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