AEC conferences, content and ‘unconferences’

Jodie's fantastic photo of Al Burj My friend Jodie Miners is now back in Australia after a whirlwind trip to Europe (and Dubai) that included co-organisation and participation in the London Be2camp 2008 event at the Building Centre on 10 October. She has been blogging about part of her trip – to the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona – and makes some good points about the presence (or, to be more precise, the lack of it) of ICT in both the content and delivery of the event.

ICT content

Writing on presentations about tall buildings, Jodie complains:

… not one architect discussed anything about the IT systems of the building – … nothing about Fibre Optic cabling, how the building with that many people in it will all connect to the internet at the same time, wireless, or even locations and design of server rooms, maybe having a data centre in the building, or anything remotely resembling IT….

She continues:

On the subject of IT, there was no IT discussed at the conference at all. No practice management topics about the use of computers in architecture, no topics about how Second Life and other virtual worlds are (or are not) changing the face of architecture, or not even any topics on new presentation techniques. … Architecture is about communication – communication of the idea behind the building, communication with the environment, communication with the occupants of the building. How can architects ignore the most prevalent communication medium of our times – the internet?

For the ICT-oriented attendee, too many architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry events ignore the ICT aspect (sometimes they ignore the whole related area of building services, despite this being fundamental to the life-time occupation of many buildings). The tendency often creeps into official industry reports and trade journals too. Earlier this year, I moaned about the low profile given to ICT issues in the UK Government’s Strategy for Sustainable Construction; I also felt that proposals, in Construction Matters, for the Chief Construction Officer gave insufficient weight to the role of ICT (though, having seen the brief since expanded slightly to include responsibility for innovation – see post – perhaps this is being addressed). Similarly, the industry trade press can tend to overlook ICT provision (though I know Building magazine has recently done a feature on data-centres, and it had a really interesting article on IT provision in schools), preferring to concentrate on the bigger budget issues during design and construction delivery of foundations, structure, cladding, contracts, health and safety, etc.

Is it just because ICT has become part of the plumbing, just part of the background? The vast majority of today’s professionals are increasingly heavily reliant upon mobile telephones and laptops giving them access to email and a host of other office and more AEC-focused applications, and yet they rarely give much thought to the infrastructure needed to deliver information to them – unless it goes wrong, of course!

Conferences and ‘unconferences’

Any way, back to Jodie’s trip. Excluding the World Buildings Directory online site, she ripped into the online element of the World Architecture Festival:

Technology at the conference was lacking also – there were about 6 PCs available for internet usage (which was at least good) and no wifi. There was no streaming of the presentations on-line for later viewing by attendees and the “social networking” (if you could call it that) on the WAF site was a huge joke, as it only allowed emails to one person at a time. … the main WAF site … was quite ugly and very difficult to navigate.

Here, I think Jodie reflects the insights gained from being very Web 2.0-literate. For many conventional conference attendees, the idea of streaming presentations online will be a novel concept; laptops and mobile phones should remain switched off during sessions; and ‘social networking’ means wine and canapes – not blogs and tweets. The conference organisers here are also being quite conventional, with a traditional conference website, online booking and some use of email. However, new types of events – barcamps, ‘unconferences’ – are breaking the mould, using ICT to open new opportunities for participation.

Attend an ‘unconference’ like Be2camp 2008 (or this week’s Amplified08 in London on Thursday evening, as I am), and you will find attendees wielding laptops, Macs, webcams, mobile phones and digital cameras. Notes and comments on presentations will be live-blogged to the web, alongside video, slide-shares and still photos. This creates a multi-media collage of content, discussion and interpretation that is no longer restricted just to the event venue, but is shared with interested people out on the web. Moreover, this communication can also be two-way – at Be2camp, for example, we welcomed questions from remote attendees, submitted via Twitter or CoverItLive – and will grow after the event as other people add their own ideas and contributions.

And as more individuals become Web 2.0-savvy, conventional conferences may need to adapt accordingly. For example:

  • attending an event might involve some online social networking before delegates even travel
  • event websites could be more interactive, with blogs, discussion forums, etc, and evolve over time
  • the ‘agenda’ (if there is one!) might end up being a more fluid
  • venues might need to accommodate live-blogging participants (power, wifi, etc) and be flexible enough to accommodate different types/sizes of groups
  • speakers might want to consider posting their slides online and think about how they take questions
  • event feedback forms could be augmented by online polling tools, etc.

I am not saying that all industry conferences should be run as unconferences. Clearly, some event organisers and many attendees will be uncomfortable with some of the ideas I’ve discussed above – possibly even more so in the sometimes quite conservative AEC industry. However, particularly as the participative nature of web activity becomes even more pervasive, I think mainstream conferences will need to adapt some of their existing tools and techniques. Failure to do so could result in large numbers of would-be delegates voting with their feet (physical and virtual) and establishing competing alternative events.

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  1. […] Be2camp organiser Martin Brown (here) and I (here and here, for example) have both written several recent blog postings about the AEC sector’s […]

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