Wired UK Conference Was Great… And A Missed Opportunity To Disrupt The Industry Too

October 17, 2011

in Reviews

Photo by Nate Lanxon

It all started with Rupert Turnbull, publisher of Wired, thanking all the people involved and sharing some very interesting stats about the audience (countries, roles, type of companies), which is very important to makes us feel good for being part of it, priming the start of the event with a positive feeling. Followed David Rowan, editor of Wired, who also acted as master of ceremony and guided us into a parallel universe by stating “you’re not in England anymore, you’re at the wired event”.

[Full coverage of the event by the Wired staff]

Let’s make something clear from the start. Wired UK’s first conference was excellent, from production to speakers to catering, all was high quality. Keep that in mind while you read my review, which is intended for conference organizers, as I focus on several details that attendees usually don’t see or or care for. It’s always difficult to review an event made by people I admire (in this case both professionally and personally) because in the past someone felt offended (though we cleared things up and all is ok now).

A Missed Opportunity

So what about the title of this article? Well, Wired is a Lovemark and I would have expected much, much more from them… not regarding production or speakers, but by creating a new kind of event experience/format. Something analog in spirit to what TED did with the talk format to support their mission of “ideas worth spreading” (which now every other event is trying to copy, even though that format might not be the best to every experience).

Wired had the opportunity (still has, read on) to create an event format that was as innovative and disruptive as the magazine style and content was when it first came out (compared to the rest of the industry). A place to create new content on the spot and have makers meet other makers plus “infect” those who aren’t bout would benefit from becoming one. I don’t know what this format should be (I have some ideas though) but it should surely involve more hands-on activities. The audience was full of bright people but only a few of them, the speakers, were active.

The Solution to this dilemma

Does this mean that Wired has to scrap this conference and risk it all to create a new one? No, not at all. This conference is a valuable addition to the local and international conference circuit and most probably represents a good business for the publisher (Conde Nast). Keep the conference as is. Now, launch another one, more experimental and risky. One that embraces the energy of the Wired community to discover some new ground in the conference world and rapidly iterating the experience using the Lean Startup mindset that’s proving vital for so many tech startups to create something unique . (hint: It might include labs, workshops, maker hackatons and other activities which are more inclusive for all the people involved, speakers and participants alike)

Enough ranting, now comes the formal review…

 

Tom Hulme - Photo by Gianfranco Chicco

Venue

The event took place at the recently renovated The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. The hotel is very nice and offers ample spaces with high ceilings. It has a mix of traditional British style with some modern touches.

Conference Room

It had a horizontal layout, meaning that it was wider than longer/deeper. This makes the audience feel nearer to the speakers. The lines of chairs were indeed too tight and it was difficult to walk towards the center of each block of seats, or move (get in/out) once you were seated.

One of the laterals of the conference room consisted of a glass wall with access to the garden. It provided plenty of natural light which makes the space feel more human and helps speakers connect with the audience (and vice versa), as they can directly see their faces (it’s not uncommon that speakers are blinded by stage lights and have no view whatsoever of who’s in front of them, thus preventing them from getting immediate feedback from people’s expressions).

Photo by Nate Lanxon

Coffee Break Area

It was on a separate level and felt too small to properly satisfy it’s purpose of helping people connect. The fact that to walk to the networking area you had to pass through the hotel’s lobby (many attendees stayed there) and that once there people were divided into two rooms, it made it sometimes difficult to serendipitously meet other people you already knew or were looking for. It didn’t help that  breaks were quite short (sometimes of just 20/25 minutes). I understand that the hotel had no other more fitting areas to use (the lobby was open to hotel visitors and attendees alike) but still it was an issue for some participants.

 Lunch Area

Lunches took place mainly in an adjacent restaurant, which actually is inside the Eurostar international train station, which you reached after a short and kind of  surreal to walk into the Eurostar train station, but I liked that. The fact that the lunch break is longer that the other ones and that all the attendees go there to eat keeps the audience more compact.

Audience

Devices connected to O2's wifi during Wired 11

The audience was and was not Wired. What do I mean? I’m sure that the vast majority are Wired readers/subscribers. Still, many of them were not the kind of people that the magazine writes about and in general there was a corporate feeling to the attendees. Maybe because we’re in London and not San Francisco, geeks here wear suits and ties or at least a neat blazer (like Andrew Fisher from Shazam and Richard Morros of Moo.com, who are clearly Wired-kind-of -geeks).

Attendees were well curated in part thanks to the mix of guests invited by the editor, including several of The Wired 100. Several conference organizers were present too including people from Lift, TED, Next, MIPTV, Switch, DLD, INK, Dublin Web Summit and Thinking Digital, among others.

Format

As I wrote in the intro, this was the weakest point of the conference… and that is because it followed a quite traditional conference format. Speakers give 20 minute talks, divided into sessions by coffee breaks and lunch. No real interaction between audience and speakers as it was a broadcasting model.  The Q&A sessions didn’t quite work, more on that below.

 Speakers

The speaker roster was the strongest asset of the Wired conference. David Rowan and Monique van Dusseldorp made an excellent job of materializing on stage the kind of people you read about in Wired magazine. Follows a selection of those that I think were the best talks plus a few comments on other ones that didn’t work. Videos of all the talks have been promised to be available online for this coming week. For a technology conference, the female/male speaker ratio was very good: approximately 1/2 (12 females, 30 males).

Rachel Botsman (web, twitter) talked about the concepts of collaborative consumption expressed in her book What’s Mine is Yours (get it on Amazon.com here) and expanded into a few new services that have been launched since then (like Taskrabbit) and how these will change the way we see property. In fact, who wants to own a car with all its hassles (parking, insurance, repairs) if instead we could have just the right car for every occasion when we need it and at a fair price? Read more on her talk on Wired.

Richard Seymour (company) embarked on a beautiful and insightful talk on “immortal design” and in fact, according to Seymour the first human being capable of living to 1,000 years old might already have been born. He touched on things like Apple’s Siri, DNA-based cosmetics, space tourism and other breathtaking stuff that is not that far away from reaching our hands. This was probably the session that I liked the most from the content side (I had seen him speak at a TED Salon a few months aback but on a different topic). Read more.

Richard Seymour - Photo by Nate Lanxon

Aza Raskin (company, twitter) and Tom Hulme (profile, twitter) are two speakers that I had at PICNIC’10 and have seen at other conferences recently. Both have great content and superb delivering (and very well designed slides, as you might expect from both designers). Aza’s company, Massive Health, will soon launch it’s first public experiment (sign-up here), I guess on feedback loops. Tom remarked how “technology is no longer the constraint, we are” and his presentation was supported by a novel online service called Social Canvas, that extends a presentation by enabling conversations with the audience around the talk and the slides. More on their talks on Wired: Aza Raskin, Tom Hulme.

Chris Anderson (DIY drones, twitter) didn’t share anything new [to me] but did a very good summary of the current “maker” movemebt and how we’re going back from the world of bits to that of atoms, with the potential (or actually almost certainty) that a new revolution is underway regarding the production of goods. He also demoed one of his DIY quadricopters :-) Read more. Russell Davis (blog, twitter) picked up on these concepts and a further iteration of his “sacred screens” talk with his always funny presentation styles (and yes, the red button was there too)… in his own words, the ideas were the same that Anderson presented but with more kittens. Read more.

Bjarke Ingels (company) never disappoints. He’s full of energy and keeps a serious face while making the audience laugh and aww in astonishment with the beautiful, eco-friendly and innovative projects his company develops.

Andrew Keen (websitetwitter) got the loudest applause from the audience. Finally someone brought some useful controversy to the table by expressing strongly contrasting ideas with his two predecessors (Joanna Shields from Facebook and Noreena Hertz). According to Keen, the social media behemoths are promoting a rather useless digital narcissism which is dumbing down our experiences. Read more.

Lakshmi Pratury (TED profile) is the curator of the TED inspired INK Conference in India and she brought two speakers with some of the most original content of the second day, especially because it was most probably new to the Wired audience. The young Shilo Shiv Suliman (blog, twitter) gave us a sneak peak into her upcoming iPad ebook KhoyaShantanu Moitra (web), a famous Bollywood producer and composer delighted us with stories of music and humanity. Read more.

Photo by Nate Lanxon

Peter Sunde (blogtwitter) was fresh and contrarian, and in my opinion one of the most real-blood wired speakers of the whole event. He talked mostly about The Pirate Bay and the reactions it provoked, but also about the vision of what the future of media will be. He’s also the cofounder of Flattr, which I have recently covered in this blog. Read more.

Yossi Vardi (profile) was more fun than useful as usual (but that’s ok as we were nearing the end of the event and all quite brain-tired) and Ben Hammersley (web, twitter) made an original closing speech backed by three beautiful singers. Ben’s talk was quite wired and a nice variation from the tired 20-minute talk that has been popularized by TED and uncontrollably abused by so many other conferences. Hope that video is published soon.

A few speakers made mediocre presentations, but that’s normal… all events have ups and downs. These were not enough to taint the good vibes of the other speakers.

What didn’t work at any time were the Q&A sessions. Why? Not because of the quality of the speakers involved, which was always very high. It was a combination of the following three items (in variable dosis):

  • Lack of a moderator – the session with Alexander Ljung and Tim Exile lacked any direction and could have been made great by for example giving the speakers the possibility of perform music through sounds instead if just talking about it.
  • Lack of focus on the audience – Hans Ulrick Obrist, Cory Archangel and Kristian Segerstrale are all into making very interesting things, from art to games… but that session never clicked with the participants. At times the moderator was asking questions to only one of the panelist, while the other one just watched in silence (probably wondering what was his role on stage at that moment).
  • Lack of interesting content to share (or the typical bla-bla PR stuff) – Ben Hammersley’s session with main sponsor representative Matthew Key produced no original content, with Key answering with superficial and generic answers. A sponsor’s presence on stage is always contested by the audience so at least he should have brought some interesting facts to announce, his upcoming plan or any other new piece of information cleared for public disclosure. Something similar happened with Joanna Shields of Facebook. David Rowan asked all the right question, very important ones. Instead of giving candid answers she put up the corporate PR shield (no pun intended) and bored us with artificial answers.

One of the panels that didn't work: Alexander Ljung & Tim Exile - Photo by Gianfranco Chicco

The only slightly interesting Q&A was that between both Wired editors (Rowan, Anderson). It just felt strange as the opening of the second day. You should start the day with an energetic talk (like that by Bjarke Ingels) and leave the amicable conversation for another moment (eg. after a break, while people are still filling up the room).

I did like though David Rowan’s impromptu interviews with a few of the Wired 100 that were in the crowd. They felt fresh and sincere.

Demos & Lab

Stanley Yang’s (company) talk & demo, which included challenging an attendee on a live brain-wave controlled game was quite entertaining, as was Heather Knight’s (web, twitter) arguing on the influence of the ancient greeks with her smurf-sized robot Data (twitter). Read more on Stanley Yang and Heather Knight’s talks.

Stanley Yang dueling with an attendee while David Rowan watches from behind - Photo by Nate Lanxon

At the end of Day 1 there were extra demos during a drinks & music session in the networking area upstairs. This was a bit more messy as the space was packed, slightly dark and with music playing (which made talking not so easy).

Musical Performances

A local violinist (sorry, can’t remember his name) played a 3D-printed Stradivarius replica, which tied in nicely with the following two speakers, Lisa Harouni (company) and Stuart Jackson (company).

The real star of the music scene was the Irish duo Abandoman, who colored the evening program with an interactive improv-rap… their performance was so powerful that someone alien to the event (an hotel guest?) flashed onto stage to try to make them stop and event threw water to us in the audience.

Stage & Stage Management

All just worked well. The layout was but extremely effective and classy.

Audio/Video/Lights

The setup was simple but effective.

Colored lights were used on the background to stimulate different moods. I didn’t like the split screens on the sides of the stage as the content of the slides was often interrupted by the black borders of each single screen, but they have an advantage: high brightness/contrast in ambient light and they occupy little space (making them compatible with the narrow conference room).

I missed an extra set of lights on the stage to allow better video recording quality and photos as the speakers were in partial shade, especially during the afternoon when the natural light that came through one of the sides dimmed (you can see this on the photos above).

Logistics

No complaints or issues except for one. Why start at 8.30 AM the second day? I’d do the opposite! First day early start (including registration), as everyone is more energized by novelty and curiosity. The second day people need a wee more time to recover from the previous day. Indeed a few attendees twitter that some coffee was needed… you could feel a general tired mood at the start of Day 2 (as mentioned above, it would have been wiser to start wit ha power talk and not with a Q&A).

Catering

Coffee breaks had high quality, rich variety and classy food (bonbons in wooden drawers, mini-smoothies, ice-creams on the second day, etc). Lunch portions were small but I find that healthy and convenient as bigger servings would induce sleepness in the participants. Besides, those wanting a somewhat stronger lunch could jump into the other restaurants inside the train station (where lunch took place).

Sponsors

The event had several partners and one sole big sponsor, O2. Telefonica Digital’s CEO Matthew Key (O2 is part of Telefonica) was on stage but his intervention was bland, with no interesting info shared. When will a sponsor bring something new to the table? Ben Hammersley did a good job interviewing Mr. Key but the interesting stuff never came out.

 

Matthew Key interviewed by Ben Hammersley - Photo by Nate Lanxon

Networking & Matchmaking

The audience was top-notch. There was a high number of advertising and media executives but all pretty senior. You had the (successful) startuppers and social media peeps and the people from IDEO and other cool brands. Many people were locals, you could tell because they knew each other already and clustered together at the start of the conference.

I would have expected Wired to provide in advance the attendee list or a way to schedule meetings in advance (see the Mobile App section below for more on this). They did provide a printed A4 list with names and companies though it was a bit too late to organize meetings (in fact, I went through the whole list *after* the event and found there was a lot of people I wanted to meet… I know, my mistake). When events grow beyond 100 or so people, and especially if they are scattered in several rooms, it becomes difficult to find who you want (albeit for serendipity). I left the venue feeling I had met less new people than I aspired to.

Mobile App

The mobile app made available for the Wired attendees, Unsocial, was a big disappointment… and as its name says it was… un-social. Apart of being very buggy and with an arguably unpractical design (both function and form wise), it didn’t solve any actual problem and failed in what should be its sole goal: help people meet each other (ironically enough it’s tagline is “It’s not who you know. It’s who you need to know”).

Among its features:

  • User profile – it picks it up from LinkedIn but in my case it required heavy editing (it featured a role which is not my main one)
  • Agenda & Speaker profile – we had a hardcopy of that in our goody bag (plus I had downloaded the pdf sent to us weeks in advance to my iPad). The overlap might seem functional but it’s more of a waste of resources (for the app). I saw people using the paper versions (faster to get into your hands and browse with your sight).
  • People – you could see a list of attendees. The app was buggy and I didn’t find how to contact them for requesting a meeting, etc. Looking at the screen captures now, I see there might have been a function for messaging others, but why keep it in a separate place? As I said, the app had one main goal and it prevented itself from achieving it by cluttering the interface with other less priority functions that could be easily replaced.
  • Only works local – this is not a feature of course but a big flaw. The app only works if you’re in London (or maybe Britain). I tried to set up the app from abroad and it just gave me a ridiculous “unsocial is not available in your area. Please check back periodically. Thank you”. Man, it’s useful for us attendees to check the event’s info IN ADVANCE! (and maybe start connecting with other fellow participants). As if I had nothing more important to do than to check it back periodically…
  • Other irrelevant details – why do you want to include a tracker for the Twitter feed if everyone that uses twitter will use his/her preferred app to do that? Sponsors, website and video… haven’t checked those (why should I?)

Next time try something more experimental or provide a service that solves a specific problem well, thanks.

Support Material / Giveaways / Goodies Bag

Wired over-delivered here. First there was a very good quality laptop bag by the local Knomo. It came in several colours and it feels just classy, something you might use out of the conference (unlike most congress bags). Also the Wired logo was applied in a subtle way by using a metallic perforated tag.

The bag included the current issue of Wired, a pencil, hardcopy versions of the agenda, booklet with speaker profiles and other info, evening program, attendee list, a promo for an upcoming book by one of the speakers, a VIP day pass to The Hospital Club and other goodies (see photo). The “kit” was complemented by a 3D printed pen offered by speaker’s companies EOS and Digital Forming and NFC personalized card by ThingLink. Wow, the guy from ThingLink even recognized me from a photo he found online and that he used to personalize my cards!

Registration Process & Badge

Registration took place online on the event’s website. Badges were pre-printed and hand-picked upon arrival. It worked smoothly.

Communications Before the Event

I received several updates prior to the event by email, including the program in pdf  (which was very useful as I loaded it in my iPad and studied it while traveling to the event). As I said, I would have preferred to have the attendee list in advance (even though partial) too to organize meetings with those that I wanted to meet.

The copy (texts) and design of the website sucked. Sorry Wired, but I love you too much to accept that kind of crap. Try replacing Wired’s name with any other brand and the (mediocre) text was still valid, meaning that it was as generic as it comes (the text is no longer available as the website has been updated with what happened at the event) ….. with all the talented editors and writers in Wired’s staff I would have expected much more. Same for the design. It looks so 00’s (and no, adding a few cool photos does not make the trick).

Communications During the Event

The Wired team was tweeting and writing articles in real time which were useful, especially for those not present in the room.

Communications After the Event

None so far, but it’s just the first business day after the event. The website was updated with what happened and the Wired UK website includes the coverage and a few summary videos of the conference.

Again, I would have expected more from the website, the copy-text and the interaction before the event. Wired is in a position from which it could advance the conference industry by an eon… it has the right DNA, the right network of people and knows the technology… they don’t even need to spend [much] money, I’m sure they could aggregate a bunch of hacker-minded developers to experiment with the website, apps and more .

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