Designing an Innovative Conference

Amy B. Simpkins

The structure of the 2009 Exploring Innovation conference was designed to be, in itself, an example of innovation. Each piece of the conference was deliberately fit together to create a seamless learning opportunity. To accomplish this, the conference incorporated three distinctly innovative approaches:

  1. engaging participants before, during and after the conference;
  2. responding to a variety of learning styles; and
  3. encouraging cross-sector learning.

Before the conference even began, the virtual Innovation Cafe offered participants a chance to meet and share ideas on the power of innovation. These ideas were incorporated into the conference as daily survey questions were developed, discussion groups and dinner groups were formed, and the format for the roundtable discussion was implemented.

Conference-goers were actively involved throughout, even helping to shape the content and agenda. The most striking example of this came during Thursday's Policy Plenary when public policy experts and the audience used interactive technology to discuss important issues facing community developers. The experts posed questions to the audience, who then discussed the issues amongst themselves. Recorders at each table captured comments online and sent them to the experts. They, in turn, could quickly see on their laptops what was being said and respond. In this manner, a robust conversation took place between more than 150 participants, all in less than two hours.

Specific tools, such as the Innovation Styles Assessment, helped attendees define their particular approach to the sometimes complicated process of innovation. A variety of sessions and formats offered opportunities to maximize these different styles through both active participation and thoughtful reflection.

Participants were encouraged to listen to other ways of thinking to discover innovative solutions to community development problems. At Friday's roundtable discussion, everyone became a "resident expert" by using an active listening process. During the roundtable questions and "fishbowl" conversation, everyone's voice could be heard and everyone had the chance to learn something new.

While these new techniques and learning opportunities were important, their true value came in the degree to which they contributed to the overall goals of the conference. Everything had a purpose. Every piece had to meet the standard of adding value before it was incorporated into the agenda. This echoes the rule heard over and over during the conference: Innovation without value creation is simply a new idea that goes nowhere. The importance of innovation is in the value that it creates. The innovative design of the conference reflects that core belief.

For a detailed description of the Question Circle Process used during the Policy Plenary Discussion or the Roundtable Discussion Question Process and Fishbowl Conversation, visit the Exploring Innovation web site, www.exploringinnovation.org, and download the Methods Tool Kits describing these models.

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