How TED-style conferences miss the point: the Social Good Summit

by Meg Evans, Manager of Social Innovation

Graça Machel, Melinda Gates. Dr. Muhammad Yunus, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Michael Dell, Edward Norton, Kathy Calvin, Helen Clark, Jill Bolte Taylor, Bill McKibben – this week’s Social Good Summit was a veritable who’s who of the world’s do-gooders. Sitting in the darkened auditorium at the 92nd St. Y, as a philanthropy professional, the level of detailed, tactical discussion on stage was heartening. It wasn’t just a “let’s change the world!” call to action, but rather a discussion of the micro, along with the macro, challenges to addressing the most vexing social problems.

After each panel or speaker, I couldn’t help but want to get up and take action – enraged by persisting issues of child marriage or fired up about the value of giving women financial control. Yet, when I stood up in the dark room, it was usually to sneak out quietly to grab a snack, apologizing in hushed tones as I climbed over lit laptop screens with active Twitter feeds.

Once outside of the auditorium, the small green room buzzed with journalists getting ready to interview the next celebrity to come off stage. Without name tags, mingling felt like a rude interruption to conversations in progress, made more difficult by the cramped space. I, like most others there I think, stuck to conversations and coffees with those folks I already knew. Each panel transitioned seamlessly to the next with no breaks in the 6-hour agenda – as such, talking to your neighbor felt disrespectful to the panelists.

In short, the conference set-up left out arguably the most important of the social good puzzle – connection.   I furiously tweeted, tagging everything with #2030NOW – trying to see who else was in attendance, trying to start Twitter conversations, and trying to make connections via Topi (the conference app). In short, in a hyper-connected digital world, I failed to really connect with anyone.

The Social Good Summit is certainly not alone. It’s common practice to emulate the popular TED-style events — quick presentations anchored by a memorable story and rife with tweet-able sound bites. But what about making actual change through meaningful conversations and partnerships? I know that there are other conferences with more time for mingling and meet and greets and I wouldn’t expect to have a lengthy conversation with Idris Elba, but when you have a room full of attendees invested in this work why not provide the space for them to talk with each other?

I came to the Summit seeking potential partners to launch a broad initiative centered on skills-based education in the developing world. Jane Wurwand, the CEO of Dermalogica mentioned this point. Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan, discussed how education was the chief tool of empowerment (although we might disagree on the value of vocational training).  I’m sure there were others in the room passionate about the same issues. But how do we go about following up to make meaningful change? While we’re all in the same room, let’s have conversations longer than 140 characters.

If you want to get together for a 140+ character conversation, feel free to email me – meg@udemy.com.

Udemy’s Social Innovation program supports nonprofits, social entrepreneurs and change makers around the world with two core components (1) monetary grants to help social-change agents create their own online Udemy courses and (2) affordable access to Udemy courses and solutions, enabling organizations to tap the deep breadth of expertise available in Udemy’s global skills marketplace.