One of the things I've been working on this last year is an effort to design events that consciously bring together academics and practitioners to work together on strategy, futures, or other big subjects. Lexi Lord's recent Chronicle piece (which I discuss here) makes me think it's worth starting to share the thinking behind this effort, as an example of the interesting things people with hybrid scholarly-but-nonacademic lives can do.
A growing number of conferences or workshops bring together academics and people from "real world" organizations– corporations, foundations, governments, military, intelligence agencies, or civil society. Often these events feature interesting– even exotic– combinations of people, generate a high level of enthusiasm and lots of ideas, and are very stimulating for participants.
But they don't always effectively harness the energy, intellectual firepower, and creative opportunities that emerge when many interesting people come together. Sometimes these workshops end on a high note, but the enthusiasm proves hard to sustain once people go back to their regular lives. Sometimes it's hard to fully represent the range of ideas generated during the event, and some good ideas are lost (as VCs might put it, intellectual capital is left on the table). And sometimes they yield fairly conventional academic products like conference proceedings or edited volumes, when sponsors would have been more enthusiastic about seeing prototypes, videos, outlines of new strategies or policies, or business plans emerge from the events.
I think it is possible to dramatically improve these events. We can redesign these meetings to be more action-oriented, and create events that are intellectually stimulating and productive; satisfy the needs of all stakeholders; generate things immediately useful to sponsors; and more effectively harness the energy and interest of participants for longer periods. We can do this by making smarter use of both digital and physical collaborative tools, and adapting practices and collaboration tools developed in the corporate and high-tech worlds.
Creativity, Meetings, and the Business World
Academic conferences evolved over the last century out of earlier conclaves and other academic events. With the growth and professionalization of academic disciplines, conferences and workshops became one of the "little tools of knowledge" (to use Peter Becker and William Clark's phrase) that support scholarly life. As such, they are a familiar part of university life– so familiar it's hard to imagine them being organized in any other way. Indeed, despite considerable changes in professional academic life, advances in communications technology, and the nature of academic scholarship itself, conferences have hardly changed. The 1900 American Historical Association annual meeting in Ann Arbor had about 200 attendees; a century later, the annual meeting regularly attracted twenty times that number; but while the event has grown, its basic structure and components today would be instantly recognizable to its earliest attendees.
Because it is geared to the demands of scholarly production, the traditional academic conference is poorly-suited to the more policy- or decision-making needs of those sponsors who wish to apply scientific and scholarly knowledge to contemporary problems. Conferences tend to be collections of individual performances, which scholars use to accelerate the production of their own published work. Conference organizers handle logistics and venue, but beyond setting general overarching themes and performance schedules, do not try to create a cohesive final product. As a result, the work of identifying the implications or potential utility of scholarship is left to participants– if it happens at all. Like a gallery, a conference is a place to exhibit creative works, but not a place designed to directly support collaboration and creative work.
One can find such spaces in the business world. We generally don't think of the business world as a place that supports creativity; its emphasis on process and routine get more attention. There are several reasons for this. The business and technology worlds are relentlessly competitive, and demand constant innovation. But no business product– be it software, service, or mass-produced object– can be made by individuals working in isolation; they are all collective products. So group innovation is essential– but because of the difficulty involved in coordinating the schedules of large numbers of people (particularly executives), meeting time is extraordinarily expensive.
As a consequence, the business and technology worlds have developed a variety of events that encourage creativity and collaboration, offer novel ways of promoting interactions among members, and produce lots of ideas in a short period. They have experimented with tools for improving conventional meetings, and developed new types of events– unconferences, experiential events, competitions, meetings in both real and virtual worlds, etc. They have developed creative practices that bring together heterogeneous groups of people– everyone from engineers to copyright lawyers to neuromarketers to factory managers. They have built a portfolio of meeting types organized to rapidly create of new things– products, services, ad campaigns, etc.. Finally, meeting organizers have acquired a tremendous amount of craft knowledge about what makes events succeed, and how everything from room design to scheduling to the nutritional properties of the snacks served can be tuned to encourage more creative thinking and productive collaboration.
Institutions that sponsor scientific and academic research, that want to have an impact on the world, and struggle with how to move academic ideas into the realm of policy and strategy, could adapt event types and craft knowledge created in the business and technology worlds to events in academic and nonprofit institutions. The result would be new types of events that are intellectually stimulating; offer the traditional opportunities for networking and professional development; and also mobilize the collective energy and intelligence of participants in ways that help address real problems.
I've run a few events and workshop series now that test these ideas, and I'm sure there's something serious here. It's just a matter of continuing to let the process evolve, and being mindful about how you go about creating incentives and rewards that work for all the very different parties you're trying to engage.