How Martin Thörnkvist creates space as a context maker

Happyplaces Stories (video)

Having produced conferences, festivals and music clubs for many, many years, I had an epiphany very late in that process. That it is not all about content. That it is not at all about content. Content is not what is most important. Being a curator, a conference or festival programme maker, you always think about content: ‘Who should we invite?’ That is to some extent still the focal point. But I at some point realised that everything that is not the conference is just as crucial to the conference, the meeting or the space that you are creating. I came to understand that context is of equal importance as content.

I think that it is essential for all the things that you really can’t see. And that by themselves don’t make a difference and to sell the whole thing. Things like design, the smell, tactility, the way you greet people to really set the stage and really allow people to relax a little. And feel at home in whatever space you are creating. I had that epiphany in a gallery space, or in a museum in Basel in Switzerland where I went to see an art exhibition. And that is supposed to be all about the art or the pieces on the wall. What I came to realise was that I couldn’t understand it if it wasn’t for the context that was presented to me. What’s between the paintings, why they are chosen, the audio guide there made the context. I started to think about why we are so content focussed in our world and why we all our experiences rely on the things we see and the things that seem cherish-able, instead of all the things that we can’t see that really make us comfortable in a space or in a setting.


Before that, I always had a hard time making conferences, which was my main work at the time, feel interactive enough. We live in a time where meetings and conferences are supposed to be interactive. We cater to the meeting between people. Always, and gosh, we tried a lot of different things, but I always had a feeling that it didn’t really work. I understood that it was because of the expectations weren’t set right. Because we invited people to a conference and in a conference, you want to be in a kind of lean back state. We tried to have round table discussions, lunch conversations around certain topics, but people didn’t seem to be interested. Even though you could sit down with the founder of Foursquare. But why would you have that conversation at the same time as when something else happens what you paid the ticket for? I came to realise how important it is to tell people what to expect.

I started to think about why we are so content focussed in our world and why we all our experiences rely on the things we see and the things that seem cherish-able, instead of all the things that we can’t see that really make us comfortable in a space or in a setting.

And also to think about what the most important interaction of our time is. We always have that feeling that we need to cater for interactions between humans, but what if a conference is about the interactions within humans? And how can we as conference organisers cater for, or help people to have that inner conversation? The inner interaction between your own thoughts and what you are hearing? And that made me think back to that fantastic moment I had at the gallery in Basel, where somebody helped me to understand the content that was presented to me in a better and brighter way. So instead of making people meet more, or better, we tried to help people to think better, to help people to take whatever they hear and implement that into their everyday life. We worked with a design agency, we created a workbook that inspired you to take notes in a different way. With all kinds of exercises you could do throughout the day. And we also became better in presenting the content. So not just reading bio’s like: ‘This is a TED speaker so everybody should listen!’ But we took time to write the story between the talks, on how they were connected and why they are important. And to really invite people into their world. I strongly believe in that, that ‘world making’, to create a good environment for learning. Which is I guess a very important part of conferences and spaces in general.


It really starts with how you approach people. With how you talk to people. What you write, who you invite, but also how you greet people. One thing we did at The Conference, but also stuff that Media Evolution always does for its events and media — the conference that I used to run was run by Media Evolution — we always greeted people by shaking their hands, saying hello to all participants arriving at The Conference. And by doing that and by looking people in the eye, you feel at home, you feel invited. We had that idea from two different places.

I think the church is a great place to steal ideas from.

One was from the Polar Music Prize, where 2,000 famous people go to see a famous singer that receives an award by the king of Sweden. But on the doorstep, the owners of this event shook everybody’s hands. And where they also do that is in church. When you go to church, the priest is always there before the ceremony at the door, saying hello to everybody. I guess they have hundreds of years of experience in creating space, in creating these things. I think it is a great place to steal ideas from.

I think creating good spaces is about surprising people. To try to get people there with as low expectations as possible and then to over-deliver as much as you can.


The other thing that you can do to create worlds and spaces to make people feel comfortable is to try to use design as a tool to onboard people. To figure out a way to translate the graphic design to the site, the invitations, to turn in into three-dimensional objects to put into the space. But also to make things beautiful, thoughtful and to focus on details. And then, I think, creating good spaces is about surprising people. To try to get people there with as low expectations as possible and then to over-deliver as much as you can. The Conference had invited this superfamous world-class singer, Nina Persson from The Cardigans, to perform Lovefool on the second day of the conference. Nobody knew it, nobody expected it, it just happened. And everybody felt super and privileged about being there. These are things that also stick into people’s memory more than talks.

Conference 24/7

As a space making conference maker, I started thinking about how I could do this every day instead of doing this just two days a year. And I realised that one way to do that could be running a hotel. So I have been researching ways with no money and no contacts to start a hotel. Because I think that it shares two essential things with conferences. One is the axis between local and global, and the other is the axis between digital and physical. Where it is very much a digital product up until it is very much a very physical product where you are really in the space. But it is also a space for locals to feel proud about and to visit, but it is also a place to visit from the outside. When you have a good hotel experience, it makes you feel so much more human, and when you have a bad hotel experience, it makes you feel like an animal in the worst sense of that. I want to try to create a hotel. I don’t have a concept, but I know that I have it within me that I can deliver a good hotel experience. If I just get the premises and start doing it.

Room for arts and culture

I’m helping a city development project by figuring out the needs in the community and what to cater for regarding new office buildings and also in the neighbourhood of office buildings and what to install there. I have been doing lots of research and interviews with laptop workers on their needs in the workplace. More specifically not in the workspace what is the desk and the office, but about what is in the immediate surroundings of that. It is interesting to learn how people talk about food, about play, green spaces, arts and culture as a need. Especially when I look at what they have right now when it comes to arts and culture, a lot of people talk about it, but very few use it in their daily work. They don’t go to see an art show or things like that. I really believe that arts and culture could play a significant role in business life now and in the future.

One thing that I came to learn in city development, is the importance for the spaces of being able to learn new things. And not to over design them for one purpose.

I think it is interesting — I have never worked in city development — I always thought about how running a conference was about building a world, creating a world and now I get to do that in the real world. Which is super exciting, but also a big challenge. Because it is different in its timescale. One thing that I came to learn in city development, is the importance for the spaces of being able to learn new things. And not to over design them for one purpose. When you organise a conference or when you create one meeting, it is very much designed for that one occasion. But when you design for a city, it needs to be able to learn from the citizens, the people that are going to use it for an extended period of time. That’s a complete different way of designing, which is a challenge.

Sustainability is about being able to change

I think that it is not so much about who is going to be in the space, as it is about figuring out beforehand how people are going to use spaces. You can see it in parks, with pathways. Where people try to design where to walk, but where people walk in another way. That is not about that those are not the right people walking there, it’s more about people wanting to find their own ways. Really want to find their own ways of going about a city or a building. I am super inspired by Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn.

Sustainability is about building things that change, that are able to be relevant to any moment of time.

That made me think differently about sustainability as a ‘trend’. Sustainability for me was always about creating something that lasts. But through Stewart Brand and his book, I realised that sustainability is instead about building things that change that are able to be relevant to any moment of time. Instead of being very robust, and living its life how it was intended. I think societies, and maybe even conferences benefit a lot of thinking of being adaptable to new people and new ways of thinking, rather than being a robust, highly designed experience.

Collisions of worlds

If you have been a conference person, you will always be a conference person. The one thing that I really miss since I have left The Conference is being a host. Having the privilege to gather people. And to live with the responsibility of a thousand people spending two days, a lot of collective minutes, in the best possible way. I think that is a great privilege and I really miss it. I think a lot of how to merge or make arts and culture and traditional business worlds meet and collide. And use each other in a better way. I’m thinking about formats where that can happen. It’s difficult; it is different economies, different temporalities, but all these people share the same interest from my perspective. If you look into what consumes the minds of artists, it is very similar to what ‘the biggest tech companies of the world’ are developing right now. And it is also apparent that the biggest tech companies in the world are developing technologies with which they don’t know what they should be used for. They are now inviting artists to play around with it to get help figuring that out. I think that is an exciting field. To create a space where people can meet and share ideas on the same topic from different perspectives, from philosophy, history, combined with art and technology. That is what I would like to do somehow, in the future. And also try to figure out formats that are a little deeper and more thorough, more retreat-ish where ten to twelve people spend ten to twelve days to create something together. That would also be an intriguing idea to be the host of.

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