Why are international conferences so bad, and what can be done about it?

Delhi logoLast week I attended the OECD’s 4th World Forum on Measuring Wellbeing. Actually, I sampled it, ducking out to look at Oxfam programmes in Delhi, meet people and give a couple of lectures in local universities. Lots of people do this, so it ought to have a name – conflirting? Condipping? Any better suggestions? My overall impression was that official interest in well-being and its measurement continues to grow, but has moved to a national level, where numerous governments are seriously trying to put it into practice (here’s where the UK has got to, big report due next month). Although it has set up its 36 country ‘Better Life Index’ (with a funky interactive website where you can construct your own measure of well-being) and has launched the wikiprogress site, the OECD is not driving the debate as it was when I attended the previous Forum in Busan in 2010, (many fewer delegates this time around, and not much new in the debates). That is probably a good thing – national action and experimentation is what really matters. Back to conflirting, because despite the hard work and dedication of the OECD staff, I suspect one of the reasons people do it is because many international conferences are so mind-numbingly dull, and I’m afraid much ofboring-conference this one followed the standard pattern. A few ‘keynote speakers’, bleary with jetlag, stumble through their papers (Joe Stiglitz and several politicians whose names escape me), or give a speech on their current interest, completely ignoring the subject of the conference (Jeff Sachs). Dry-as-dust panels of disconnected presentations – chairing is feeble in keeping to time and/or panels are over-stuffed with speakers, so there is never enough time for questions or interaction between the speakers. As the days pass, fewer people turn up (and interestingly, start to abandon smart clothing – everything gets more casual). Even if they do, most people are on their phones doing their emails or tweeting about the meeting (guilty as charged). Often, the only really useful activity is the networking on the margins (and in the bars, quite memorably so in Delhi, but that’s another story), but conferences take no account of this in their design, except to allow lots of coffee breaks (when those survive encroachment by over-running panels). In terms of the timesuck of highly qualified people, and the money involved, this seems spectacularly amateurish/cavalier, especially when compared to the huge investment in improving the impact of research and development programming. So come on multilaterals and funders, what about funding/designing a ‘Conference for Impact’ programme. What would you do differently? Some ideas: Narrow the agenda, broaden the minds: Set a specific question to be answered by all participants. At the same time as narrowing the question, broaden the range of disciplines involved – the Wellbeing conference was largely made up of government and multilateral officials and economists, (with the odd token NGO like me). What about philosophers? Religious leaders like the Buddhist abbot we consulted in Busan? Psychologists? Psychoanalysts? Avoid academic conference formats, which seem to be the most stultifying. Panel presentations plus Q&A has to be one of the least productive ways to spur creative thinking. Import some of the less cringeworthy methods we use in NGO discussions – groupwork, world cafes, speeddating, sandpits and other innovative formats. I’m sure the private sector has lots of others. Powerpoint-poisoning Sort out the presentations: Ban anyone from reading out a paper; find a way to limit Powerpoints to a maximum of 20 words per slide (and urge speakers to use images); install amber and red lights on the mikes, which cut the sound off after the speaker goes into the red. Maximum of 3 speakers per panel, and ask the audience to buzz with their neighbour before going into Q&A, to get some energy back into the room. Set up a feedback system: A public Ebay-type ratings system to show which speakers/conferences were best. As an extreme method, adopt instant audience feedback, Occupy-style (thumbs up from audience if they like the speaker, thumbs down if they don’t) or a twitter wall behind the speaker to show how they’re going down with the public. Avoid distractions: One of the reasons people got more involved in Busan may have been the lack of opportunities for conflirting. Delhi on the other hand is stuffed with institutions people want to visit. And (provided the other factors are dealt with to create a useful event), maybe choosing a state-run hotel where the internet keeps going down (as it did in Delhi) is not such a bad idea after all. Any other conference braindeath survivors want to add suggestions? And here are some previous, slightly more highbrow, reflections on the purpose of conferences. I probably won’t get invited to any more now. Oh well.]]>

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14 Responses to “Why are international conferences so bad, and what can be done about it?”
  1. Contruancy, I think could be the word….
    Totally agree with your observation about (most) conferences, but suggest, if you want to experience something different, you find an excuse to make your way to CEPA’s annual symposium, this year with the overarching theme “reimagining development” – http://www.cepa.lk/symposium2012/
    We promise that you will be part of a new, exciting, meeting of minds in South Asia, no chance to be a contruant or to be poisoned by power point or Sri Lankan cuisine… yes?

  2. Michiel Verweij

    I agree with the observation. People just repeat mainstream thinking (that you know for any given sector after two meetings).
    my suggestion is: send other people from your organization to these conferences. Give them a possibility to earn that experience. It is always the same group of people that has all the international trips and give lectures at unis.

  3. Most global youth events that I attended over the past months were ridiculously bad – and it would have made very little difference if most of them hadn’t happened.
    The regular circle of attendees seems content with expecting nothing more but a dull conference—about which they tweet how life-changing it has been nonetheless—but what they really come for is the fringe networking.
    It’s because this networking effect has become central to people’s expectations that so many conferences continue to be so frustratingly bad – there is no ambition, no force, no motivation to change them to the better.
    You don’t need good presentations for the networking to be effective, on the contrary: having many sessions that you can leave without feeling guilty helps the networking on the sides a lot.
    I am not quite sure how to resolve this though. Built networking into the programme?

  4. Cee

    Fold all aid conferences into one. The annual ur-conference, if you will. During their career, all aid workers must undertake at least one pilgrimage to this conturbation. And never mind any structured content. The networking would be phenomenal, as would the hangovers. And the other 51 weeks of the year we’d all get a lot more done.

  5. Erin Hohlfelder

    I really enjoyed this post and fully identify with many of the problems you raise. I’m always surprised by the lack of any real disagreement on conference panels; you’ve largely got panelists agreeing with one another, in front of an audience that largely agrees with the panelists. A quick way to make things more interesting would be to find speakers willing to stick their necks out and share divergent views (ones that may even conflict with the overall narrative of the conference). That might spur real, or at least interesting, discussion worth hanging around for.

  6. Mike Shanahan

    I like the sound on the “unconference” approach, as Bora Zivkovic describes in this blog post about the last Science Online conference.
    Delegates shape the agenda together using wikis so everyone can communicate and plan in advance. There is less of a presenter / audience divide and much more time for networking. In effect, the focus and time on the programme shifts from dull lectures to stimulating discussion.

  7. Shupiwe Suffolk

    I suppose you have to ask why there is always money in budgets for conferences? They clearly provide very little impact and so why put them in the budget in the first place?
    I am allowed to be cynical I think as I am at a regional workshop as I write this which I think are like the shot glass version of conferences – a stronger quicker does of the mundane.

  8. Lots of conferences ARE exactly like Duncan points them out to be, and we all know what several people have pointed out, that it’s the networking that is useful, whether it is at the coffee breaks, the interaction in the bar (provided you are part of the set that is used to that type of thing), or in some sectors, the men’s loo. Agree with Michiel Verweij that organisations need to diversify their conference participation, and give younger colleagues the opportunity to experience, learn from the (even if it’s bad) experience – it’s true that it is almost always the usual suspects that are at a conference. But what I would like to point out as I did in my first post is that there are lots of us who are trying to do things differently. In the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development (www.ifrtd.org) and some of its collaborative networks (e.g. ATNESA, http://www.atnesa.org) we experimented with a number of different formats, as we do here at CEPA (www.cepa.lk) This is because we are serious about getting the biggest bang for our bucks (of which we often don’t have enough) and about actually using the conference format not just as an expert spout of knowledge, but as an interactive space where we sought to inform, influence and inspire, mostly inspire. But these alternative spaces, however nice their websites, rarely attract the big boys and girls, so the mainstream conferencing goes on with its attendant contruancy. Incidentally, a big player that did a very different and stimulating event, one needs to recall BMZ’s Minds for Change Forum in Berlin last December (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlkmEo2firE)

  9. John Hammock

    It is very clear that national governments are beginning to take up the measurement of wellbeing and multidimensional poverty. The key now is to ensure that their efforts are solid and rigorous methodologically, and this will require increased training and understanding of how to operationalize these efforts.
    I might also comment that the evening before the start of the OECD World Forum, the Centre for Bhutan Studies launched its book-length analysis of the Gross National Happiness Index, with its nine dimensions covering many aspects of wellbeing. This is a step forward. The Extensive Analysis of the GNH Index can be found here: http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/An%20Extensive%20Analysis%20of%20GNH%20Index.pdf

  10. James Boyle

    Put Down the Champagne, Pick Up the Computer Mouse: For solar power to reach poor consumers, the focus must be on results
    Next Billion
    January 24, 2013
    By Yotam Ariel
    Yotam Ariel runs a free online database (www.bennu-solar.com/resources), and provides market intelligence and solutions for businesses and organizations that are active in the sector.
    On Wednesday, the 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos launched under the theme “Resilient Dynamism.” Although I have never attended Davos, the international gathering of dignitaries does remind me somewhat of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) conference, ‘Sustainable Energy Strategies in Low and Middle-Income Economies,’ in November. That forum invited experts from all over the world to meet in Milano, Italy and find ways to solve energy poverty. I did attend the UNIDO conference, and frankly, I don’t think it worked. For me, it actually felt like a large step backwards.

  11. James Boyle

    Global climate talks: If at the 17th you don’t succeed
    The 18th UN Conference on climate change negotiations has just started in Doha.
    This column suggests that the probability of success is a mere 2.3%. Recently, over $100 million per year was spent on fruitless negotiations. Having flogged, ever harder for 18 years, the dead horse of legally binding emission targets, the UN should close that chapter and try something new.

  12. Some ideas:
    Make people pay to attend. If they pay they will not stand idly while the organisers bore them to death. Also, if people do no pay, organisers would know there is no demand for their event.
    There should be a quota to limit the number of unnecessary conferences
    We need a registry of events and conferences to avoid unnecessary (because there are necessary ones) overlaps. Maybe everyone should use Eventbrite and search for similar conferences before starting one.
    Ban keynote speakers who preach to the converted -what is the point of travelling half way across the world to learn something that your colleagues and friends have been telling you about already?
    Make them about interesting ideas not boring projects (http://wp.me/pYCOD-iE)
    Make them about big ideas and not narrow focused so that anyone can participate (http://www.battleofideas.org.uk)