What makes a conference, The conference?

Two weeks ago I got the exciting opportunity to speak at and attend The Conference in Malmö, Sweden. The Conference is a tech conference, but it’s one that focuses more on the implications that emerging technology has on humans. To use a specific example from the event itself: it’s less about the “how” of building artificial intelligence and more about what in the fresh hell that means for the rest of us (spoiler alert: we’re all f*cked).

Now that I’ve had some time to decompress and get my work email back to Inbox 0, I thought I’d reflect on my time there and share what made The Conference different. Even though I spoke at the event, this post is mostly written from the experience of being a conference attendee — and the fact that there is little distinction between the two is another way in which The Conference shines.

Diversity. But, like, actually.

Oh, you saw this one coming, didn’t you? From the beginning The Conf has been upfront about its goal of women making up 50% of the speaker line-up. That commitment is one of the reasons I was excited to participate. But we’ve all seen conferences inflate their diversity numbers by pumping four women into the obligatory “women in tech” panel. Heck, I’ve been on that panel a few times myself. What I loved about this conference was seeing other women talk about their work, accomplishments, and expertise. When the subject of harassment did come up (as it should as an unfortunate reality of our lives on the internet) the speakers approached it through an academic lens, examining the psychology behind why harassment happens and the methodology of how to end it.

There was also diversity beyond just gender. I got to hear from speakers all around the world, from Sweden to The UK to Jordan, which challenged my Americentrism and offered a fresh perspective on what I thought were exhausted topics like the future of labor and security.

It’s like being on vacation while traveling for work and I am super into that.

Many conferences don’t take enough advantage of the unique surroundings that inspire us to do creative work. For The Conference, Malmö was more than just the backdrop, it was the star of the show. The city’s presence and unique history was imbued into several aspects of the event: from a renovated slaughterhouse as the venue, to catering by a local chef, a beer crafted specifically for The Conference by a local microbrewery, side events hosted by local start-ups, free bikes and additional activities that encourage you to explore Malmö.

Maybe it’s just me, but something I struggle with at conferences is that I hate sitting still, so put me in an auditorium with only one source of stimuli and after a few hours I’m done for. While this can be solved with thoughtful pacing, isn’t it much more fun to incorporate what’s outside the convention center walls into the learning itself? Even for the locals in attendance, I hope seeing the best of their city showcased was a source of pride. Malmö opened its arms to me and I left Sweden feeling invested in this city and its future as it transitions from its industrialized roots into a formidable hub for technology.

Design is in everything. So can we talk about something else?

I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of talks people give at conferences. There are the detailed talks, that hone in on a single, specific problem and describe the steps taken to solve it. Then there are the more theoretical talks that use examples from different fields to support an overarching theme or argument. Both of these are beneficial, but personally the latter has always resonated more with me. I find talks about making museum tours actually fun or filming documentaries about sharks more relatable than those about designing other apps. It’s an engaging exercise to abstract the lessons the shark documentarian has learned and apply it to my own work. By contrast, I take being presented specific solutions with a grain of salt. What worked for one really specific app doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for the product I work on. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but think of it this way: in your own work, would you rather be told what to do or pushed in the right general direction and allowed to form your own conclusions?

This is just a long winded way of saying that there were many unexpected speakers and subjects at The Conference. Very few of them were actually about design execution. It’s a shame that some organizations won’t support employees attending conferences unless they directly mirror their role and responsibilities. I learned just as much about myself and my approach to design from hearing about video games, the effects of capitalism on the future of work, women’s reproductive health, and biological model organisms.

The irony here is that I did talk in specificity about BuzzFeed’s unique problems in the course of my own presentation. Whoops!


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