The Conference is the conference that every conference should be like, but then isn’t

Once a year in Malmo, Sweden, The Conference gathers 1000 people to explore the complexities of the digital world. As it was my first time attending I wanted to share my notes on what makes it special.

When you attend lots of tech conferences you know that 8 out of 10 are bad. They are too big; too commercial; poorly curated; badly communicated. There’s overpriced food; awful networking sessions; pointless panel discussions— the list goes on. You leave these conferences exhausted, feeling empty inside and with your pocket full of business cards that you want to throw away the next day.

When a conference offers a different experience it’s likely not by coincidence, but by design. The Conference is one of those places. Here’s what I think makes the difference:

1. Curation that brings in new perspectives

At The Conference I haven’t heard of 90% of the speakers before. Almost everyone I saw is a practitioner: they’re busy working on stuff and only occasionally share about their learnings. As an organizer this means going the extra mile. It takes 10x more time to prepare these talks than booking a keynote a person has given many times before.

One of the talks I really enjoyed: Maria Malho from Finnish think tank Demos on hacking democracy and the new principles of Universalism.

2. All female keynotes, all female panels

A tech conference in 2019.

3. It’s the experience that matters

The Conference is designed to facilitate these experiences. The breaks are 20 minutes, not 10. You pick your own lunch box and randomly seat next to someone you don’t know. You talk about the talk you just saw and not about what you do. Weird and wonderful musicians introduce each keynote. A 300 people dinner in an abandoned shipyard kicks off The Conference. That’s what stays.

The 300 people family dinner to kick off The Conference.

4. The audience flows

There’s a flow that works. There are almost no empty seats in the rooms and no long lines to wait to get in. It feels packed and yet there’s enough space for everyone. I have no idea about the design principles behind this, but The Conference does it really well.

The area where people mingle between the stages.

5. Vegan and vegetarian food all the way

Good food & drink = happy humans.

6. An eye on sustainability

The Mug Motel. You write your name under your mug and keep it there throughout the conference. Someone took my mug though. Who took the Severin mug?

7. A design that’s playful and fun

Why does it matter? There are smarter people than me to explain this, but I believe it wires your brain the right way. It’s playful and fun. It combines your digital experience with your real world experience. Again, it’s the experience that stays and The Conference’s design greatly supports that.

This is The Cloud Stage.

8. The Archive is up to date as we speak

All talks from this year’s The Conference are online now, two days after it took place. So are 300+ talks from the previous years. With the level of curation adding up year after year, The Conference builds a serious resource and legacy that few others can match.

Another favorite of mine: Darius Kazemi’s talk about social solutions to social networks.

9. A team that cares

That’s not really something you can teach. It’s just something I believe most other conferences lose along the way as they grow, sell tickets, make sponsorship packages or do whatever it takes to stay relevant.

People that care like to give hugs. Hugs are good.

Now in its 10th year The Conference only seems to get better at what they were already good at. It feels effortless when you’re there but I believe it’s the result of years of attention to detail, passion, curiosity and care.

Thank you for bringing this group of people together and let us leave inspired, enriched and full of new encounters.

Full disclosure: co — matter was a curating partner at this year’s The Conference.

The aim of this article is not to endorse The Conference but to share my personal interpretation of what makes a good conference in 2019.

If you’re interested in another perspective on the futures of conferences, curation and critical dialogue I recommend this interview with IAM’s Andrés Colmenares.

All photos by jesperberg.se and brakss.com via The Conference.

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