TEDxAmsterdam was a blasting experience

November 21, 2009

in Conference

TEDxAmsterdam-logoOn November 20th 2009 TEDxAmsterdam (official hashtag TEDxAms) took place at the Royal Tropical Institute. In a few words: it was successful and powerful, speakers & contents were first class and the overall experience was blasting (that’s a good thing eh!). Although it was not an official TED event but a TEDx (read here if you don’t know what a TEDx event is), the spirit of the day was comparable and the passion of the organizers was immense. Jim Stolze, Marian Spier, Monique van Dusseldorp and Paul Rispens (the organizers) definitively raised the bar for all the following TEDx events worldwide. To give you an idea of how carefully organized it was, at the end of the event Stolze announced that the date for TEDxAmsterdam in 2010 is already set to November 19th!

TEDxAmsterdam Moderator Joris Luyendijk

TEDxAmsterdam Moderator Joris Luyendijk

Being this a blog dedicated to the world of conferences and events, I’ll try to dissect some of the key success points from the organizational point of view and will briefly address the contents of some of speaker.

Venue

The venue was probably one of the most appropriate places in town to hold TEDxAmsterdam, physically and conceptually. It is well located and easily accessible. There is no dedicated parking but most amsterdamers move by bike. The conference room resembled that of a theater and with it’s capacity of 450 seats it was a good compromise of intimacy  but at the same time not small. From the event’s website:

“The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam is an independent center of knowledge and expertise in the areas of international and intercultural cooperation, operating at the interface between theory and practice and between policy and implementation. The Institute contributes to sustainable development, poverty alleviation and cultural preservation and exchange [...] n other words, there could not be a better place to celebrate TEDxAmsterdam.”

The interiors (main hall, stairs, etc) are magnificent but not unnaturally overwhelming and the layout allowed the fluent flow of people on 3 levels, each with a specific function (ground floor: main hall and networking area during coffee breaks; upstairs: conference room; downstairs: networking area and main source for food during dinner).

Audience

The room was packed with 450+ people, not one single empty seat. Ushers made sure that all seats where occupied and no one was left standing. After all, there were almost 5.000 requests of participation to the event and 4.500 were left out, so you couldn’t afford to waste any seat. The audience was a balanced mix of men/women and young/old people from several professions and walks of life. You could explore who each one of the attendees was through the iPhone mobile App designed by Frog Design especially for this event (see below for more info on the iPhone App). Dress code was relaxed, on an email previous to the event the organizers said “Dress code: We do not have one. We’d like you to look your best, though. We will making video recordings of all talks, and the audience will be visible in some takes.” Delegates took this advice seriously! :-)

Speakers

Speakers explored different topics, from art to music, from science to politics, from social help to bug eating. It would require a lot of space and words to describe every session so I invite you to check out the program and the videos of the event. These are some of the presentations that I particularly enjoyed:

Politicians Job Cohen (Mayor of Amsterdam) and Minster Frans Timmermans made a good representation of the Dutch government. The former described Amsterdam’s mission towards “openess, freedon and international orientation” plus the importance of new media in creating an open and tolerant society. The latter, an excellent public speaker, delivered his presentation and subtle political message using Captain Jack Sparrow as a role model for facing fear.

Designer Christien Meinderstsma presented her book “PIG 05049″ an art product yes, but really a research that highlights how much we don’t know about where the raw materials of many of our everyday stuff comes from. She made the audience laugh several times during her presentation -even when facing technical difficulties- and delivered a big dose of happiness (she wouldn’t be the only one to do so).

Princess Mabel van Orange made a passionate speech about how we can make real breakthroughs in the flaws of our society by applying 5 lessons she learned while making so: having a vision of change; being pragmatic; believing that we can all make a difference but that we can’t do it alone; being a formal, former or informal leader and having patience. When she told the story of a 15 y.o. girl that was raped several times but had then raised to become an informal leader and save other girls in a similar situation the room fell in a deep silence and you could sense shivers running down the spines of the attendees.

The first standing ovation was for Rabbi Soetendorp who with his WWII testimony touched our hearts and shared the power of compassion.

The Desertec Industrial Initiative to develop solar thermal power plants was interesting, though not well presented to this audience (too technical at times).

Famous speaker Kevin Kelly engaged on how technology is the most powerful force on the world which defines who we are at the same time that it helps us re-invent humanity.

Kevin Kelly at TEDxAmsterdam 2009

Kevin Kelly at TEDxAmsterdam 2009

Former photographer Hans Aarsman was funny and interesting on his story of what makes a photo interesting (and his advice of don’t trying to make it interesting!).

Marcel Dicke made his point on why we should be eating insects… and actually made us eat some! (see Catering below).

One of the best speeches was delivered by young Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. He got a well deserved standing ovation too and surely made us laugh out loud!

The first Dutch astronaut, Wubbo Ockels, thrilled us with his theory that we -humans- create time. The corollary was that we could see extra terrestrial life if we managed to move out of our chronocentrical view of the Universe.

Joris Luyendijk, moderator of TEDxAmsterdam was an excellent choice. Funny and at the same time precise, he made the event flow naturally and maintained a continuous contact with the audience.

Technical Demos

The speeches were complimented by short (sometimes too short to clearly present the product/service!) technical demos. In most cases they were interesting Dutch products or services. Demos included: Home energy-consumption meter Wattcher; Augmented Reality browser Layar; 3D visualization tool 3DRange; 3D interactive video technology by yellowBird and alpha brain wave applications by Alpha World of Warcraft.

Claire Boonstra demonstrating Layar

Claire Boonstra demonstrating Layar

Musical Performances

Music was an intrinsic element of the program: from Karsu Dönmez‘s heavenly voice and piano (acc. by Muge Alpay on violin), Composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven‘s presentation on The Music of the Real World and a capella signers after Gary Carter‘s speech to music performed inside the conference room (directed by Twaalfhoven) and Kodo drummers on the main hall before dinner.

 Karsu Dönmez playing the piano

Karsu Dönmez playing the piano acc. by Muge Alpay on violin

Stage & Stage Management

The stage was decorated in classy TED style: a typical Dutch bike to the left and a grand piano to the right. The event name was well present on one of the sides. A round spot was placed on the middle of the stage to highlight the best lighting area for the speaker to move in and doubled as decoration (see photos).

Stage Management was smooth and precise. There was at least one service person that took care of the speaker on the side of the stage (microphone, slideshow clicker, right timing) and one technical person that got on stage when necessary (to change a computer, adjsut microphones, etc). There were several other people that added/removed chairs and other miscellaneous activities.

Stage from TEDxAmsterdam

Stage from TEDxAmsterdam

Audio/Video/Lights

In general audio and video was more than satisfactory. There were though several problems with the screen as sometimes the image was too low inside the frame or cut, and it took some time until it was fixed (after the speaker was asking for this through his microphone). The clicker to advance the slideshow presented also recurrent problems, with at least two of the presentations suffering from it. It was never a “terrible” issue but did interrupt the pace of the presentations. Fortunately the speakers that hadd this situation were able to turn it on their side by infusing doses of good humor that made the audience laugh, especially Mr. Bjarke Ingels.

Also during Ingels’ speech, the computer that had his presentation crashed and had to be rebooted (his speech strongly depended on the visual input he had prepared). This kind of situations can be avoided by having a backup computer with a duplicate of the slideshow and an operator manually moving through it. If the main computer crashes, the speaker just has to change the clicker for another buzzer that will signal to the operator in the backstage when to advance the slides/video/etc.

Lights played a crucial role in creating the right atmosphere. The stage lights moved from several gradations of red, blue and white light to characterize every moment and speech.

Time Management on stage

Time management is a very important issue during an event, where often speakers use more time than what has been allocated to them, thus delaying the program. A clock-down monitor was on stage and speakers could check the remaining time.

An original touch was given by William, the “voice of TED” (voice of God). He recited a Shakespeare sonnet every time the allocated time for a presentation was over. Though creative, it became rather annoying for audience and speakers alike when William started speaking on top of the person on stage, who was always surprised and interrupted. A less intrusive solution would have been to perform a subtle but clear tune. This is a good instrument to let the speaker and the audience know that the time is over, which puts pressure on the speaker to cut it short (in many cases the clock-down is not enough because some speakers decide to ignore it and go on talking).

Catering

Catering was of very good quality. The initial welcome coffee was complemented by croissants and was served on the main hall. Coffee breaks offered, well, coffee, water, juice, tea and wine. Lunch was composed by a limited selection of cold and warm food that could be ate with your hands, while dinner was much more elaborate and offered a wide range of alternatives. Dinner was made available on the lower floor but after you had served yourself you had to move to one of the upper levels. Food was always self service except for a VIP lunch that involved speakers and other personalities. Special treats like  Johnny Walker Black Label whisky after dinner and after the event was a nice touch, and desserts were good too.

Strawberry covered in darch chocolate and... worms!

Strawberry covered in darch chocolate and... worms!

But the differentiating touch of the afternoon coffee break were… BUGS! No, it was not due to poor hygiene… they were deliberately made part of the servings.

Prof. dr. Marcel Dicke talked about Why not eat insects? and after his presentation they were offered to the audience in the form of strawberries covered in chocolate and (fortunately dead) worms.

I think there were other creepers like grasshoppers somewhere, but I didn’t get to those (yes, I did eat the bug-strawberries… not once but at least 3 times!).

The Experience

If there is one fundamental thing that the organizers of TEDxAmsterdam got perfectly right was the experience management during the whole event. During the last years I’ve been preaching that creating and managing the right experience during a conference is one of the differentiating factors, specially in the present digital age that has made good content and networking not enough for a physical meeting. TEDxAmsterdam had a dedicated person on the role of “Head of Experience”: Marian Spier. I guess that the final result was product of the whole team but having one person with the sole mission of working on the experience shows that this guys were playing seriously. Just this item should require a dedicated post, I’ll try to cover that asap.

Live Streaming

As mentioned above, almost 5.000 people applied to participate in TEDxAmsterdam but barely 450 were allowed to the venue. To gap the physical barrier, a simulcast was set up in in several other venues plus the whole day could be followed through live streaming online video from the website.

Networking & Matchmaking

Networking moments were multiple, mainly the breaks (coffee breaks, lunch, dinner). But they pushed it a bit further by deploying an iPhone App developed by Frog Design which showed all the attendees to TEDxAmsterdam in 3 categories (see images): Everyone (all attendees), My Matches (suggestions on who you should meet based on your own profile created during the registration process) and Speakers. Each attendee had a unique number assigned to their badge and there was a booth where your photo was taken and added to the system. It was a useful tool to explore who the other delegates were and find them through their photos taken during the same day (many times profile pictures are outdated or modified in ways that make it impossible to recognize a person by it).

TEDxAmsterdam Mobile App screenshots. From left to right: Initial screen, me in the app, photo booth.

TEDxAmsterdam Mobile App screenshots. From left to right: Initial screen, me in the app, photo booth.

Support Material / Giveaways / Goodies Bag

A rich set of support material and goodies were given during the event. All the content was produced in English or English & Dutch (except where noted).

Support material

  • TEDxAmsterdam Conference Program
  • Instructions on how to use the mobile app
  • A sponsor postcard including information on the free interenet wifi (network name and password)
  • A finely printed 150-page book specifically designed for TEDxAmsterdam containing special content and photos. A lot of work was put on it’s creation, from the original content and photos to the careful and artsy printing & binding
  • Another book was available, this time from TEDGlobal 2009 and produced by Frog Design (retail price 9 euro)
  • A TEDx ballpen

Goodies bag

The bag was an original product too, made in locally sourced cotton from Ouagadougu in Africa and co-designed by Wiffred de Paul and IS YOU. It contained a rich selection of -sometimes weird- gadgets:

  • 3 magazines (WIRED Uk Edition, Proud. and Emerce)
  • The book “Pot Met Goud” by Dutch traveler Jacob Gelt Dekker, one of the speakers of TEDxAmsterdam (unfortunately the book is only in Dutch)
  • A National Geographic DVD titled “Koning Herodes”
  • A set of spoons by Zylom.com
  • A pack of “After Garlic” breath neutralizer pills by aftergarlic.nl
  • A set of “Active Media Game” cards (more info on activemediagame.nl)
  • A business card holder sponsored by Sanoma Uitgevers
  • A rubber stamp with an ink pad (still have to find out what it’s for… instructions are only in Dutch!)

Registration Process

The registration process was smooth. A detailed array of information was requested before the event, including that that would have been included in the mobile app. At the venue badges were pre-printed and ordered by first name. This was an odd choice, as in general they should be classified by surname (I’m not sure if this is a common practice in The Netherlands). After getting your badge the staff provided all the support material. The goodies bag had to be picked up in a separate moment though, which was a good decision as you could avoid carrying its heavy contents during the whole day.

Communications Before the Event

The organizers wanted to make sure that if you had applied for a seat during TEDxAmstedam, you would have been present. I got several emails in different moments asking me to confirm my participation and to which sessions I intended to attend. At no time I found such communications excessive. When you have to leave out more that 4.000 people you want to make sure that there will be no empty seats.

A couple of days before the event I got an email entitled 10 things you should know before coming to TEDxAmsterdam which summarized all the basic information (venue, program, opening time, dress code, etc).

The TEDxAmsterdam website acted as the first point of contact, with a teaser video, details-as-they-were-confirmed communications and a blog to provide the latest info.

Communications After the Event

I haven’t got any emails after the event but the website has been updated with videos & photos and interviews from the event, plus a thank you message by Monique.

They’ve been sharing news periodically ontheir twitter account

Watch their photos on Flickr and videos on YouTube. These are my photos of TEDxAmsterdam on Flickr.

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