Top 10 Contemporary Cross-Disciplinary Conferences
Ideas in real life, or how to increase the statistical probability of finding a clown, Malcolm Gladwell, and a rocket scientist in the same room.
By Kirstin Butler
It’s no secret that we’re huge TED fans here at Brain Pickings, but we also follow other conferences with a great deal of interest — ambitious alternative events determined to make oft-repeated phrases like “design thinking” and “interdisciplinary innovation” mean something. These expansive — but not prohibitively expensive — experiences also aim to create communities that live beyond the initial flurry of inspiration. And while we certainly don’t believe the world needs gratuitous gatherings of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, we do believe in incubating ideas and connecting inspired changemakers.
So here’s a list of the top-10 non-TED alternative live conferences — and we use the term loosely — bound to make your brain sparkle.
Named after Thomas Edison’s dictum, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% Perspiration,” the 99% conference has a unique raison d’être: “making ideas happen.” In a twist to traditional conference talks, the speakers are asked to share the stories behind the execution of their great ideas, rather than the ideas themselves. (And with a brand-name lineup featuring Michael Beirut and Seth Godin, attendees were already familiar with the speakers’ main ideas anyway.)
Inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s famous invite-only hacker summit, Foo Camp, BarCamp borrowed from the hacker slang foobar to create a set of guidelines for an alternative, open-to-all, ad-hoc event around a common topic or theme that anyone can host anywhere. (These user-generated experiences are also sometimes called unconferences or non-conferences, after legendary eccentric curator Hans Ulrich Obrist‘s experimental non-conference in Jülich, Germany, in the 90’s.)
A self-organizing community of diverse interests, BarCamp participants are also its presenters. Attendees spend the first part of each event brainstorming and voting for session subjects, and can then choose among the various breakout groups. As you might imagine, the quality of a BarCamp can vary considerably depending on who’s present — we’ve had mixed experiences, accordingly. But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for; and BarCamps are typically free.
As with the 99%, the Do Lectures have the proactive premise “that the Doers of the world can inspire the rest of us to go Do something.” Fewer than 100 attendees, speakers, and staff gather in west Wales under a tent for a weekend of cross-disciplinary inspiration. Speakers at this year’s second-annual Do session included mountaineer Paul Deegan and Tony Davidson, Creative Director of ad agency Wieden+Kennedy.
The Do Lectures were started by David and Clare Hieatt, founders of the activewear brand Howie’s.
Produced by the irrepressible duo behind All Day Buffet (Jerri Chou and Mike Karnjanaprakorn, who also put on the first 99% conference), The Feast is a two-day affair that had its first run in New York this year as well.
With the tagline “feast on good,” the focus here is social enterprise: self-sustaining, next-generation initiatives with nothing less than world-changing intentions. Talks from inspiring models such as charity: water and New Orleans’s 9th Ward Field of Dreams made for an amazing lineup, and everything from fifteen-minute breaks to flatware is carefully curated by the conference organizers. (Okay, perhaps we’re a little biased, having attended the first Feast as a fellow.) Bias notwithstanding, though, All Day Buffet’s thoughtful stewardship of this startup conference makes it a must-follow event.
An acronym for “Good Experience Live,” GEL is a twice-yearly conference in New York, focused — as its name suggests — on the human experience in all arenas. The main event takes place in April and features speakers from business, design, technology, and other service-driven disciplines (so basically anything). GEL Health focuses on improving the patient experience and is held in October. Entering its seventh year, GEL was founded by Bit Literacy author and user-experience consultant Mark Hurst.
Started in Seattle in 2006, Ignite talks hacked Pecha Kucha’s 20×20 format (below) for a Google generation’s attention spans. Speakers have five minutes and 20 slides (which automatically rotate every 15 seconds) with which to present anything from cheesemaking to conservation. In addition to these nano-talks, participants also spend part of any Ignite event making — usually coding or moding something to be judged in a subsequent contest. Founders Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis have roots in online networks (O’Reilly Media and Etsy.com, respectively), and correspondingly, Ignite events are openly geeky affairs. Since that inaugural event Ignite has spread to cities around the world, with strongholds in New York, Helsinki, Paris, and Portland.
A global group of 30 people under age 30 just completed six weeks at this innovation camp in Berlin, forming Palomar5’s first graduating class. Six young entrepreneurs founded the group and formulated the question posed to these lucky souls: “How will we work in the future?”
The residency itself then became a kind of living laboratory for Palomar5’s premise. (In a great nod to the industrial-era fabrik that served as backdrop, participants were given overalls to wear for their first weekend, “to initiate a kind of reset-mode.” From the look of Palomar5’s Flickr sets, the attendees may have enjoyed a Hefeweiss or two on the former beer factory site as well.) Following weeks of envisioning, workshop-ing, and prototyping ideas, the camp culminated in a festival and livestreamed summit (that included a talk by Brain Pickings favorite Aaron Koblin).
What started in 2003 in a Tokyo gallery as an event for designers has since spread to 260-plus cities, from A Coruña to Zürich. Pecha Kucha pioneered the 20-slides-in-20-seconds format, providing a built-in check for creatives who tend toward too much exposition. Beyond this constraint, however, the talks have been held in bars, churches, and swimming pools; equally diverse are Pecha Kucha speakers, fulfilling the founders’ wish that anyone, from upstart to well-established, might be able to present.
Held in the Netherlands, the annual PINC conference typically features around 16 speakers and 500 guests.
Its acronym stands for People, Ideas, Nature, and Creativity, and the prevailing ethos — as articulated by PINC’s founder, publisher Peter van Lindonk — is “passion.” (Not for nothing did van Lindonk spent 15 years moonlighting as a ringmaster for Amsterdam’s World Christmas Circus.)
The eclectic program aims to recharge the brain’s batteries with “[a]n inspiring cascade of new ideas, great stories, and impressive visual presentations.” Next year’s PINC is scheduled for May 11-18, 2010, but you can watch videos from past years here.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the fantastic success that is TEDx.
These independently curated, local talks have brought TED’s mission of “ideas that matter” to 350-plus places globally, and created their own rich cache of video for anyone to watch. TED may be the sine qua non of idea conferences, but these smaller stages are showcasing an exciting amount of big thinking.
We’re certain that we missed other great conferences and meeting models in this rundown, particularly non-English-language-based experiences, so do use the comments section to tip us off to your favorite alt-conferences.
Published December 4, 2009