A review of "The Conference"
Exploring complexity in a digital world
“The Conference” in Malmö, Sweden, is a conference of a different kind: Internationally very popular and expertly organized, it is now in its ninth year and once again devoted to really big questions. What really happens after death? What's behind the universe? And why should(n’t) AI be able to create art? These aren’t simple topics. But the questions always relate to the overall motto: “Exploring complexity in a digital world.” And since sum.cumo is also a part of this digital world, Janina (Pleitner), Julia (Gebauer), Volker (Növermann) and Michael (Welz) journeyed to Malmö at the end of August. Of course, we're curious to hear what they brought back.
Why visit The Conference?
Julia: Here, day-to-day business remains outside, for once. The topics are wide-ranging and selected to get you to look at the big picture, to encourage you to solve current questions and problems. These aren’t always related to digitization, but they are connected to the challenges of a digital world. The talks remind me a lot of TED talks; the speakers came from research, startups, Google or Japan and amazed me with what they do and think. Or did you know that the construction industry is just as digitized as hunting?
The location was also carefully selected: In 2017 all of the nearly 900 participants gathered in the Malmö Opera, and this year there was even more space for us in the Slagthuset (a former slaughterhouse), with a total of three stages. The organizers are careful to produce as little waste as possible; for example, there is no plastic at all. The food is vegetarian and comes exclusively from Malmö; the cappuccino is also free and it's fantastic.
Volker: The Conference offers so many different topics and examines each from several perspectives with a panel of speakers from all over the world. From design to democracy to deepfakes, you can pick the talks that really interest you. In addition to the speakers and their presentations, the atmosphere is unique. I had the feeling that I was attending an event made by the community for the community, without powerful financial sponsors visible everywhere who are eager to present themselves. The international audience, the conference design, the organization and events, the weather, the music and excellent presenters finished off the conference perfectly.
Janina: To that I would add: The speakers also felt like they were part of the community. They attended all the talks, too, and took part in the conference together with us without making any kind of fuss about themselves. We were also surprised again and again about how far the participants traveled to come specifically to this event: from Montreal, by train from Barcelona, from the United States …
Michael: I don't think any of the participants goes to the conference to get technical professional training. The topics are too broad for that, which I found very positive for this type of conference. The talks invite you to see a bigger picture in everyday (working) life and to look at things from a different angle. Personally, I took home a lot of inspiration and creative suggestions.
Which talks did you take the most from, and why?
Volker: The two talks in the panel “Hacking Democracy” deal with the different understandings of democracy in terms of elections and the glue that holds a society together. First, the Finnish researcher Maria Malho reports on experiment in her country with a guaranteed basic income. From there, she develops a model of universalism that places participation above ownership. This is followed by a crash course on the Irish voting system, with the amazing conclusion that, with this kind of codetermination, we would have been able to avoid a number of negative events, such as the elections of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. In the Irish system known as zombie voting, second and third priorities of voters are recorded, so that votes do not become worthless as soon as the first-choice candidate or party is no longer in the running.
Julia: Essayist Meghan O'Gieblyn combines thoughts on sci-fi and religion and shares her work on rebirth and transhumanism. I like her approach – she argues that various metaphors always determine the discourse of existential questions, which means these metaphors must be chosen with caution. Her talk ranges from Dante to Elon Musk and she makes a point to include her own crisis of faith, too.
Julia: When a professor of data science is also a comedian, the result can only be a success. Be sure to watch the video! Andrea talks about the challenge of measuring an abstract construct such as diversity and emphasizes that data does not reflect the truth at all, but that what really matters are the right questions.
Julia: Che-Wei Wang is a designer who works mostly with AI and believes that systems should be built around people, not around AI. I support his thesis that ethics and political leadership are needed more than ever in today's world.
Julia: A physicist at CERN devotes himself, with an almost theatrical flair, to one of the biggest questions of all. Be sure to take a look!
Volker: An American particle physicist talks about his work at CERN and the discovery of the Higgs boson, which was honored with the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics. The talk is a mixture of physics and philosophy, embedded in a great story and presented with a lot of humor. Even as a nonphysicist, I had no trouble following the talk and in immersing myself in a world of thought that is far removed from my day-to-day business, and taking time to engage the supposedly big questions of life.
Michael: How many superconducting electromagnets would one need to build a particle accelerator around the edge of the solar system and why would one (want to) do that at all? A wittily presented summary of the current state of research in the field of quantum physics and the questions that science is posing there.
Janina: Anna Åhnberg reports in her lecture “Under Measure – Measuring What Matters” on the path that Oatly took to measure figures that are truly important for society, namely the CO2 emissions of Oatly oat milk. For me, the talk boiled down to the following takeaway or confirmations:
- It is simply more fun to follow a lecture that has graphics tailored to the company rather than a lot of dry text.
- Doing nothing just because we are afraid of it won't get us anywhere – “Just do it and risk it … hug the big scary monster … Learning is the only way to move forward.”
Janina: In this talk – or actually it should be called a Jazz live performance – Mark d’Inverno explained that a product can only be developed via the “power in the mind.” He emphasizes that you need a lot of feedback, that self-reflection is very important and that we simply can't improve without feedback.
Michael: A review of the changes that accompanied industrialization and the problems we created ourselves with high tech. Kris de Decker operates a solar-powered low-tech website, which he has optimized for the lowest possible power consumption. The website goes off-line when it rains … He talks about how new technologies create problems that didn’t exist before, which then have to be solved by other technologies.
Michael: Our entire cloud infrastructure generates more CO2 every year than the airline industry, while we are already generating far more data than we can store. Cyrus Clarke is part of a research team that has been looking for alternative ways to store data in a CO2-neutral way. He demonstrates how our data can be ultracompactly sequenced in DNA, stored in plants and then decoded. His vision: A cloud forest as a data archive alongside existing infrastructure.
There was live music, too:
Anything else you want to mention?
Volker: I was able to take home thought-provoking ideas that I am still reflecting on today, such as intelligent money or CO2 pricing of goods. Not every talk was equally exciting, but all of the presenters convinced me of their passion for their topic. That’s another thing I took home, apart from the expert input: letting myself be carried by the enthusiasm, simply doing things without knowing where they would lead and learning along the way. Or as one presenter put it: “The fear of the unknown or of not being perfect is the big monster. We can't just sit and wait, we must act.”
Julia: Malmö is a city by the sea, and that already says a lot :-) We had 30-degree weather for two days and the Swedes celebrated that as they should. For several years now, Malmö has had a kind of harbor district with access to the water, where there was a lot going on. In the evening, we were invited to take a jogging tour through the city and then the big party headed to a boule bar. The bottom line is that Malmö alone is worth a trip, and as a location for the conference it is fantastic. I like the easygoing Scandinavian atmosphere, and I hope to be there again next time. In terms of content and organization, there was nothing that could have gone better.
Janina: I'm already looking forward to next year. Even if we can't be there again, the makers of the conference put all the talks online, letting the whole community enjoy the talks live, or even later. This is another example of why the conference is less interested in sponsors than in creating added value for the community.
Michael: Many topics from the talks have stayed on my mind since then. I particularly liked the focus on sustainability, which was evident throughout the entire conference and the organization. I'd go back!