BarnRaise: A new type of conference

October 24, 2014

Throughout my career, I’ve attended a lot of conferences and workshops. I’m sure we can all relate to the anticipation and enthusiasm you have when registering for an event only to finally attend and walk away disappointed.

I’m not saying that all conferences are this way, but I can certainly recall a few where I spent the drive or flight home wondering if the only thing I had gained from two days of sitting in an auditorium was a few pounds from eating too many brownies during the scheduled breaks (and a mountain of unanswered e-mails awaiting my reply).

That feeling was totally busted a few weeks ago at BarnRaise. I left the hybrid conference/workshop/make-a-thon feeling inspired, informed and impressed. The students at the IIT Institute of Design have truly found a sweet spot in the world of conferences and I hope they are able to continue the format.

BarnRaise was an immersive, hands-on, three-day event centered around one social problem: “urban safety in an open-source world.” Nine teams tackled a different aspect of this problem. My colleague Sherry Eckholm and I facilitated a team of eight amazingly talented students and professionals around the following problem statement: “How might we use our knowledge of automated driving technology to make cities safer for pedestrians and cyclists?” The problem statement was provided by conference partner HERE. HERE, a NOKIA company, is in the business of mapping and location intelligence – if you have a navigation system in your car, there’s a good chance it’s from HERE.

While having less than 24 hours to imagine a world of autonomous vehicles was daunting, it gave us the right amount of time to be expansive, creative and incredibly collaborative.

Just like a great cocktail needs the right mix of just a few ingredients (well, IMHO at least), BarnRaise was able to shake, stir and pour a great event and enable the teams to deliver amazing ideas in a stunningly short period of time. The conference kicked off on a Monday evening with a reception and a few keynote speakers. Starting in the evening was a great way to ease in to the event and let some ideas marinate overnight. The following two days also started with a couple of speakers – not an entire day of speaker after speaker, but just a handful of inspiring and informational talks that had relevance to each team’s challenge.

The best part, however, was that the remainder of the time was dedicated to putting Design Thinking into action to solve our problem. While the thought of having less than 24 working hours (more like 15 total) to imagine a world of autonomous vehicles was daunting at times, it gave us just the right amount of time to be expansive, creative and incredibly collaborative. It reassured me that even in a “real” project we can be more efficient and powerful than we believe we can be if we only let it happen and that a good mix of different activities will keep a team moving over the course of a few days.

While the event was an A in my book, there was one drawback that this conference did have in common with every other “bad” one I’ve been too – I still needed a couple days of elastic waist bands to fully recover.

If you are interested in seeing more of what the HERE team came up with at BarnRaise, check out Flickr