The final portion of the day was spent talking about next steps and asking for help moving forward. The organizers have set up a wiki with some of the output from the day's sessions and they invited us to contribute our own thoughts to it as well. You can see it here
I am loaded with opinions about today's 9-hours of brainstorming sessions, talks and panels. I'll start with what I thought worked and get to my constructive criticisms in a bit...
In general, this is the right idea. This is a subject that needs to be talked about and these are people that need to come together -- often, if possible. I'm basically skeptical of the efficacy of deciding on action items by committee, but at the very least I think the people here were able to learn some things from each other and maybe even get a little inspired. A number of people in my little break-out group mentioned the possibility of Vermont leading the rest of the country in both technology and forward thinking, civic uses of it. In order for that to happen, I think we need sessions like this coupled with strong leadership and vision and a willingness to think way outside the box. There were certainly people in attendance today who had this going on, so there's definitely hope.
That said, there were some things that didn't work for me at all, and I mention them here not to whine about my day, but because I would like to see these sessions happen again and maybe we can improve the model a bit. I know a lot of hard work went in to setting this up and this isn't a criticism of the organizing committee members, I just want to be able to maximize the usefulness of the next symposium, should there be one.
First off, the name is a problem. All week I was having trouble telling people what I was going to be doing today. "Yeah, on Thursday I'm going to be live-blogging from Fulfilling Vermont's E-State Potential Building Community in a Connected Age!" Ugh! The thing could use a little branding, is all I'm saying.
There was way too much to do in too small a time frame. This was far an away my biggest problem with the day. There was easily 2 days worth of content crammed into a single day and zero down-time. If there's one thing I've learned from attending conferences, it's that the sessions are good, but the down-time is where the real brainstorming and networking happens. It's telling that the best conversation I had all day was at lunch. It doesn't mean the sessions were bad -- they weren't -- it's just that unmoderated, free talk amongst smart, engaged people is really, really useful. A full 1/2 hour between events would have been great -- a longer lunch, and an after party! We spent all day generating tons of "social capital" (to borrow a concept from the morning's keynote) and there was no place to spend it all afterwards! It's 8:30 pm and I should be drinking with the people I spent the day with right now and saying this stuff to their faces, not sitting in my living room typing it into my blog. Time for socializing is critical
for this kind of event.
Also, the day is now just a blur in my memory because it was largely characterized by, "okay, we have 10 minutes to discuss these three really huge, society-changing ideas and all of their potential implications, go!" Followed by, "okay, we have to stop there and vote on what the best ideas were and then we have to rush over to the auditorium for the panel discussion!" The symposium either needed another day or half of the content.
The same goes for the larger presentations. The keynote was great and 20 minutes more for Q&A would have been better. The panel was too big. The presentations were good and on-topic, but it was too much for the single hour scheduled. There were 5 people on the panel plus the moderator -- they all had to rush and there was only time for a few questions at the end before we were rushed on to lunch. These are big ideas. We need time to absorb them.
Finally -- and this is a bit of an abstract point -- I think the brainstorming was too structured. In the break-out sessions, we'd go through these specific processes of answering pre-determined questions, we'd barely have time to discuss them, and then the answers were on the white board getting voted on. Often, the resulting output was kind of stale and uninspired, considering the scope of the symposium. We were allowed five minutes to silently think about a given question and then what limited discussion there was time for was limited exclusively to the output of those five minutes of thinking. I'm a pretty creative guy and I think about these issues a lot, but if I only get five minutes to consider a question silently in my head, my ideas will be pretty limited compared to what I could come up with in 20 minutes, bouncing ideas off other smart people.
I really don't want this post to sound like a litany of complaints. I want to be a cheerleader for this sort of event and it really was great to get all those people -- many of whom I'd never met -- all in one place together working on these issues. I look forward to the next one.