When a conference is more than a conference

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Gene Miller of Gaining Ground

Gene Miller of Gaining Ground

I spent last week at Gaining Ground’s Resilient Cities conference in Vancouver, BC.  Four years ago, Gene Miller—founder of this remarkable conference series, drew Bill Reed and me into a series of conversations about his new vision for conferences, one that broke away from the talking heads phenomenon to actually foster dialogue and thinking. A radical thought! I’d long before given up on conferences, finding most to be about “thoughting not thinking”—promoting old thoughts vs. developing new thinking.

Gene’s vision, and his passion for promoting urban sustainability when it was barely a blip on the horizon overcame my reluctance. So when asked to present at this year’s conference, the 6th in the series, I didn’t hesitate. Once again, the range of subject material was rich and deep.  But while most people will remember the content, it was the process design that really caught and captured my attention and admiration. Gene and his team had once again lifted the art of conferencing to a whole new level.

That the conference attracted 750 people in a down economy is impressive in itself, but unless you’re a professional conference business, audience size is not the measure of success.  Gaining Ground began as, and continues to be a mission driven enterprise, focused on enabling cities, regions and their citizens to “gain ground” in the journey toward sustainability.  For such an enterprise, success must be measured by the inner experience of those participating—as presenters as well as participants, and the effect of that experience as demonstrated in applying new ableness to create sustainable lives, work and communities.

This is a high bar for measuring success, but the urgent need for transformative change makes it the only one worth reaching for if we are serious about our work.  It is a standard that requires, at minimum two design criteria, whether designing a conference, a community engagement, or an organization or business.  The first is making developmental processes an integral part of all work.  The second related criteria is making all work a value adding process. These are complex concepts, each deserving a post (or more) to themselves, but since my purpose is to frame a discussion of the Gaining Ground process, I’ll mention just a few key attributes of each.  A developmental process, unlike a training process, is less focused on transferring knowledge or skills than on developing and manifesting new potential—in the person, in the ideas, in the system of which both are a part. A value adding process (distinct from a “value-added” process) is a way of working which grows the value-generating capacity of the person or entity engaged in the work, the work process and the product of that work—simultaneously and as an integral part of the work itself.

So how did the Gaining Ground design integrate these criteria? The multi-dimensionality of the conference was a key factor.  It enabled a careful and synergistic weaving of opportunities to hear above-the-box thinking that challenged thinking as usual, opportunities to participate in on-the-ground organizing and partnership building, opportunities to dig into and dialogue a topic, and opportunities to test ideas and learn new practices in hands-on practicums dealing with real life situations. This is above and beyond the informal networking such gatherings always offer. It accomplished this through a mix of densely packed morning plenary presentations, a wide menu of afternoon salons with enough time to delve deeply, a parallel conference and planning meetings, and a full menu of shoulder programs.  Moderator Rob Abbot took on the task of pulling out threads from the presentations and weaving them together throughout and across the morning sessions, illuminating and inviting reflection on emerging themes and their meaning.  Finally, Mark Holland was given the challenge of summing up these themes in a “manifesto” aimed at focusing will and raising spirit.

Was it a perfect process?  Of course not.  In an evolving world there is only perfecting, never perfection. What impresses me is that, looking at the evolution from Gaining Ground number 1 to number 6, it is clear that the perfecting process, the continuous effort to regenerate thinking about what is needed to serve an evolving purpose, continues to drive this enterprise.  There is much to learn here. And much to appreciate.  Kudos to the Gaining Ground team.

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