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Some Thoughts On Past and Future Conference Activities

(by PatrickSalsbury)

Each year, on the final day of the WFS Annual Conference (the day after the the primary talks and workshops have ended), the Professional Futurist members of the World Future Society get together and spend a day in together focusing on different aspects of the Futures field as it relates to those who are involved somehow as part of their profession.

Often the groups will have a couple multi-hour "break out" sessions where the "futurists of a feather flock together" to discuss issues relating to their specializations. The entire cross-disciplinary group meets in the morning, at lunch, and at the end of the day to report back on what their respective groups discussed, any concerns, resolutions actions or directions they were planning to head in.

The unfortunate part is that, due to the limited time of the final day, and the fact that people have to catch planes back to their homes, there isn't much overlap or cross-pollination, and I've heard numerous people in various groups expressing the wish that they could get to know more about what the other groups do. As it works out, most of the Consulting Futurists stay with each other, as do the Educational and Organizational Futurists. Even after having attended the 3 conferences in 2000, 2001 and 2002, I'm afraid I still don't quite know what some of the other groups do in their professional work, or what synergies might arise between our groups if we could get them to interact more.

To that end, We've been trying to implement tools and technologies to allow the futurists to keep in touch for the other 364 days of the year that they aren't in the Professional Member's Forum.

In 2000, at the conference in Houston, TX, we decided to form the [future-studies] email list and discussion group. As of Feb, 07, 2003, the list has about 85 members, which is still not quite enough of a critical mass to keep activity at a constant level. It will go in fits and spurts, then get quiet for a few weeks or months. Not all of the list members are from the WFS Professional Member's forum. Some are other members of the community who are interested in learning about and studying the future. And yet, between 1000-1500 people attend the Annual Conferences. It would seem that we could do much better in trying to recruit these futurists and getting them connected to one-another.

At the 2001 Conference, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, the Professional Member's Forum met to discuss various issues, catch up with friends not seen in a year, and report on what was going on in the futures profession. I had just begun to learn about this Wiki software, and tried to explain it to the group, but wasn't familiar enough with it myself to articulate it properly and do it justice. (I was enthusiastic as all get-out, but no one really understood what I was babbling about. :-) )

I had also brought along my copy of the book "The Kids' Whole Future Catalog", which the futurists of course loved and agreed should be republished. This has since grown into the effort to pubish an online and updated version of The Whole Future Catalog within this Wiki space. It's coming along, but could certainly use more input. (Hint! Hint!)

For the 2002 Conference in Philadelphia, PA, LynnBurton, suggested using this Wiki software in the /Educational Futurists group. She felt we should try to expose everyone in the group to the software, provide lessons and hands-on experience, and at the same time try to capture as much of the discussion during that final day as we could. (We also captured URLs of useful sites, forecasting tools, questions and ideas that arose from our discussions that day, and links to web pages and publications various members had to share from their respective areas of future studies.)

I brought a small ethernet hub, and built a tiny Local Area Network (LAN) which consisted of a notebook computer on each of the 4 tables in our room. We were not connected to the Internet, just each other, but I had brought a copy of the Wiki software so we didn't need the Internet. During the workshop Lynn deliberately put away the easels and paper pads and markers. Whenever someone had something they wanted to write down, I went to their table and helped them put it into the Wiki, instead, and instantly publish it so that people could access the data from any of the four tables. (And when I returned to California, it all got loaded onto the website, and is in front of you now.) Each table could be typing simultaneously so at times we had 4 different wiki pages being worked on at once. (I, however, had trouble spreading myself that thin... :-) )

At the end of the day, when the Lynn and I got up to present the results of our approx. 2.5-3 hour session after lunch, rather than having the customary sheet of paper with a few scribbled notes about a few points that the 16-20 people had reached consensus on, we plugged in a laptop computer to a projector, presented a formatted, interlinked set of Wiki-generated web pages, cross-linked to each other, with working links to external sites referencing supporting info from our discussions, and personal pages so that colleagues could stay in touch without having to spend lots of time scribblng down each other's email and web addresses. At the end of our 2.5-3 hour session, the 16-20 people in the room had collaboratively built 8 brand new web pages, and had logged a total of 23 separate editing sessions on those pages. Not bad for a bunch of Wiki newbies! :-) (And I think only one piece of easel paper got by us. Someone got up to write down a list on the pad, and by the time he had sat down, I had typed the whole page into the Wiki. It became the /Educational Futurists page, actually.)

Lynn wrote a nice report of our session in the Fall 2002 issue of ["Futures Research Quarterly"], if any of you get that. (Thanks, Lynn! :-) )

The other groups seemed both astonished at the amount of data we had captured from our afternoon session and were able to present as a live website, and also possibly just a tiny bit jealous that they hadn't gotten to try out the shiny new Wiki toy. :-) There were many requests that next year we make sure that each group (if indeed we do break-out sessions again) or the entire group (if we stay together) have access to the Wiki software and use it to capture as much of their sessions as possible. (I'm certainly happy and hoping to do so. I had hoped for that in 2002, but realize in retrospect that it might have been a bit ambitious for last summer, since it was the first time bringing it there. It was good practice with the 16-20 people in our group, and I think it should scale well this summer.

...which brings us to...

The 2003 Annual Conference will be held during the third week of July in San Francisco, CA. It is hoped that all of the Professional Futurist groups will be able to utilize the Wiki technology at this year's conference, and that we'll be able to capture much more of the discussion and info-share that happens during the workshops and in the conversations between sessions.

And I hesitate to point this out, but there's no reason to wait until July! If you've got something to contribute, please post it! If everyone takes a minute or two to read the WhatIsAWiki page, and then another 5-10 minutes to learn some of the basic WikiEditingRules, we won't have to waste any precious time training people during the day of the Forum. We have 5.5 months to learn this, to practice, to ask questions. At the conference, we'll have about 5.5 hours. What's the obvious choice? :-)

Honestly, I have much larger ambitions for this year's conference. Here's some of what I'm thinking...

Rather than just networking the 80-100 Professionals on the last day, I'd rather network the entire multi-day conference. I've talked with some of my computer-geek friends over here, and it would probably be rather easy to get the entire place hooked to the Internet for the duration of the conference, have wireless connectivity throughout the place and those with laptops and notebook computers could just rent a wireless network card for the weekend (from the hotel or something we set up in advance with a vendor) and everyone can connect into their email, world news, whatever, without having to look for a phone line.

But that's just for starters. Rather than having the whole program printed out on paper, and having schedules posted on easels outside of doors as we've done for years, have the entire schedule be available online over this wireless network, accessible from a live database, and viewable over your notebook (if you've got one), and over a wireless palmtop computer that you "check out" for the duration of the conference. Something like a [Palm Pilot] or [Handspring Visor] or a [Zaurus] (those are *really* cool!) (Though, to be realistic, since I haven't heard any feedback from *anyone* as of this writing (Early June, 2003), It's unlikely we'll be able to wrangle lots of cool wireless tech-toys by late July for the conference. Keep that in mind while reading the text below, which was written in Feb., 2003.)

I seriously think that if we plan ahead, we could very likely get a whole passel of these things donated by vendors here in Silicon Valley. Companies A, B & C each bring in hundreds of their most whiz-bang models for the duration of the conference. Each attendee gets to sign out one of them (and leaves a credit card number/impression as a deposit). Throughout the conference, all members are able to get live and up-to-the-minute info and schedule updates/room changes, as well as world news, check their email, etc. (At last year's conference in Philly, several talks were cancelled and others were moved at the last minute. They put a supplemental-update in my "Envelope Of Many Papers" with the updates, and unfortunately, I didn't finish reading through the 80-page program and make it to the update packet until the second day, at which point I noticed that I had completely missed a very interesting talk the day before. Needless to say, it's 2003, and we're the World Future Society. I think we can do better than paper-based schedules that are inaccurate by the time they're distributed.)

So anyway, everyone gets a little PDA palmtop-computer thingie, they can access data and schedules, they can find out what's for lunch, they can Instant-Message their friend in another talk and schedule where to meet for lunch. They can look at a conference map and find out how to get to their second-pick talk if they find that the current one isn't quite what they were looking for. (Last year, Art Shostak encouraged everyone to move about and mix up the talks, not staying in any one for too long, as you could always get a tape of what you missed. With everyone being connected, you could have online realtime polls, you could even send out a message to a bunch of folks saying "Time to shuffle! If you liked this talk, try one of these two happening near you. If you *didn't* like this talk, try one of these three down the hall..."

We could get really creative with a system like this, and at the end of the conference, the people return the handheld computers to a collection point, or tap on their screen and fill out the little form that says "I like this. I'm keeping it and taking it home with me. You have my credit card number and can keep the deposit fee."

Thoughts? Ideas? I've talked to a bunch of my friends here, and it's all quite doable. We'd need to find out about the palmtop vendors, but I don't think that would been out-of-reach. I've got a friend who's a database-whiz and is actually programming software to let palmtops and PDAs access databases over wireless connections! He's been learning how to do exactly what we'd need! :-) There are also a bunch of networking and Unix geeks, and many of us are out of work due to the market collapse over here, so we've got the time (and between us, probably most of the hardware) to set up and configure the wireless network, server machines, web servers, databases, etc. We'd still have to get the conference data from WFS, but that should be easy if done early enough, and would probably save a fortune in printing costs.

It'd be kind of fun to do a "paperless conference", and set an example of what the future might hold. At last year's Forum, I felt that rather than just getting mention in some academic journals, the World Future Society's conference should be showing up on the tech-websites and things like "Beyond Tomorrow"-style TV shows, etc.

Given the generally crappy state of the world political/economic situation right now, it'd be nice to do something that inspired and gave people hope about the future. And I think we could do that, but not if we just keep doing the same things we've always done.

OK, enough typing from me. It's your turn.


(Would someone who knows about some of these other practices fill in the blanks? I don't know enough about groups like the Consulting or Organizational Futurists to be able to add anything useful there. Thanks!)

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