Talking Action

Photo Courtesy of New Yorker Magazine

May 12, 2012

The number of conferences that I receive notices about these days is staggering. It seems that we’ve found a new pastime — talking action. It’s fashionable to dress up, look sharp and professional, and discuss the world’s greatest needs — be it environmental degradation, poverty, food security or global public health.

The plenary sessions are followed by workshops, which are followed by smaller workshops, which are followed by working dinners. And the chatter is endless. The schmoozing is at an all-time high. The exchange of cards, the empty cups of coffee, the cigarette breaks, the clatter of high heels.

All of us attend conferences at some point in our professional careers. And some of them are useful for our businesses, connecting us to others in our industry, linking like minds and hopefully, spurring business along.

Lately, I’ve seen a new kind of conference emerging — offshoots of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences. They are playgrounds for innovators, thinkers, writers, entrepreneurs, “do-gooders.” They’re symposiums, not conferences, meaning that they’re a platform to share ideas more so than business cards.

They’re fantastic for building your knowledge base, meeting inspiring and fascinating people and feeling as though you’re leaving a footprint on the world.

But sometimes, as I stand amid these great minds, innovators and thinkers, I wonder if we miss an opportunity. Why bring together so many brilliant minds without any plan of action? How many more ingenious solutions can we hear about? Should we not be trying some of them?

We’re a creative country, brimming with ambition, compassion and innovation. Yet, the feedback that I hear most from young social entrepreneurs is we’re not collaborating enough. It’s not enough to bring together great minds, we must end these five-day sessions with tangible solutions.

If that means bringing in more public-sector representatives or private-sector participants, we must do so. So that the creativity is not just bred in a vacuum or simply the digital realm of YouTube videos, but in reality as well.

These symposiums can be new grounds for cross-sector interactions. To discuss global public health is easy. To remedy it is tiresome. To spur local entrepreneurship is a noble thought. But to do so requires tenacity. Thus, conferences or symposiums should consider different formats.

Why not assign different challenges to teams and encourage them to come up with solutions? Why not give them the tools to reach out to public officials, the business community and civil society to make it happen? Why not fund the ideas that are plausible? These are feasible, not just on a global stage, but also on a local one.

Global public leaders convene regularly for such conferences — be it the G-8, G-20, World Economic Forum, U.N. summits, etc. But, the public outcry is generally of frustration at what many describe as just a photo op.

So, how can we use TED-like platforms that are insightful and provoking to build more holistic events — ones that don’t just talk action. Silicon Valley has adopted these models, forcing young entrepreneurs to develop business models and launch them within 48 hours. The startup culture emphasizes performance. How about infusing some of that “just do it” attitude into other sectors?

One symposium participant said to me recently, “Think about all the money wasted on food, drink and paraphernalia here. What if we used those funds to jump-start our ideas? What if we voted on the most feasible ideas and injected that money into solutions, not just more chatter?”

I couldn’t agree more with her. Enough with the pens and free coffee mugs. Let’s start building dynamic symposiums that let us get to business, not just talk business.

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