Summit Events

There’s a great little – although rapidly growing – web industry meetup in Leeds called Hey!Stac, run by the nice chaps from We Are Stac. I’m a regular attendee and really enjoy the mix of design, front-end development and deeper technical talks that are delivered each month by all kinds of interesting speakers. It’s a great event, you should come along if you can.

But it’s the big-picture talks that I enjoy the most. In February 2014 Vincent Pickering unveiled his ideas around a new type of event that is neither conference nor hack day but somewhere in between, all framed around "The Need for Conversation". The slides for that talk are here, and there’s also a blog post by Vincent here.

His central premise was that conferences are great for getting the word out; for distributing knowledge in a one-to-many information transmission. However they become increasingly less effective the larger they get in two crucial ways:

  1. Sparking conversation between the speaker – the one proposing the ideas or questions – and the audience
  2. Resulting in real change or concrete innovations

I’m no regular at the kinds of conferences Vincent is talking about. In fact I’ve only ever been to one of them – a Macromedia event at the Royal Armouries in, wow, 2000 or 2001 I think. So I’m not qualified to make judgements about the current crop of web industry conferences, but I do see the firehose of commentary about these events as they flow through my Twitter stream. According to the comments I’ve seen I think Vincent has a very good point.

It may be possible – perhaps even inevitable – to attend these kind of events and come away with more questions that you arrived with. More things you’d like to try but don’t have a clue how to get started. Lots of information but nothing practical set down that can be used to spread the ideas more widely. In the worst cases I can imagine conferences are just hot air generators.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. What Vincent proposes is a new kind of event, one centred around the conversations that need to happen to foster tangible developments in our, or indeed any, industry. Here’s the process that Vincent is proposing (with a fair number of assumptions added by me) all based around a website that captures problems which may be worked on at the event:

  1. People submit problems to the website. These could be questions that need answering, gaps in technology that need to be filled or conundrums about processes or methodology.
  2. The event organisers consider the problems submitted and choose ones suitable for working on
  3. At the start of the event the organisers assign each of the selected problems to small teams – probably around 5 people – for discussion with the aim of producing some kind of output by the end of the event
  4. At the end of the event some or all of the teams present their findings, developments and discussions with the wider group
  5. All output from the event is placed back onto the website to allow conversations and developments to continue with the wider community

This might sound a lot like a hack day, but it’s a much larger vision than just hacking around an API or modding hardware. This format is something that could be applied to non-technical problems, the events run by non-technical folk. And that, for me, is where things get really interesting.

The humble suggestion box has a long but sadly tainted history in many companies. In my experience because most suggestion boxes have no inherent feedback loop many employees treat them as nothing more than a joke; an irrelevant and shallow attempt by management to make employees feel like they have a say in the direction of the company. Which, in some cases, they are.

The problem here is that the suggestion box is a "black box". You put your suggestions in, but don’t know what happens to them and very rarely get any response. This is partly what Vincent’s suggestion is aiming to address: by making the entire conversation around the problems submitted to the website fully open and collaborative the proposers, organisers and community members have full visibility of every part of the process. If an idea is going to be rejected it will only be rejected after full consideration in plain sight.

Some organisations are already embracing online forms of collaborative brainstorming, from web-based suggestion box for Portsmouth University Library to the Town Hall sessions of WordPress the web is a platform that lends itself perfectly to discussion of ideas. Some are even making a business out of it, but all these attempts are still variants of black boxes with no guarantee of real change, innovation, answers or progress.

That’s the point of Vincent’s Summit Event. The event itself is time dedicated to fixing the problems suggested, researching and collaborating on innovations – making something real happen. The aim is to have something tangible by the end of the event to present back to the attendees which then would be put back on the website for the wider community to continue the conversation.

Even if the output could be construed as a failure, the fact that people have discussed and wrestled with the problem means it’s not wasted time and, as Vincent mentioned in his talk, will save others toiling down dead ends. So even a failure isn’t a failure, which Thomas Edison had something to say about.

Admittedly this is a bit of an abstract idea to get to grips with. Some examples would help. Here are a few, web industry-based, problems I can think of that could possibly be worked on at one of these events:

  • So what’s the practical, robust solution for responsive images?
  • Is there a right way to get Grunt working on a Windows machine?
  • Getting content from a client is always the hardest bit of a website project. How can we make that better?
  • Is it possible to maintain very high standards for page performance when the users of the CMS are, in a word, clueless?

Considering other industries, especially problems that are not technology related, shows how this format can lead to real innovation and progress. Here are some ideas:

  • Many people don’t trust solicitors. What can we do to increase trust in the profession?
  • Is it possible to make flying more secure, but without intrusive body scanners and searches?
  • There isn’t a simple way to compare houses one may be interested in buying across multiple estate agents. What can we do to make that possible?
  • Opening a standard can of tuna in oil is a very messy affair. Let’s fix it!

Some of these examples may be a bit stupid, but they illustrate that almost anything could be tackled by a suitably sized group given a tight time constraint. Let’s imagine they are assigned a really complex problem. There may not be any hope of the problem being fixed during the event but getting interested, motivated people in a room together to get their heads around it and move the conversation on is bound to be beneficial – especially when the output from that discussion is made public.

I think it’s interesting that Vincent chose the word "summit" to describe this new type of event. While summits are for heads of state to get together for a chin-wag, Vincent’s Summit Events are different because a) anyone can attend and b) they are designed to actually achieve something. Therefore they are more akin to jazz summits, where multiple performers of a particular instrument get together to produce a recording. Jazz summits are both a celebration of the instrument and an opportunity to collectively encourage and enhance the skill of the performers.

So I’m really interested to see what comes out of this idea, specifically empowering grass-roots movements to fix problems and improve the world – whether that’s new developments for the web industry or innovations for industries we haven’t even thought of.