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Dr. Ngumbi and Dr. Lovett outline the issues with modern research conferences that are stuck in the 20th (or even 19th) century.

By the end of each conference, you’ve heard dozens of people dispense all their knowledge in 10-minute bursts, and you sometimes leave feeling less informed than before you arrived. Where’s the dialog? Where’s the questioning? Where’s the innovation? It’s beyond time that scientific conferences themselves undergo the scientific process, and move forward.

I shouldn’t ever be surprised by these events, but every time I go to one, I am shocked by how boring the facilitation is. Some might defend the format. After all, sage-on-a-stage has worked for hundreds of years.

The question isn’t whether it works, though. It’s whether it could be better. Surely, in an age of cloud technologies and the Internet and social media—not to mention better recognition of soft power and inclusivity and the processes of scientific revolution—there are modes of conference programming that can leapfrog the conventional format.

Having led a number of events over the years that have shirked tradition for more interesting facilitation formats, I know firsthand how disruptive facilitation mistakes can be. But I’ve also seen some incredible results from shaking up the structure. Radhoc’s Unpanel, for instance, turns the structure of a panel upside-down. Instead of having a group of experts” on a stage speaking to an anonymous crowd, the format puts those invited guests in subgroups that get to introduce one another. The audience becomes the panel, and the expert an anchor in the conversation. It gives everyone a chance to connect with the quasi-celebrities anointed by these events. As a bonus, it’s easier for the guests, too—they don’t need to prepare keynotes, only business cards.

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