You could probably attend a smart cities event somewhere around the world every week at present. When a topic becomes ‘hot’ then conference organisers pile in but the effect can be lots of similar looking events, with the same sorts of agendas and, often, the same speakers. A finite number of attendees is spread too thinly and, ultimately, the conference organisers will charge off in another direction when something else comes along.
The art is to quickly work out the more interesting aspects within the overall topic and then drill down but this requires an understanding of the subject area that goes beyond the superficial. Here are my four top tips, having had plenty of time to consider the dilemma of late while sitting through assorted smart cities events of mixed quality:
- 1. Come at things from ‘left field’
Look quickly beyond the obvious, what new perspectives and insights can be added if everyone is covering a topic? The Future Cities 17 event in Bristol last week (which I’ll return to a few times) did this with many of its sessions including, for instance, ‘Psychology and the City’. Eloquent, interesting speakers from one discipline area, looking at urban policy and shedding new light as a result.
- 2. Give your speakers time
Attracting great speakers is a given but then give them time to tell their stories. Panels have their place within events but can too often result in interesting speakers being reduced to soundbites. If you have speakers of the quality of, say, Gil Penalosa (founder of 880 Cities and chair of World Urban Parks), Syrian architect, Marwa al-Sabouni (Future Cities Bristol, again) or Jennifer Daothong (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’s head of strategy and sustainability), let them tell their fascinating stories. One interesting person interviewing another can work well such as former mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, talking to three-times mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner.
- 3. Select speakers on merit
Don’t compromise. If you are charging delegates, then are they not short changed if every one of your event sponsors is given a speaking slot? If a supplier truly has an interesting story, then fine, but too often it means sitting through a lightly veiled sales pitch.
- 4. Practice what your speakers preach
The Crystal in London is a great venue as it is so sustainable, Amnesty International’s London HQ was one of the stars of last week’s Ethical Consumer conference, while I’ve now fallen in love with Bristol’s Watershed (and with the city as a whole). Recycle badges, ensure any printed material is FSC at least, vegetarian food, no one off coffee cups or plastic etc. And consider gender and ethnic equality – that means you, Telegraph (its Britain’s Smarter Cities 2017 event earlier this month was a shocker from the point of view of gender). The 20 minute late start due to traffic congestion of the Crystal-based Smart Cities Live event in September wasn’t the fault of organiser, Go Konnect, but had a certain irony!
At the end of any event, you want to leave inspired and more knowledgeable, with tangible ideas and information that you can take back into your own organisation. There are so many fascinating aspects to this area that it shouldn’t be difficult. But too many events fail to hit the mark.