What to Do – and What Not to Do – When Hosting Conferences

February 28, 2024 22:35

I spent the morning earlier today at an excellent conference hosted by The Economist, titled “Technology for Change Asia”. The conference promised – and delivered -- the opportunity to deep dive into and tackle thorny issues on the frontier of technology.

This morning featured a panel that explored the synergy and interactions between quantum computing and artificial intelligence. For one, Michio Kaku was absolutely terrific with his incisive insights into the relationship between life, nature, and quantum computing, juxtaposing the last item with digital technology-based developments in AI. Tom Standage held his own as an impressive host and moderator, and I was able to squeeze in a short question concerning the implications of the ongoing competition over semiconductors and the purported ‘end of’ Moore’s law on quantum computing.

As it turns out, the debate and race in quantum computing turns less on semiconductor wherewithal and quality, than on the ingenuity and concentration of technical personnel capable of assembling the most intricate hardware that could get the job done. China has made promising progress through a largely state-spearheaded effort, whilst in the US, the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by private tech giants Google, Microsoft, and IBM. ‘Origin Wukong’, a third-generation superconducting quantum computer, was launched by Beijing earlier this year – despite fairly apparent Western efforts to strangle Chinese progress on this front, the collective ingenuity of scientists and technocrats in China has allowed the country to plough through, just yet.

Now, this is not a piece exploring the nuances and subtleties of the technological race or Sino-American competition. Instead, it’s a reflection upon what one should do, and refrain from doing, when hosting conferences. The Economist did a smashing job on this front, with a strictly enforced adherence to interaction as an overarching principle. The audience were prompted and given a chance to vote – in opinion polls, to be clear. They were also encouraged to raise their hands and questions when invited, and to join in on the discussion through other, non-verbal forms of communication, such as applause. None of these needed to or did in fact reduce the level of decorum in the venue – a very respectable and augustly decorated room nested within the Grand Hyatt.

Good conferences disseminate and transmit information. They convey data points and provide individuals with the room to hear, listen from, and learn from leading experts with genuine insights. Yet what differentiates between the good and the excellent, is the extent to which the audience has skin in the game.

Excellent conferences are conducive towards the creation and exploration of new information, the fostering of new relationships, and the transformation and amplification of existing knowledge into actionable prescriptions. Folks attend such conferences not for skin-deep, shallow networking purposes (not only, at the very least), but to be excited, challenged, prodded, and pulled in different directions.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many conferences that proliferate throughout the world today – not only in Asia, but also in the United States, Europe, and beyond. Across the board we have seen the rise of ‘cookie-cutter’ conferences, where speakers rehash and read out pre-written, didactically dictated speeches, devoid of emotions and authenticity. Audience are given absolutely no room or opportunity to ask questions – to the extent questions are ‘asked’ by the mechanical and deeply uncomfortable hosts, they are almost always taken verbatim from the ‘FAQs’ on the website, or crafted in a way that approximates the safe and adulating. In short, there is no soul, no dynamism, and no room for genuine interlocution, interrogation, let alone debate, in these moribund conferences. When viewed in this light, the Economist is by no means a shining paragon or beacon, but its event management team does know how to curate and arrange a discussion that is not forgettable.

The ideal conference should feature speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds – not just in terms of ethnicity or gender, but also when it comes to age, occupation, and educational or professional training, all of which most certainly play a germane role in shaping and influencing the speaker’s views. How can we have conversations about our world’s future, if there is no youth on the panel? How can we meaningfully talk about Hong Kong’s role in the world, if the only voices that are platformed, are folks who see the city in an unequivocally and unmitigably negative or positive light (I’m obviously not talking about think-tanks based in the West, hosting conversations that are purportedly about ‘the present state of Hong Kong, right?)? Where is the room for nuance, for critical reflection and engagement, and for genuine representation?

And of course, the format matters. Conferences should steer clear of monotonic lectures delivered – with no interruption, no pause, and no introspection and engagement – from speakers who view their mandates to be prompt and efficient speech-readers. There’s another place for such means of knowledge dissemination: we call that a text-to-speech device. Oratorical skills are not a bonus; they are a must-have for anyone who is seeking to conduct public-oriented communication. Even if the audience does not understand one fully, it should be the case that the audience is interested in so doing – and not bored to the point of tedium and exhaustion by direction-less tirades.

In short, the Economist has performed an admirable job, and I certainly hold the view that here in Hong Kong, we can be and should aspire towards being better, more invigorating, and hence more enlightening organisers of debates, dialogues, and discussions. All speech has limits – that’s a given. But not all speeches are boring. Indeed, from Ronald Reagan to Sun Yat-sen, from Margaret Thatcher to Aung San Suu Kyi, there’s no shortage of sound, eloquent orators in history from which we can learn. Perhaps conference organisers should also take a leaf, or two, out of Barack Obama’s playbook – do better? Yes, they can.

Assistant Professor, HKU