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Making Space for the Unexpected

In life, we often try to over-organize and micro-plan, losing sight of the fact that the most wonderful part of our days may be the most unanticipated. Sometimes we can plan for the unexpected to happen, and other times it comes as a surprise and sweep us off our feet.

Having attended multiple conferences around the world and having started the A Better World by Design conference, I have come to appreciate the hard work and planning that goes into producing a well-designed event. Like all great design, the details of a good event are well considered, yet I have found that it is often hard to put your finger on what makes your experience unforgettable. Great speakers may serve as highlights, but ultimately, it is the unanticipated and intangible elements – unexpectedly connecting with interesting people or discovering new perspectives through conversations – that provide the unforgettable experience of a great conference. For this reason, it is important to design spaces for the “unexpected” to occur.

Spaces that generate conversations

Transitions are often the most under-appreciated elements of a conference, yet they are like the invisible glue that holds everything together. They encompass everything in-between the main events at a conference – the intermissions, the travel from one event to another, the pathway to the restroom and even the designated smoking areas. Similar to a play, when the transitions are done well, it goes unnoticed; but when they are ill-considered, it can result in a sour impression of the conference. For this reason, carefully considered paths and location of services could make a huge difference in the overall experience of the attendees.

The Better World by Design conferences attracted leaders and advocates from an array of industries, and it is important to us to make space for them to converse, inspire one another and generate new ideas. We deliberately plan for long breaks between sessions and carefully consider the flow of people to get as much face-to-face time throughout the conference. The attendees cross paths while they traveled from the different events. As they travel to the various panel discussions, they pass through open foyers where they find tall tables and clusters of seating that creates pockets of spaces for conversation. Food and drinks are made readily available to set a relaxed tone, allowing people to let their let their guard down and connect with others.

You never know whom you are going to meet and what they could offer. At the 2008 conference, a few of the presenters stayed behind after the sessions were over and brainstormed ways of working together. Many of these conversations have solidified into actual projects that are being implemented. They are a direct result of encouraging these influential leaders from affordable housing, education, mobile technology and design talk about how they could make the world a better place. This is more than what any conference organizers could ask for. It fulfills both the vision and goals of the conference. As a result, we (will?) put a bigger emphasis on social events and made more space for these discussions to happen during our next conference.

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Accepting the Unexpected

The TED conference is one of the most respected, exclusive and well-produced conferences in the world. Even at TED, however, things don’t always go smoothly. At the 2008 annual conference, a technical issue during the BBC debate put an uncomfortable pause in the program. As the whispers in the crowds got louder, a man who was sitting in the back row spoke out and broke silence. Everyone turn to find the man who being rude and making his thoughts heard, only to discover Robin Williams. Thrilled, the organizers invited onto the stage in a sea of applause to perform an impromptu stand-up comedy to buy the technical team time. It broke the tension in the room, everyone was delighted and entertained during this unexpected break. Perhaps the delightful nature of a surprise is why we call moments like these ‘happy accidents’.

Conferences may plan for the unexpected to happen, but at times, organizers are confronted by circumstances that are beyond their control. Even in times like these, the ‘unexpected’ still finds its foothold and it is just as beautiful and rewarding as when it is intentional. Robin Williams need not have announced himself, and the organizers need not have invited him to perform, but yet it happened. It diverted people’s attention from the awkward void and produced an unforgettable memory. That video have since been published online and have gone viral, having seen by thousands.

Tino Chow