Conferences: knowledge exchange of the past or for the future?

agglomeration economies As I write this, I’m preparing for my second Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The 11,000+ attendee conference takes place January 22-26, and covers all topics related to transportation planning, policy, and engineering and related topics like health and land use planning.

The preparation work got me thinking: a conference this big is a wonderful opportunity, and at the same time it’s also a burden. In order to get the most out of it, that is, in order to catch a raft on the river of information exchange, one must do a lot of prep work – who’s going to be there? Who should I see? What topics are being covered? What topics overlap with my current projects? And then, one actually has to go there and see those people and talk to them in person. It got me thinking. This type of information exchange seems a bit antiquated. Or is it? Today, we have tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even simple email that allow rapid communication without physical proximity. Individuals are putting together knowledge share events, where subject “experts” educate their friends in a fun, relaxed, and community setting, negating the need to rely on a large centralized entity to plan the exchange event. Do these things better facilitate information exchange than the traditional conference? Judging by the popularity of the “unconference,” perhaps a hybrid model is appropriate.

One thing we know for sure: collaboration is the new black. Whether it’s through bike sharing, car sharing, crowd sourcing, or peer-to-peer anything, the 2010s are all about collaboration. What traditional conferences do is exemplify how Richard Florida’s creative class flourishes in Edward Glaeser’s agglomeration economies: bring smart, motivated, interesting people in close proximity with one another and they’ll start collaborating. This collaboration is at the heart of innovation. But again, are traditional conferences the best vehicle for delivering this collaboration, if attendees are meant to shuffle themselves into pre-assigned sessions with pre-assigned topics, hour after hour, day after day?

Would smaller, collaboratively-led “unconferences” be a better answer? Would more or better information be exchanged in these settings? Maybe the success of a conference as large at TRB actually is due to its sheer size: the conference itself is a city of the creative class, rubbing shoulders with one another.

-          Terra Curtis