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When conferences become communities


First published on Tuck Executive Education At Dartmouth, 19 August 2020.

The societies we live in and the trends that will shape our future.

Every summer the Nordic countries are filled with independent democratic festivals, where politicians, business leaders, organizations, and everyday people meet to discuss—for free— the societies we live in and the trends that will shape our future. The stages are filled with inspiring monologues and facilitated debates. Anybody can organize a talk or an event during the week.

Last year during the festival in Norway, Arendalsuka, 1,500 events sprinkled the picturesque costal village. People gathered everywhere from the majestic old town hall and decks on boats that lay anchored in to the harbor to conference rooms and street-side cafes. Hundreds of journalists covered the events, which included many celebrities and famous business leaders.

But for attendees, it is small moments that make the biggest impact: standing in the line to get a sweet bun and making small talk with the politician in front of you; enjoying a private lunch with a civil society leader and getting a different point of view; taking a boat from a private dinner on the fjord with an academic who helps answer a question you have been pondering. The monologues on the big stages inspire, but it is these real conversations that create change.

Norway’s Arendalsuka was inspired by its Nordic sisters, including Sweden’s Almedalsveckan (established in 1968), Folkemødet in Denmark (2011), Soumiareena in Finland (2006), Lysa in Iceland (2015), and Jubel in Belgium (2019). Each festival’s origins differ, but they all share a common idea of being a platform for democratic dialogue between people. We need more of that now.

I waited in great anticipation to see what would happen to these meeting points as COVID-19 closed down the Nordic countries. What happens when the physical meetings are postponed for a year, just when we need them the most?

Imagine the opportunities to create truly national arenas that are not dictated by travel budgets, availability of accommodation, or networks, but are facilitated online so everybody in the whole country, or even abroad, could participate. As conferences are being cancelled we are given an opportunity to take them online and build communities.

This past May, instead of cancelling Katapult Future Fest, an annual gathering of international investors and entrepreneurs in Oslo (think Burning Man meets the World Economic Forum), the organizers swiftly turned around and hosted Katapult Cloud. In the weeks running up to the digital festival, the hosts invited participants to join a daily chat on WhatsApp and weekly catch-ups over Google Hangouts. Instead of going quiet and cancelling, they increased the frequency of the conversation, moved it to new channels, and discussed what was on everyone’s mind rather than what was on their agenda. Katapult went from being a conference to a community.

The flagship event had more affordable tickets than usual, making it available to more people. The event was hosted over a digital platform that was new to many and required different ways of engaging. However, we were all in the same boat: learning, available, curious, and optimistic. Perhaps this will become part of their standard offering in the future?

The invitations I used to get to conferences have been replaced by invitations to conversations. I won’t be travelling abroad for the rest of the year, so I decided on March 12 that the world would have to come to me—and it has. As a Tuck alumni affiliate, I have seen firsthand what a fantastic job Dartmouth has done setting up and inviting us to conversations at the Tuck School of Business, as well as other departments.

Whether it has been learning about boards or COVID-19 during the recent Tuck Executive Education and Tuck Alumni Lifelong Learning Summer Sessions, July’s “webinar a week” challenged my thinking. These invitations have also often included smaller round-table conversations—or should I say “round-screen conversations” since the format has changed? Norway’s Dartmouth alumni committee recently invited alumni and current students to check-in and discuss the future of education. These inspiring talks and conversations are helping build a stronger community. They enable participants to take their own journeys and see things in a new light.

After attending the Advanced Management Program last summer at Tuck, our cohort stayed in touch over a WhatsApp group, sharing readings and reflections about life and work. These are the real conversations that have changed me after Tuck. A classmate and I check in across time zones to follow up on what we set out to achieve after Tuck. This ongoing conversation has made me accountable to finish off the piece I had started.

As COVID-19 changes the world, I see that we are moving from the monologues of the one to pluralistic communities of belonging, as we are all empowered to create the change we want to see. “It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” said one famous Dartmouth alumnus, Mr. Rogers. In his 2002 Dartmouth commencement address he reminded us that community is built on knowledge and kindness. The community I have found through Tuck Executive Education exemplifies this perfectly, opening me up to new experiences, relationships, and ideas.

Here are the questions I suggest that we take with us as conferences for celebrities become communities of change:
  1. What do we want to achieve? If we want to inform then the conference is the right format, but if we want conversations, exchange of ideas, and change, then consider smaller conversations.
  2. What content do we have? Online conversations and conferences require more content than conversations.
  3. What will the guests want and need? Half-day conferences can be replaced with three webinars, thereby increasing the frequency rather than the duration.
  4. Who can moderate the conversation? Moderators become even more important when the screen, rather than stage, needs to hold our attention.
  5. What tools can help achieve our goal? Zoom, Go to Webinar, and Teams can help us ask questions, share presentations, or give everybody a voice. Swiftly we will see new tools that create a platform for the bigger presentations, smaller conversations, and that all-important serendipity.

Ingrid Helsingen Warner

Senior Advisor, International Communications, based in Oslo

Ingrid is currently on maternity leave. At Leidar she supports internationally-minded leaders and companies with their positioning and thought leadership activities.

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