Interdisciplinary conferences spark an extraordinary exchange of ideas.
By Michelle Franzen Martin
It isn’t often that the same stage plays host to a microbiologist, an Internet entrepreneur, a mountain climber and a cognitive psychologist all in one day, but Sea Island’s Creativity Conference in March of 2014 attracted experts from all walks of life to share their insights across a wide range of topics. The seminar builds on a tradition started by great philosophers throughout history, who gathered to share thoughts and ruminate on theories. Contemporary versions of these idea conferences have gained popularity in recent years as places where the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators lend audiences a brief peek into their minds. The conferences are part of a larger, growing trend of lifelong learning, an important concept in an age of ever-changing technology and innovation.
A Look at the Trend
For Sea Island’s Creativity Conference, visionaries from a variety of different fields meet at the island for a two-day event of open dialogue between the audience and presenters. “People like to be immersed in new ideas, and artists, scientists, businessmen and others can be stimulated by emerging points of view in fields outside of their own,” says Melissa Wells, who served as host for Sea Island’s inaugural Creativity Conference in 2014 with her husband, Mark W. Moffett.
In an entirely different format, the Sapling Foundation’s Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conferences began with a focus in the three fields represented by its initials, but the menu of topics is now limitless. “The breadth of content includes science, business, the arts, technology and the global issues facing our world,” explains Emily McManus, editor of ted.com. “Over the course of a week, 50-plus speakers each take an 18-minute slot. Their talks are interspersed with shorter presentations, [which include] music, performances and comedy. There are no breakout groups—everyone shares the same experience. It shouldn’t work, but it does … because all of knowledge is connected.”
The phrase “idea conferences” might be on the rise recently, but the concept of lifelong learning has actually been around for quite some time. “This movement of learning actually had the fortune of flourishing well before it was thrown into the spotlight,” says Chris Campbell, the global facilitator for Startup Weekend, a technology-based conference similar in structure to TED. “[These conferences] trace their origins to the ’70s and ’80s with exclusivity being their appeal. If you want to learn something new, you might as well learn from the best, from the masters, from the most important thought and opinion leaders.”
Today, the number and topics presented at idea conferences continues to grow. “Agendas differ, but they all seem to be embedded in this notion that great ideas shared, discussed and scrutinized can help individuals and businesses across all categories achieve success,” Campbell says. “And the energy is great whenever that happens.”
The world-renowned Oxford Experience is a residential summer program at the University of Oxford that offers students of all ages weeklong lectures on subjects like the human brain and opera composition. Year after year, people flock to the event, hungry for knowledge. “Many of our participants are returnees,” says David Beard, the academic director and program director for the Oxford Experience summer school. “It is a truly international program, with people coming from all over the world. Many people have formed friendships on the Oxford Experience and some people meet up each year again at Oxford.”
Part of the value of idea conferences is the flexibility they afford. As long as people are speaking and communication is open, the events will be successful and informative. Since the Oxford Experience is a residential program, the conversation doesn’t end when the attendees leave the lecture halls.
Part of what makes the ideas at these gatherings of minds so memorable is the way in which they are presented. “The ideal speaker is a storyteller and, at the core, life is about telling great stories,” Wells explains.
The Creativity Conference attracts a slate of A-list speakers, a huge part of the draw for audiences, but that’s where the similarities to most other idea conferences end. Rather than a large event that takes place on a stage in front of a crowd of spectators, Sea Island’s Creativity Conference is a unique weekend focused on intimacy between the group to facilitate an open flow of ideas. Guests chat with speakers after the talks conclude during an intimate dinner—a unique opportunity to continue the dialogue.
“Rather than a theme, Mark and I focused on getting a diverse, personally compatible group together to build and brainstorm,” Wells explains. “Talks ranged from magic and perception [to] self-recognition in dolphins and the discovery of the evidence of the Big Bang.”
Wells adds that what makes idea conferences great is that they are about the speakers, the audience and the entire environment, all awash with inspiration. “The [audience] members become as integral to the experience as the speakers,” Wells says. “Of course, there’s no more beautiful, gracious setting than Sea Island. The entire conference offers an experience outside of ordinary life, which is key to letting ideas flow. Many of the presenters want to come back next year, just to be in the audience.” As the number of conferences increases worldwide, so does the number of ticket applicants. The reason for this trend is simple: People want to be an active part of a dissemination of ideas.
“The vision of the Creativity Conference is to make it the best event, in the style of an extended dinner salon, for the delight of Sea Island members, guests and speakers alike,” Moffett says. “[It creates] a space, apart from hectic daily life, where inspiration can take hold. The draw of the Creativity Conference is that it is truly unique. It’s exclusive to Sea Island; it takes place in a setting with unparalleled nature; it’s hosted by a top-flight events staff and it consists of speakers who are cohesive and delighted to be there.”
No matter how lifelong learners get their fill of new ideas, the outcome is always the same: People are brought together and minds are energized. McManus says that TED’s crowds of up to 1,200 always come away with “unexpected connections, extraordinary insights [and] powerful inspiration.”
“Every time I organize or facilitate a Startup Weekend event, I always feel inspired,” Campbell says. “As a group, we gain really valuable insights on what it takes to build a solid team and create a successful company. The attendees are always very passionate about entrepreneurship and innovation, and they’re all committed to coming up with tools and technology and products and services that solve real-world problems.”
The goal for most conferences is to bring in speakers who address fresh topics and whose talks kindle new ideas so everyone can take something away from the experience. These gatherings continue to prove that learning doesn’t stop at a certain age or after graduating from any level of formal schooling. “We strive to curate accomplished, fascinating individuals, from seemingly unrelated fields, who excel at presenting and are also engaging, kind, open and good-natured,” Wells says. “It’s not about volume and numbers; it’s about an experience.”