quirky little workbook to replace the customary event agenda. It included assignments to complete during the conference, like drawing the portrait of a person you met, or reflecting on the reason why you joined the event. Also, a Battleship game. I liked that.

 
 
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And then there was the content. This might be a good moment to admit that I also kind of hate conferences. A little bit. Particularly some tech conferences. It only takes attending a couple of them to make you start rolling your eyes every time you hear the words crypto, self-driving, adtech, fintech, AI, VR, AR, bots, cyberattacks, hyper-growth, unicorns, moonshots, VCs, LPs, product-driven, design-driven, human-centred, industry-leading, cutting-edge, and the list goes on. Sure, technology is so fascinating these days that we feel an insatiable need to talk about it. All of it, all the time, on all channels, via all devices, at hundreds of conferences. But technology is also so complex that we often end up feeding on the thrill at its surface without ever going really deep. As Cecilia would call it–ephemeral knowledge.

This is why I was really, really happy to hear festival opener Indy Johar introduce the need to talk about the less exciting aspects of technology, the boring things. The unglamorous, the under-valued, the serious and very important aspects of technology. He set the stage for two days of talks that, by and large, focused on: what is real, what is fake and how much is in between, how technology is changing the nature of truth, the dynamics of influence, how we build systems of trust and democracy in such a reality. All this was filtered through the minds of filmmakers, MIT professors, synthetic biologists, astrobiologists, digital hippies, writers, journalists, architects, inventors of real fictional things, children’s book authors, and the occasional innovation manager.

It was the most unlikely group of people to be having the most unlikely conversations about technology. That’s what made The Conference great.

We covered troll farms, 32 million men trying to have an affair with bots, the Digital Minister of Taiwan, why we should turn our domesticated world back into a wild one, sequencing DNA, our kids’ really busy schedules, projected playgrounds, civic hackers, bullshit jobs, the uncertain realness of chicken breast, how it feels to be a Roomba, and how technology is electricity that loves.

It was awesome.