Behind the Scenes

It Takes a Conference

How face-to-face events address worldwide challenges.

When I scanned a recent Fast Company headline—“The Man Who Reduced Homelessness in Utah by 91%”—I was intrigued. Those of us who travel often for work are particularly aware of the dilemma of homelessness. We see it firsthand in the streets of the cities we visit. According to the article, there are 500,000 homeless people in the U.S. alone.

The man responsible for reducing Utah’s homelessness is Lloyd Pendleton, and the article summarizes his TEDMED 2016 talk, which took place in Palm Springs, California, on Nov. 30–Dec. 2. When he was first offered the opportunity to help out with Utah’s largest center for homelessness, Pendleton said, he had preconceived notions about homeless people. He became aware, he told the TEDMED audience, of a new approach called the “harm-reduction model,” but wasn’t initially sold on it. Harm reduction focuses on minimizing the ill effects of substance abuse among the homeless through negotiation, underpinned by the notion of treating them with dignity and respect.

But his views changed, he said, when he learned of a related concept—Housing First, which makes providing the homeless with permanent housing a priority. What turned him around? A conference in 2003, where he heard about some of Housing First’s positive outcomes and decided to develop a similar initiative in Utah. In the more than a decade since he put what he learned at the conference into practice, that state’s homeless population has been drastically reduced.

To recap, a chronic societal ill was addressed with remarkable success because one attendee took what he learned at a conference and applied it to his life’s work. And this inspiring story came to Fast Company readers because of another conference, TEDMED.

It’s such a great example of the significant impact the meetings and events industry has on the world — the kind of thing we take particular pride in showcasing in Convene. We know that gathering professionals together is one of the surest ways to make progress and bring about positive change.

But it’s not happening in the same way—via onstage presentations made to passive audiences—anymore. Even so-called “participatory” formats aren’t enough. It’s truly collaborative initiatives—workshops, crowdsourced sessions, hackathons—that enable conference-goers today to roll up their sleeves and contribute to meaningful outcomes.

This month’s Giving Back offers a textbook case. A hackathon that was part of a Cisco Live US 2016 effort to bring employees’ technological expertise to bear on the worldwide problem of honeybee decline is now providing the scientific community with important data about this mysterious and urgent situation. And their work, involving tiny sensors, promises to have a huge ripple effect. 

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.