Let’s get together and call ourselves an institute: or how people coming together isn’t enough.

I’m in the country side in Slovakia today. I took my 15th flight (this year) to get here. I will leave on Sunday. And there is no guarantee that I will ever see the people I will have met here again. I’m starting to get tired of this pattern.

The no man’s land of events.

For the last ten years of my career I’ve been invited to invite-only retreats, conferences, get togethers around the world. From Doors of Perception 2006 in India, FooCamp 2008 in Napa Valley, Microsoft Social Symposiums 2009 & 2010 in Redmond and New York City, retreats with fo.am across Belgium, the Salzburg Global Seminar, and this week Holis retreat, the opportunities to spend time with a bunch of strangers have increased. But the events themselves always leave me with a sad taste in my mouth. Why do they rarely feel productive? Here’s what I think happens: A professional retreat is neither work nor the Club Med. It sits uncomfortably between getting something productive done and fun. It’s not as much fun as going out to the pub, nor as much work as going to work. It’s a no man’s land of work and play. So often it retreats into play (heavy late-night drinking) and no work. It’s easier that way. Easier to organise, easier to coordinate, and easier to justify as ‘networking’ to whomever is funding it.

I think that’s a shame. Considering my personal relationship status I should value the opportunity to do heavy drinking with strangers but I don’t. I’m older and much more interested in the productive potential of working with strangers. It’s what the internet promised us back then: remote work, remote teams, random international connections. The idea was that you could make work with strangers happen much more easily. But that’s not what we have now.

The larger the group, the more overlap there needs to be.

If you think of big global events like the Milan Furniture Fair or CES (the Consumer Electronics Show), the reason why so many people decend on the worst place on earth (Vegas, not Milan) is because they know something will come out of it. They’ll learn something new related to their work. They won’t have to explain what they do to others, they’ll collect a few useful contacts, a few business cards and they can interact with people at their leisure. They can get lunch when they want, grab a drink with whoever they connect with, stay up as late as they like with whomever. They’re in control of their immediate and professional needs. Judging by the number of conferences around the world, this works really well. It’s about a targeted definition of work and the fun is optional.

In a private get together, the less overlap between people, the smaller the group needs to be. But the need for organic conversations increases. Things feel like glue in these smaller events. More time at dinner, more time around drinks, more time at breakfast. People need much more time to invite people into their world, explain their field’s lingo, acronyms, professional culture, KPIs, families, background. And the organisers have to understand that this doesn’t, in itself, bind people. But it’s important for people to start to imagine what it might be like to work with someone. Putting people in a room to listen silently to someone speak on a stage doesn’t achieve this. Giving people 45 mns to an hour for lunch doesn’t achieve this. Getting people to work in the evenings doesn’t achieve this. Getting people to ‘workshop’ something together for 45 mns then change tables doesn’t achieve this. Getting people to ‘speed date’ conversations doesn’t achieve this. It’s incredible the amount of formats that exist within the culture of event organisations that actively hinder cross-disciplinary interactions.

Unless someone has a context to build something right there and then with someone from a different field, it’s not a meaningful connection.

It’s interesting to meet different people from different backgrounds, but it’s not meaningful unless it’s actuated. It’s lived, and something is built, a project is started, people visit each other after, people connect year after year. Doing this as an event organiser can mean putting on the same event for years with the same group of people. Or running a salon, or starting a school or an art collective. That’s why the Bauhaus was so successful. A school acted as a gathering place for a motley crew of teachers to build things together over decades, starting new schools, working together abroad.

This is why most of us do our best cross-disciplinary work inside of work itself. It’s why we start companies, so we can work with each other, get to know each other, get to understand each other deeply.

Why then do we keep being invited to events that are not interested in people building things together?

Is it because we think that out of play comes work? Sometimes. But not often these days. We all reached Dunbar’s number a long time ago, and really meeting people is now too easy, too disposable. If I had a dime everytime someone sent me an email with the subject line ‘Intros’ which never turned into a meeting, well, I’d be a rich woman.

Many event organisers don’t care about this, but as a participant, a content provider (speaker) and a community leader (London Internet of Things Meetup) I obsess about this.

The big problems of today and tomorrow require lots of people to come together and take a multi-disciplinary productive approach to solving them. Especially problems like climate change, world hunger, world peace, all these supposedly ‘wicked problems’ require people to work with each other across many different fields and make things together. They require deep long conversations to help build bridges and to lead to solutions. They require events where there is a clear vision, a clear theme, and people are put in teams and can organise themselves and their time as they wish, as long as they make something and show it to others.

I believe every event is capable of doing this. And I think we should actively ask for this to happen. Life is too short to just spend it drinking late at night with people you could be changing the world with.

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