Changing the conversation

In my imagination, I have transported myself back to 2017, when the world was recognisably normal, and we actually flew to places to meet people in real life and discuss ideas. It seems like an extravagent luxury now. It seemed commonplace back then. I am in Marathon, by the sea, at the Golden Coast Resort for the WPP STREAM Un-conference – the antidote to normal business conferences.

My notes from those three days increase the yearning I have for real life immersive experiences. The physical location, the atmosphere, the frisson of bumping into different people, the food, the smell of the sea and the grass and the heat, the feel of a cooling breeze, the free exchange of ideas. New faces, new voices, new conversations. Communal laughter. The touch of another human’s hand as you greet. The visual feast of the setting and the stages set up for discussion groups, the conversation starters stencilled onto the walkways; the swish of the swaying palms as you talk in their shade and sip your cooling juice. All of these create an environment where conversation and ideas flow, where the brain wakes up, where minds are changed and where the serendipity of human connection can occur. I don’t know about you, but I really miss that in the current, comparatively sterile, super-efficient online era. It’s difficult to get truly involved in a virtual event – just look at the Democrat and Republican conventions from last week. TV isn’t the same as a live event. Live events and workshops rely on all the senses being engaged at the same time – including the sixth sense. That’s why they’re so stimulating.

STREAM is really impressive. The whole thing, apart from flights, is all paid for. You don’t have to put your hand in your pocket for anything. The programme is packed and everything runs on rails. By the time I got there, this event had been running for a decade and they have it down to a well oiled machine. This is what inspires me: this is where I feel stimulated and alive with ideas – where there are meaningful conversations about the vast array of issues, opportunities and problems facing the world, ideas around solving them and exposed to the passions of people. I miss immersive experiences – those where you are wholly involved, body, mind and soul.

Such idea-fests change the conversations you have with others and with yourself – they give you new perspectives, often as a result of entirely coincidental exchanges. They transport you mentally because they put you in a unique environment with stimulating people for a finite period of time, which is intense – and all the more memorable and affecting for being so. By contrast, too many business conferences and workshops have the same effect as fast food: they fill a hole but leave you empty, unsatisfied and wondering why you didn’t do something more worthwhile. Whereas these events demand something of you in order to work. You participate in them rather than simply spectate, and you do so for an extended period so the experience is more engaging, the debate extended and the learning endures.

STREAM’s agenda is put together entirely by the delegates and each event is led by volunteers from the invitees. Yossi is the Michael Eavis of STREAM – its originator. I ran in to him on my first day and had a notion he was someone important “should I have heard of you?”, I asked. “Why should you have heard of me?” he replied, twinklingly. He had a name badge and the title of the company was DLD, which I think was as near as he could get away with to OLD. He told me he had wanted something else, something the team wouldn’t allow him to have. He exemplifies the spirit of STREAM: sharp minds, un-pompous people and alive with energy.

The stars of the event are you, the invitees. On the first night they run IGNITE. The volunteer speakers get 15 slides of 15 seconds’ duration each slide to speak about something they feel passionate about. It was exceptional. The standard never wavered even though the styles were all unique. There are some really fine communicators at STREAM – easily as good as TED talkers. We had talks on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, genetics and how science is disproving racial difference, the inequality faced by women. I particularly enjoyed the Iranian guy who kicked off with: “I’m Persian, so it’s nice to be back in Marathon after all these years…” which got a big, knowing laugh from the historians in the crowd. Every time one speaker went off I felt sorry for the one that had to follow…only to have the new speaker raise the bar even higher. It is another example of what true performance looks like and how ‘being there’ and feeling the entire audience reaction, not just your own, is so enlivening. 

When you arrive at the campus, you are invited to participate any way you want to. You can volunteer to help the organisers. You can do a cooking shift. You can team up and participate in the live pitch for a project they run. You can be an IGNITE speaker. You can be in the cabaret and do a turn on stage. You can help with film screenings. You can host a debate, which is what I did. The meritocracy kicks in: there are huge white boards marked with time slots and venues – mainly outdoor venues set up with chairs and tents and flip charts. You put up the title of the debate you want to host and all the delegates sign up to whichever sessions appeal to them. Simple. Some people ran them as lectures, others said a little to get the ball rolling and then open it up to the floor. I attended talks on subjects as diverse as the role of cities, the workplace of the future (no one anticipated this scenario), wellbeing and mindfulness, propaganda, is democracy dead and making hats. The best one I attended was hosted by a super bright police inspector. She was a refugee from McKinsey who had worked out that the career opportunities were far greater in terms of social impact and rapid promotion if she joined the Metropolitan Police instead of pursuing management consultancy. That insight clearly paid off – she was the youngest inspector on the Force. It was a tour de force of a presentation.

I love events like this and I am indebted to Jon Steel for swinging an invitation for me. It was amazing to be amongst such vital, vibrant, intelligent people and be part of a community for three days which made me feel a part of the debate rather than just a bystander. What music festivals are for the spirit, immersive events like STREAM are for the brain. The current health crisis facing the world has put paid to such joy. Such joy, such stimulation on such a scale is not replicable online. We crave community – the community of ideas, of common, collective and shared experiences. Of immersion in all the senses, not just the visual and aural. For now we must be cautiously optimistic and patient: we lovers of the ‘live’ must wait, but our time will come again. There has never been more to debate nor more need for the collective ingenuity of bright, motivated, vibrant people coming together to create ideas and solve the issues facing us all. Let’s hope we can all get together again soon, because un-conferencing in the real world beats conferencing in the virtual world hands down if you want to change the conversation.

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