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Experiences from planning a big conference

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Next12 is over, and it’s been intense and quite an experience. Feedback from speakers and audience alike has been positive as far as I can tell, but of course there’s always lots of stuff that can be done better. So first up, a shout out to the team both at SinnerSchrader and the crew on the ground: Great work!

Next Experience

That said, let’s dig into some of the bigger questions that I’ve faced at pretty much all the events I’ve been involved with, ever.

Twitter / @frauenzeit: yes, and there are always ...

Diversity: Too few women, always.

What can I say? It’s true! And as a curator I’m as responsible as anyone, if not more so. If I say I’m aware of it and I try to get a diverse and gender-balanced lineup, you can only take my word for it. The fact that the panels aren’t gender-balanced still holds true, no matter what my intentions were. Whenever events I’m involved in I do try to get things as diverse as I can, and I can tell you: It’s not easy. At all. It’s not like there aren’t many smart and interesting women out there who could tell a great story. There are, of course there are, and I feel happy and honored that so many fantastic, smart, engaging women agreed to speak at Next12. But we were far from 50/50, and picking a speaker line up there’s a million aspects to consider. Among them: availability, experience, name recognition, willingness to speak, internal politics, sponsoring deals and last but not least: a good chunk of pure luck. Do I know the right person? Can they make it at that time?

I won’t name any names, and I’m writing this to my best recollection without going back and double checking the exact numbers. As far as I remember, three or four speakers (and a curator among them) dropped out because of health-related issues; two or three of them happened to be women who were awesome and considerate enough to propose a replacement, in at least two instances men. Several people had conflicting engagements and had to drop out (in this case, mostly men, some of whom made it eventually, some who we replaced on short notice). The list goes on. Please note that these are just some of the reasons I remember most vividly, and that no gender arguments should be made regarding the reasons for these cancellations! Let me repeat just to be clear: I’m not indicating that more women cancel due to health related issues, and I strongly recommend not to fall for some stupid argument like this – this just happened to be the stats in this very instance, no more.

In many other cases, the people on stage are on stage because they are considered experts in their fields, and in many instances this recognition as an expert is a function of being in a senior position. In a corporate context, this often means that the person has moved up a corporate career track, which statistically means significantly more men than women. Sadly, I’d like to add, for all the wrong reasons. Corporate careers are still ridiculously male-oriented. Or men just play along with it, or whatever the reasons might be, the stats are pretty clear on this one. You can see how that doesn’t apply where I invited speakers from less established fields: design, research, UX, startups, IoT. Here, younger people often are the experts, and once you take the corporate structures out of things, you get a much more diverse mix of experts. Look at the track called Experience at Next12, and you’ll find that it’s a lot more diverse in many ways. No gender balance, but a tad more diversity.

I once read, and sadly can’t remember where, a tip for men in tech: If you’re offered a slot to speak or join a panel, ask who else is on the panel. If it’s only other guys, propose a woman to replace you. I’m kinda liking it, and want to get into the habit of doing that more.

Speaking of which, we have a few events coming up, and we’ll try even harder to get to true gender balance. In fact, checking the lineup just now, for our event on the quantified self and personal analytics today (link) it was exactly 50/50. So there’s a start.

Politics are part of the game

Any organization has some level of internal politics to work around. No point in bitching about it, just get used to it. It’s part of the game.

Budgets are never what they appear to be.

I want you to re-read that sentence slowly and repeat after me: Budgets are never what they appear to be.

I’ve attended uncountable conferences and have been involved in quite a few in different roles – lead organizer, speaker, live blogger and many more. Events always (!) look like they have more budget than they really do. All events I know are less profitable than they might seem, or at least that’s my understanding of things. I can’t remember the details, so don’t quote me on that, but I think we put together CoCities for less than 50K. If you’ve ever organized anything at scale, you know that that’s ridiculously little money. Bigger commercial conferences probably run on a different economic model, but consider that the budget pays for speakers (travel, maybe fees), location rent, insurance, food & drinks, staff, rent for tech and people to handle it, logistics of shuttling all kinds of stuff back and forth, wifi (even if it turns out not to work flawlessly), printing etc etc etc. It’s a long, long list, and it keeps growing. Events are expensive to run, even if you bootstrap them. So before I say something like “how hard can it be?”, I take a deep breath and think for a moment of the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t, and I think a moment about how hard it might actually be, and usually by that time I don’t feel like that sentence should be uttered, ever.

Language barriers are tricky

International conferences are always a bit of a challenge from a language perspective. Mixing languages is possible, but hard to do well. Excellent (!) signage is the least you can do. But really I’d opt for going all English. In fact, I believe that’s what I’ve always done so far. If in doubt, go for common ground. Most conference attendees will speak it well enough to understand what’s going on, and your pool of potential speakers is many, many times larger than otherwise. There’s different philosophies on this, so it’s a bit of a personal question. In the French-speaking part of Canada for example, things tend to be bi-lingual instead of English. That’s perfectly fine too, as long as people are used to handling that kind of thing. Make sure that every speaker, moderator, sponsor and organizer speaks enough of whichever language you choose that there’s no awkwardness. And make sure that everybody knows what to expect, then things can’t really go all that wrong.

Cognitive Cities Conference: An Update

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Cognitive Cities Conference LogoWith Cognitive Cities Conference (#CoCities) being less than three weeks out (yikes!) it’s a good moment to take a step back and see where we stand now.

And let me start with a bit of a spoiler: I’m very, very happy how all the pieces have been falling into place.

We love our speakers. At the core of any good conference are, of course, the speakers. And boy, have we been blessed with great speakers who kindly agreed to join us at CoCities despite our obviously limited resources. (CoCities is organized on a non-profit basis.) With Adam Greenfield, Dannie Jost, Georgina Voss, Juha Van’t Zelfde, Matt Biddulph, Sami Niemalä, Ton Zijlstra and Warren Ellis, plus our moderator for the day Ben Hammersley, it’s a dream line-up as far as I’m concerned.

For the second day, which is open for free to the public, we’ve also been getting a plethora of great talks, workshop ideas and some exhibitions – give us some more days to sort it all out, we’ll announce details soon.

This week, we’ll also announce a sponsor, which is a big relief as it gives us a bit of wriggle room that allows us to treat our speakers and participants with the respect they deserve.

Media: It’s all about social. What I find remarkable is the role that media outreach has played for us: virtually none. Almost all of our outreach, publicity, ticket sales, even speaker recruitment has been done via our blogs, on Twitter and Facebook, or by good old email. The other day I considered putting together a press kit in the last minute, but the response was unambiguous: “Never mind the press kit, it’s all about the schwag bags!” So, no press kits. (Alas, also no schwag bags.) We have some banners (like the one in this post), but that’s about it. I’m not sure if the lack of importance of traditional media coverage is just an aspect of the topics we touch on at CoCities, or the core audience there, or simply our personal networks, but it seems to be working. (See what Twitter has to say about Cognitive Cities Conference.)

CoCities is international. Another aspect that makes me very happy is that – according to our ticketing service Amiando – less than 60% of participants are from Germany. This means that we’ve certainly succeeded in bringing the discussion about the future of cities to Berlin, on a global level. (Last time I checked tickets had been bought from 15 or 16 countries.)

Now all we have to do (ahem!) is to keep polishing until the event weekend.

If you haven’t yet, register now for Cognitive Cities Conference.

I’m looking forward to seeing you in Berlin!

Cognitive Cities Conference is go!

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Cognitive Cities Conference logoExciting news: We just launched the website for Cognitive Cities Conference, the conference about the future of cities and technology that we’re putting together next February. (Details: 26/27 Feb 2011, Berlin.)

And hey, the site features cool speaker images, creepy map visualizations and soon some other eye candy. The only thing it’s missing, really, is unicorns ;)

Big props to the great folks (who are also our co-organizers) over at Your Neighbours as well as Fabian Mürmann for putting together the site – you guys rock!

The other thing: We put up the Early Bird tickets. You can get them now, as long as they last, for the reduced rate of €79 (including Amiando fees). (You can grab yours here.)

So what is Cognitive Cities about? Here’s the official super-short blurb:

We are at a point in time where the paths are set for the future of cities. The Cognitive Cities Conference (#CoCities) aims to bring the vibrant global conversation about the future of cities to Germany. We see CoCities as a platform for exchange and mutual inspiration. We invite urban planners, designers, technology geeks, environmental experts, public officials, urban gardening enthusiasts and cultural influencers to be part of the conversation. We can only make our cities more livable if we work together to improve them. CoCities is a two-day event: Day 1 is a full-on conference (ticket required), Day 2 is dedicated to exploring the city through workshops, guided tours and exhibitions (free entry).

With Heimathafen Neukölln we have a fantastic location, a grand old theater in the super lively (and decidedly pre-gentrified) neighborhood of Berlin Neukölln. This is where the first day of the conference (the actual “conference day”) will take place. On Day 2 (“activity day”) we’ll head out to a number of location for distributed activities ranging from tours to exhibitions to some other, totally awesome stuff that’s too hard to convey in two lines.

I’m getting really excited about this whole thing. Hope to see you there.

For more details and to get an Early Bird ticket check out http://conference.cognitivecities.com/

Cognitive Cities Conference: New Date!

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A few weeks ago, we announced to run a conference on the future of cities & technology, Cognitive Cities Conference. (I blogged it here, too.)

We just moved Cognitive Cities to a new date: 26/27 February 2011.

My co-organizers and I explained our reasons for pushing CoCities on the Cognitive Cities blog, but let me sum it up very quickly here, too.

Most importantly, the move is a good thing. As only a very few of you know by know, there are some changes coming up in my professional life – of the best sorts, but I can’t really talk about them just now. These changes – and some other things – happen to coincide with the original dates of the conference. All of this takes up quite a few cycles and quite a bit of energy: Just the kind of cycles and energy you need to run a great event on the side while still doing your day job.

The team talked this over, and we came to the conclusion that we’d rather postpone the event than just winging it. We really want to get Cognitive Cities right, and we have high hopes and aspirations for this. And since we’re planning to have some really kick-ass people present there, we owe them the best possible event, too.

Moving CoCities to spring will give us just the time we need to get it right. The date seems right – just around the beginning of the conference season, well before SXSW and – most importantly – with a few months between now and then. (If you are aware of any other relevant event going on at the same time, please let me know!)

Also, if you are working on any kick-ass relevant project that you think might fit the profile, send us a brief note about it. Should you prefer email over online forms, feel free to email us at info@cognitivecities.com.

We will continue with the planning just like we did before, i.e. talk to speakers and sponsors, scout for the best projects and tweak the conference format further. To make it the best conference we’ve organized yet. Really looking forward to seeing Cognitive Cities take shape over the next few months.

Notes on Copenhagen & Ersatz Reboot Conference

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Ersatz Bike by Sten Jauer

So, no Reboot conference this year. However, a small team stepped up to organize Ersatz Conference for those who crave a shot of Copenhagen this time of the year. (Guilty as charged.) So Igor and I headed over to beautiful CPH and spent a few days there and took a short break from day-to-day work. Ersatz was just the excuse we had been looking for.

Just a few notes about the trip.

First of all: Thanks, thanks and thanks to Claus Dahl for spearheading the efforts to have Ersatz. Thanks also to the whole crew at Ersatz for switching to English during the conference to allow Igor and me to participate. (Along with Gernot Poetsch, we were the only non-locals.) Thanks to all participants for sharing their stories. Thanks to Steffen Christensen, Thomas Mygdal and Mark Jensen for giving us the tour of the new 23 offices and for Mark’s guided tour through the city – great fun!

The conference was an intimate, personal affair. Great stuff actually: Over BBQ and brunch there was plenty of time to share stories and insights, in workshops we could go more formal where needed. Igor and I gave a variation of the talk “Playful Cities” that Igor and Johannes had given before. And found out that quite a number of the projects we showed in the talk are already more or less implemented in Denmark, at least to some degree. I joked that Denmark might be living in the future already and nobody had noticed; in hindsight, I’m wondering if there’s more truth to it than I thought at the moment.

But Copenhagen has more to offer than conferences, and with a few days on our hands we went about finding the best third wave coffee in town. And boy, did we find good coffee. There are two places I’d like to highlight:

First, Ricco’s. Ricco’s is a mini chain, kind of a four-store franchise, and it’s just like an urban coffee shop should be: nice, relaxed atmosphere, intense and interested baristas who care to help you find the best you might want to have, and, well, delicious coffee. Great, absolutely fresh snacks, too. It’s a pleasure. I was only at one of the shops, but I’m sure they’re all great.

Second, Kaffe & Vinyl. This is an entirely different atmosphere, but just as great. In its tiny-ness it might even be more social. Kaffe & Vinyl, like the name indicates, is a coffee shop & vinyl store. You get to listen to and buy a small, but on first glance very decent selection of records – which are also the source of the music played in store, of course – and an even smaller but equally good selection of caffeinated products. The shop is clearly a labor of love, and it shows. Folks cue up and don’t mind waiting a few minutes to get a cuppa and then sit mostly outside in the sun as there is space for no more than a few inside at any time. While I was there I ended up chatting with a few folks, one of them claiming that besides Bonanza Coffee Heroes (my favorite Berlin coffee shop) and Coffee Collective, Kaffe & Vinyl might be the best coffee shop in Europe. Quite a claim, and there are too many coffee shops in Europe I haven’t checked out (yet), but it’s certainly not crazy to assume that there’s a spot at the top with Kaffe & Vinyl’s name on it. I didn’t make it to Coffee Collective this time, but hey, there’s always a next Reboot and thus a chance to check them out.

Anyway, long story short: Next time your in Copenhagen, make sure to grab a cup at each of those!

Image: Ersatz Bike by Sten Jauer

Announcing the Cognitive Cities Conference

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Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

Update: New date for Cognitive Cities Conference is 26/27 February 2011 (details).

A few friends and I are planning a conference this fall. Please allow me to cross-post from the Cognitive Cities blog:

Our future will be played out in cities. The projections tell us that our planet will resemble some very familiar fictional fantasies: 75% of the global population will be living by 2050 in cities or mega cities. Between slums and mass poverty on one hand and eco-sustainable living on the other hand, there will be both tough problems to solve and exciting visions to realize. We are at a point in time where the paths are set for the future of cities. The Cognitive Cities Conference wants to pick up the vibrant global conversation about the future of cities and bring it to Germany. By bringing bright minds with different perspectives together, it is our ambition to enable not only an in-depth exchange about the current state of affairs, but also to foster new projects. We believe that collaboration and diversity lead to the best results. We see the Cognitive Cities Conference as a platform for exchange and mutual inspiration and invite urban planners, designers, technology geeks, environmental experts, public officials, urban gardening enthusiasts and cultural influencers to be part of the conversation. We can only make our cities more liveable if we work together to improve them. The format of the conference will be a combination of lightning talks and workshop style sessions. Participants will share ideas, thoughts and challenges based on their diverse backgrounds, thus presenting different perspectives and approaches to the challenges we share. We are planning a one track only event, with the option for break-out sessions at any time. Where and when? Cognitive Cities Conference 02./03. October 2010 Coworking Cologne Who is Cognitive Cities for? We believe that diversity is essential for mutual inspiration. Cognitive Cities is aimed at designers, architects, futurists, urban planners, web geeks, activists, urban dwellers, you name it. If you are interested in the future of your city, you are most welcome. Who is behind Cognitive Cities Conference? Axel Quack, Igor Schwarzmann, Johannes Kleske, Markus Reuter, Martin Spindler, Peter Bihr, Welf Kirschner. Powered by CognitiveCities.com. Cognitive Cities is organized on a non-profit basis. We will provide more details and a dedicated link soon.

Until we have a site up, please refer to the original post.

For us, the idea behind Cognitive Cities isn’t just focused on urban planning.

That’s very important, as I’d like to stress that we hope to touch on other fields that are just as relevant to living in a city: think smart homes, smart grids, smart meters. Think augmented reality, Spime, sensors, cell phones, geo-tagging. Think open data. Think transportation, car sharing, intelligent trip planning. (Jetpacks, anyone?) Think reclaiming your city bottom-up. Think street art and locative art. Think green living and rooftop gardens and urban gardening. All of these, and many more, will influence our lives in the city. And all of them should be represented at our conference.

Also, I’d like to briefly put this in context: I know this all is, so far, pretty vague. We’ll get more concrete soon. Until then, we’ll be getting in touch with a first batch of potential speakers and sponsors to cover basic costs and, hopefully, some travel grants for speakers or guests who couldn’t come otherwise. We got to this event via atoms&bits, so there’s a connection here too. Props and thanks to Martin Spindler for getting the ball rolling and getting me on board! Also, thanks to Axel for enabling us to use Coworking Cologne as our conference location. As always, having a location for an event always is a huge load off of our shoulders.

So while we’re setting up the basic infrastructure to organize an event, please feel free to get in touch. For the time being, the best way is to either leave a comment on the original post or here, or to drop any of us organizers a line directly. We’re all pretty easy to reach. (In my case, the contact form or Twitter.) Update: Email us at info@cognitivecities.com.

Thanks for the patience, and for spreading the word. We’re all really looking forward to this.

Update: Official hashtag is #cocities.

Image: Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from yakobusan’s photostream

Covering DLD Conference with Berlinblase

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DLDTogether with the Berlinblase crew I’ll be heading down to Munich next week to cover Burda’s DLD Conference. (Full disclosure: paid gig.) Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear that the DLD team invited us down as the official live bloggers. It’ll be four of us – Florian Krakau (@dotdean), Johannes Kleske (@jkleske), Igor Schwarzmann (@zeigor) and I.

We’ll be blogging all three conference days, 24-26 Jan. You’ll find our coverage here and on the conference website.