Digital 2015 At Celtic Manor

IMG_1570Conferences are all about ideas. They are about sharing experience, interpretations of experiences and new understanding. They’re about exchanges and transfers, inspiration and encouragement, networking and collaboration.

Conferences are about a whole bunch of things which are apparently hard to neatly summarise.

In part that’s because you get all sorts of ideas and all kinds of messages, particularly at large conferences. Within that mash will be new, striking, innovative ideas, as well as recycled and slightly tired ideas.

This is what I, personally found tricky about Digital 2015 – the large and lavish, technology-centric beast of a conference and exhibition hosted at Newport’s Celtic Manor Resort. One skim of the website’s agenda page left your scrolling finger exhausted. How could so many people fit in one event? How focused could it be? How consistently high quality could it be? How much of it would really be about digital, rather than simply working in the modern age?

A glance at the physical programme was similarly bewildering. Newly arranged into different subject ‘streams’, rather than days, navigating and comprehending what was what and where to go – that was initially tricky.

IMG_1566There were dynamic, pizzazzy talks by guys in sharp suits and designer spectacles: people who fit the mould of innovators and thinkers and thought leaders, possibly hired as much for their charisma, energy, and brand evangelism – as much as for anything they do in an office sitting at a desk.

Anthony Vanky of the world renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) delivered a slick presentation largely about urban data visualisation, energy consumption in big cities around major events, satellite imagery with glowing heat maps. It all looked like pretty sexy stuff.

Jeremy Waite of Salesforce spoke of business competition and the importance of speed in creating the edge, how the smallest fraction of a second can mean billions of dollars in stock market terms. (He made it sound more interesting than I just did there, honest).

But there was a roughly equal number of talks by guys (considerably more men than women, it has to be said), who looked caught in the headlights. They stammered into recycling the digital messages that anyone with ears or eyes has long tired of consuming. ‘Social media is changing the way businesses work; technology is really important to the economy; people can have more independence in working now.’

IMG_1567I had another discomfort about the event, which might well be a result of my own misunderstanding, but which I still couldn’t shake off.

There was evidently massive public / government-funded investment in the event. Was it really to educate, or a lot to show off to the UK and the world? Or both? Wales badly needs to attract a lot of inward investment and new businesses in order to meet targets and fill the numerous new developments planned, under construction and already built – specifically in and around Cardiff.

So it’s understandable in one respect, a worthwhile initiative for that alone. But somehow, from the outside glancing in, it still feels to me like a hopeful lunge, an audacious long shot, a bit ‘hand wavy’.

There seems to have been a considerable recording budget, all the lens-men (25-30 mostly mature gentlemen?) – film and stills, audiovisual decks manned by 1-6 people in each auditorium, stacks of staff organising and marketing months in advance, civil servants and outsourced providers; not to mention the hosting and catering in a very lavish venue.

While you might expect it to be a loss-making exercise, some cash is returned somewhere (not sure where) by those paying considerable fees for sponsorship and exhibition space. But where is the measurable return for such massive investment? How is its success evaluated? Performance indicators? Where else in the UK would you find a publicly funded, free-to-attend event quite like this? Maybe there are one or two places, I really don’t know, but surely not many.

Perhaps I should just relax a bit and accept that it’s difficult to pin down a killer metric that makes everything rosy. It’s ok for there to be no quantifiable number after such an enormous outlay.

Digital 2015 was positively received by others I spoke to and read. A number seemed to think it an improvement on last year, being more geared towards start-ups and investment issues. The streamlining had worked.

And many people will have taken something out of it: new understanding, contacts, inspiration and encouragement to press ahead with an idea, perhaps the inspiration of a key idea itself. Whether measurable or not, even I can’t deny that’s worth something.

Check out more content from Digital 2015 via the #d15 Twitter hashtag.