Last week I attended the Creative Capital Conference in Amsterdam. I enjoyed it thorougly but to my own surprise the stories I told colleagues and others afterwards were mainly negative. Now I know what bothered me: there was hardly any connection between the content and the form of the conference. The content was predominantly very good. The form however did not reflect that at all, in fact conveyed the complete opposite message. I will turn to the content of the conference in other postings but first I have to get my annoyance about the form of my chest.
The subject of the conference was creativity and the role of creativity in innovation and stimulating knowledge driven economies. The form did not reflect that:
It started of all right when the moderator announced “two days of intense conversations”. Ok! Let’s do!
Then Amsterdam’s mayor Job Cohen and Judith Kraanendonk of the ministry of education, culture and science, read aloud in appallingly poor English (even to my ears, a non-native speaker of English) what their civil servants had written down for them. Long boring sentences, and nocontact at all with the audience.
Two key-notes followed. The one by Charles Leadbeater was great, although not much new stuff for my ears. His conversational tone, use of space and choice of words was excellent. Charles Landry was a bit less effective, mainly because he seemed to try to want to convey too much. Afterwards there was time for Q&A, but the moderator used most of that time to summarize and ask questions himself.
Lunch saw a flurry of animated conversation untill we were tapped on the shoulder to make our way to the first break-out session on ‘Open Innovation’. Frans Nauta, who moderated, started the session very well by inviting us to discuss in two’s of what associations we had with the term ‘Open Innovation’. The outcome was not much used afterwards in my view, and after two short introductions by Leadbeater and Gerjan van der Walle (Philips Research) we found ourselves in a top-down moderated discussion format that allowed too little space for people to speak their minds, and in fact were cut off a lot.
Also I got the distinct impression the moderator was only picking up on the things that fitted in his preconceived picture of the public agenda that the conference should yield as outcome. Process was dominant, and a lot has remained unsaid and unexplored because of it. Leadbeater’s contribution saved the session, as did the conversations directly afterwards with some of the people who attended. I would have liked to talk to Frans Nauta afterwards but he immediately donned his coat and left.
The second session ‘A climate for creative industries’ was a disaster. Our creative climate got destroyed by 90 minutes of death by powerpoint. I saw at least 4 people (10% of the audience) fall asleep, and I have never heard people talk about creativity in such a monotone way. Content-wise Richard Smith-Bingham of Nesta from the UK was the most interesting as he had lessons and experiences to share, whereas the other two presenters were mainly talking about things that they were planning to do in the future. At a certain point I reached the end of my politeness and left the room to find more engaging conversation in the foyer.
The get-together for drinks afterwards was great. Loads of interesting people with great stories, lots of energy. During dinner I had a chance to talk to Richard Smith of Nesta, before he had to catch a flight back to the UK.
Day two started with three good key-notes, by Graham, Himanen and Ito. Joi was the last to present and his inspired story energized the room. When he was done everyone was eager to discuss. Before that could happen however Michiel Schwarz who moderated, took all that energy away by talking himself extensively, even though he started off with saying “now we move to questions from the audience”. Someone in the row next to me said “If he wants to present that much, he should have applied for a key-note.” Soon everybody was getting restless and started looking forward to lunch, especially when the moderator allowed one person to promote her own projects and work for minutes on end without interrupting her. All energy was dissipated and left unused, a total shame.
During lunch I had to leave. The public agenda we were supposed to come up with that was drafted later in the afternoon looks flimsy to me, but I take that as a reflection of the format chosen for this event, and not of the creativity of the people who attended. I applaud Kennisland and the Waag Society for organising this conference and bringing us all together, but I think the format of the event lacked all imagination and creativity. (Except for things that didn’t contribute much such as a gimmick in the conference package and artsy videos displayed on screens in the plenary room during the key-notes.
For a next time it might be useful to look into incorporating Open Space elements, or think about what makes a good conference. I would gladly help out in the idea-forming stage.
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A good amount of your criticism relates to having an ineffective moderator, or poor speakers, rather than an ineffective form of the conference.
I think it’s great form to give over the floor to an expert in a field, like Joi Ito, to give them the opportunity to change or evolve our thinking. If I had the choice between a free-form conversation and a keynote by Steve Jobs, I would take Steve’s engaging presentation any day.
That said, there are good speakers and not so good speakers, so part of the issue is improving the quality of their speaking skills in a way that engages the audience. And obviously there are good moderators and no so good moderators.
Rather than overhaul the form of conferences, I think an evolutionary path would be to have shorter and better presentations, longer and better moderated discussions, and more breakout sessions in between where participants can get to know one another and dialogue about how to apply the new ideas.
Tracking conversations about making events more interesting
Facilitators Chris Corrigan and Nancy White have posted ideas on how to make conferences more interesting. Online conversation trackers make it possible to find who is discussing this and other topics.