Thursday and Friday saw euroGel 2006 in beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark[GP:Copenhagen] – the first Gel (Good Experience Live) conference in Europe. Mark Hurst, creator of the widely successful Gel conference series in New York, wanted to transfer the Gel idea to the Old World as well, and I guess even he was surprised by the number of participants coming from all over the world. There were 185 attendees from 17 countries: 99 from Denmark, 20 from the US, 16 from the UK, ten from Germany and from Norway, eight from Switzerland, six from Sweden, four from France, two from Belgium, Finland, Spain, and the Bahamas, and one each from Luxembourg, Brazil, Iceland, and India!
The sheer number and great diversity of participants with vastly different backgrounds created an atmosphere buzzing with energy and excitement. It was a truly inspirational get together – nearly two hundred people sharing the same idea: something is amiss, our culture and our technology doesn't satisfy the desire for a Good Experience, and we need to start doing something about this. Mark and his team had set up a number of techniques to make it easy for everyone to start connecting at once. Not only had they asked everyone to upload their photo to the conference community website and add some profile information, but they had made the participants contact at least one other person from the list of attendees before the conference and set up an appointment. Moreover, at the very informal conference meet & greet in the great Barbarellah bar[GP:Barbarellah], they handed our glowing bracelets to everyone so that you could see who was a Gel aficionado as well. This, together with the Thursday afternoon seminars organized on short notice, helped tremendously creating some new relationships.
I was happy to finally meet Mark in person (not only technology-facilitated). I attended the Thursday afternoon seminar on "Bringing the Corporate Brand to Life", which not only sported two insightful presentations on branding and changing the awareness of corporate values in big organizations like Novo Nordisk, but also featured a creative session: We were asked to do a visual representation of our corporate / personal / professional brand, which yielded some great insights and will lead to further thoughts.
Friday started with Mark welcoming us to the conference and setting the scene for the talks. He had invited a great variety of speakers from completely different backgrounds: art, architecture, technology, music, writing … people focusing their work on changing the world (or a small part of it, anyway) to create a better, more human(e) experience. A number of themes and motifs emerged in the talks:
- Winning our towns back for the inhabitants – cars have been at the center of city planners' attention for far too long.
- Taking into account handicapped persons' needs and contributions – once we grow old, we will all be happy if we are treated respectfully and can perform our everyday tasks effortlessly. And who says handicapped people cannot contribute their creative share?
- Focusing our actions and goals on a number of basic human values, or Simple Truths, as Reverend Stephen Bauman put it: Human Dignity, Integrity, Mature Love. These values (or variations thereof) kept surfacing in most of the talks, together with Simplicity and Meaning, and Authenticity versus Fake.
I especially enjoyed the talks by Ted Dewan on his Roadwitch project, which focuses on pushing back the cars to make living quarters inhabitable again through rather drastic installations, and Vuk ?osi?, who showed us some hilarious pieces of proof of concept art (e.g., the ASCII version of Deep Throat). Christopher Bauder's presentation (featuring, among other things, the Toneladder made the audience groove along with him (during the breaks, people kept jamming on his ladder), and Alison Young's great voice and angry, sad and happy songs (too few of them!) made everyone shout for more.
Han Bennink's intricate jazz drumming ("all that noise") was a pleasure not only to listen to but also to see. Lise Autogena told the story of her unfatiguing efforts and fights with bureaucrats on both sides of the English Channel to create an arts project involving both France and the UK.
David McQuillen's talk about how they created awareness for the needs of handicapped people within Credit Suisse helped create hope that organizational and mind change is possible. It takes staying power, though, to achieve mind change – and drastic measures like "Experience Immersion", in this case: spending a whole week in a wheelchair to really understand what it means to be handicapped (and it's not the doors or the toilet that's most problematic, it's the way other people treat you – as though you weren't there at all). Stephen Bauman proved that he's a great preacher; after his address (well, sermon, rather), not only he himself seemed close to tears. Max Gadney (BBC) spoke about the importance of truthfulness and attention to detail in news – and how tempting it can be to be suggestive of having greater insight into some matter than one actually has.
Jimmy Wales related his experiences with the press and that the Wikipedia idea seems so hard to grasp that it's often misrepresented. Steffen Gulman and Jan Gehl talked about re-conquering our cities for people and creating a community spirit to revivify a seemingly hopeless town form a city planner's perspective. (More info on the speakers can be found on the euroGel website.)
The attention to detail by Mark and his team created an incredibly rich and satisfying conference experience. Lots of good ideas – like the conference schedule printed upside down on the participants' badges so that one could refer to it without paging through some booklet – let the participants feel completely at ease and being taken care of (nearly pampered), so that we could focus on the talks and the discussions during the breaks and expanding our networks. Good food, a great venue (the Black Diamond), nice, efficient, and attentive service staff – everything contributed to the best conference experience I've had so far. I guess Mark's idea – make people listed to great talks, make good contacts, have a great time, overall: a Good Experience that will carry over into one's work – works quite nicely. It will be a source of (spiritual, even) inspiration and energy for me for quite some time, and it's good to know we're not alone.
Addendum (Sept 15, 2006): Mark has compiled a page with the reports and pictures from euroGel 2006 attendees. I especially like Eric Reiss's comments and Andrew Ferrier's observations. And, if you've got the time, don't miss the Flickr photos tagged "eurogel2006".