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Conferences are dead - long live unconferences

Image credit: Unsplash

With social distancing the new normal, “pivoting to virtual” has been a saviour for many conference organisers.

But in the process it’s revealed something most of us have long known: conferences are not just about their content. They are as much about the connections and serendipitous moments that participants encounter.

And it’s something that is proving very difficult to replicate online.

So are conferences doomed?

We think not.

In fact we have a bold prediction: we are going to see the renaissance of conferences.

No, not the tired old Death-by-PowerPoint variety. We mean the OG version. Conferences that bring people together to discuss and exchange ideas. Where participants congregate to share experiences and make decisions that help resolve an issue or remove a roadblock. One with a clear set of outcomes that those who join have a collective responsibility to action when they leave.

These types of conferences are referred to as unconferences. Actually, we think it should be the other way around: unconferences are the true conferences. Most modern-day conferences are nothing more than (yet another) one-way information channel.

This way is doomed. People’s attention spans are now split between “urgent” emails to screaming children to the broken vase in the corner of the living room that needs hoovering. Then there’s the dreaded Zoom fatigue. It means that focus and engagement at such conferences is definitely worse than when we were able to stage them in person, in turn making their value highly questionable.

We would argue this diminishing value and yearning for something “more” from conference participation was already a trend, even when staging them IRL was possible.

For clues as to “what’s next”, look at any leading event on any issue in any industry, and we can guarantee that at least part of the agenda is in the unconference format. Meaning it features an outcome-driven agenda built around the know-how and expertise of its participants.

So, we’ve come full circle - back to the origins of what a conference or gathering is and does: convening communities to discuss issues in the search for solutions.

Importantly, the quest doesn’t matter if it’s in person or online. The same principles apply. Hence, the journey to outcome-based conferences that drive real change doesn’t need to wait for life to return to “normal” - whatever that might mean.

- Team UC


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