I dream of LIFT

LIFT logo interpreted

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a conference in Geneva called LIFT. When I think about how close I was to not attending, I shudder.

On a whim and a tweet

On Monday, I saw Robin Wauters (who is organizing the Plugg conference in Belgium on March 19th) twitter a link to LIFT, saying that he was going to attend. Looking around the site, I was instantly hooked. As it happened, Josh was at The Werks at the time and mentioned that Andy might have a ticket. I called Andy who led me to Thomas, who did have a ticket that he wasn't using so, on a whim, I bought it off of him, booked a flight and hotel and I was off to Geneva the next day!

The Tweet that started it all!

Day 1

The first day was workshop day and I was very pleasantly surprised to find a workshop on Conference Hubs organized by Nicolas Durand from the International AIDS Conference. The workshop was very interesting and I got to meet several wonderful people, including Vittorio Mischi who is trying to realize a very cool project to have people from around the world send in a minute of video using their mobile phones during the Olympic games.

During lunch, I got to meet Robin Hunicke, a game designer from Electronic Arts who has worked on titles like My Sims for the Wii. Robin was humorous, animated, and very passionate about her work. After speaking with her for a few moments, I couldn't help thinking that she would make a wonderful speaker for Singularity. She went on to present a lovely session on the last day of the conference on gaming as social software and proved me right about my initial suspicions (you can watch all the sessions and other videos from the conference on Nouvo.) It's going to be great to have her present at Singularity.

Robin Hunicke presents on social gaming at LIFT - Robert Scoble

The second workshop I attended was the teenagers/generation Y and technology session organized by David Brown in which a group of well-to-do teenagers from a local private school answered questions from the audience on their use of technology and their perceptions of the Internet. I thoroughly enjoyed the panel but it was obvious that a panel of demographically monotonous students was not going to give us generic insight into Gen Y's technology habits. It was fascinating, however, to hear about their specific subculture's (socially-conscious, entrepreneurial, upper-class private school students from Switzerland) approach to technology.

On the first night, I met Robert Scoble and Kevin Marks at the Venture Night social. I was especially interested in talking to Kevin about Open Social as Social Network Portability is a very important topic for me for Singularity. That's why I'm really psyched that Kevin agreed to do a talk about it at Singularity when I asked him the next day (expect official announcements of new speakers on the Singularity web site soon!)

After the social, I ran into Colin Schlueter and ended up meeting the rest of the Headshift gang at dinner. And what a lovely bunch they are too: Tim, Lee, Tom, Jessica, and Serena. For the rest of the conference, the Headshifters adopted me as one of their own I had a most wonderful time at the conference in no small part because of it:)

Day 2

Day 2 was the first day of sessions. Bruce Sterling kicked things off with a review of 2008. I can only assume that it was meant to be humorous but I zoned out as his entire talk was read from printouts that he held in-hand. Instead of being apologetic that he hadn't prepared better, he came across as rather smug. All I remember from the talk was copious and drawling mention of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni. Needless to say, I couldn't relate.

This was followed by a session presented by Pierre Bellanger of Skyrock which did nothing to capture my interest. I couldn't help feeling that he had the material and insight to present a really interesting session but that it was lost in translation.

Thankfully, Jonathan Cabiria was there to wake me up in the third session.

The real gems of the morning, however, were Stephanie Booth and Ewan McIntosh who presented two very short Open Stage sessions. Stephanie and Ewan had both been voted to present by LIFT attendees. They were both passionate, highly articulate, informative, and animated.

Stephanie presented about freelancing and hooked me into her session from the get-go. This year, she's organizing a one-day conference for freelancers called Going Solo. And she's a natural presenter. Ditto for Ewan McIntosh who gave an impassioned talk on social media and open education.

In my experience you need only a handful of qualities to be a good speaker: Passion for your subject, the ability to tell a story and speak from the heart, and a sense of humor. The ability to laugh at yourself comes in handy should something go wrong. Stage or screen experience never hurts (so go on, take that theater class). Not every speaker has all those qualities and not every presentation style is the same, of course. I prefer a relaxed, conversational style, for example, whereas the oratorical genius Lawrence Lessig has a meticulously rehearsed and scripted, hyper-articulated style all his own.

I enjoyed the sessions after the morning break presented by Younghee Jung and Genevieve Bell, two anthropologists working at Nokia and Intel, respectively. They gave concrete examples of how anthropological techniques and research were being used to better understand different types of users and how this translated into the design of future products. It looks like Anthropology is Alive and Well and Living in Large Corporations. Having read the blurb in the program, I was looking forward to Paul Dourish's talk on how "such results from anthropological studies are often translated into 'implications for design', missing relevant insights from the anthropologist’s works" but I again found myself zoning out.

In the afternoon, Rafi Haladjian from Violet had my full attention and kept it throughout his presentation on the Nabaztag bunnies. I've been a proud parent of a lovely little Nabaztag/tag called Furlong since I was kindly given it during the Hack Day in London. It spent last year following me around on my conference tour and sharing the stage with me during my talks. I love Rafi's approach -- it's fun; it has attitude. He is at once a dreamer and a pragmatist who is not afraid to go against the grain; the best of Jobs without the worst of Jobs. If you get a moment, read his entertaining and insightful How Powerpoint, Excel, and Word can make you Handsome, Rich, and Smart (PDF).

Rafi Haladjian presents the Nabaztag bunny at LIFT - Robert Scoble

Following Rafi was Eric Favre, the co-inventor of Nespresso. Eric gave his talk in French and it was simultaneously translated into English. (The conference hall, funded by the UN, was the best venue I've experienced with individual power sockets, microphones for asking questions, and headsets at each seat.) I loved his session and learned more about Espresso than I thought possible. He told us the story of their search for the secret of the perfect cup of espresso in Italy with his wife. A search that eventually resulted in his discovering that air was an essential component in creating the aroma and taste of the coffee. A secret he discovered thanks to a popular coffee bar run by a man with an old coffee machine. It was an inspiring session that underscored how important passion and attention to detail are in spurring human innovation. This is a man who lives, breathes, and dreams coffee (and, I can only assume, drinks it too!) Do you feel this way about what you're doing? I know I do with Singularity. If not, find that thing which makes you feel alive and grasp it, no matter how ridiculous or crazy it is, because life is too short not to.

In the late afternoon, a group of speakers including Tom Taylor from Headshift, who kindly lent me his scarf when I underestimated the chill in the air, gave a series of interesting talks on sustainable development, starting with a lively introduction by Bill Thompson and Philippa Martin-King of WattWatt. Tom's talk highlighted the use of peer pressure and social networking to encourage sustainable activities and he showcased Green Thing, a project that they are involved in creating.

The day came to a close with fondue. And boy was there lots of it! Enough, in fact, so that every attendee got half a kilogram of it. Yum!

LIFT Fondue night - the headshifters, Genc, and me. - Jesse Wittebort

During the fondue night, I met two lovely scientists from CERN, François Grey and Ben Segal. François, who is the head of IT Communications at CERN, is very passionate about grid computing for science and he presented an insightful session on the last day of the conference on that very subject. He also very kindly organized a trip for us to CERN.

Meeting Ben and hearing his stories about the birth of the Web was a huge honor. Ben, who is currently helping out with the LHC@home effort, is one of those people whom I could just listen to for hours without getting bored. Having him in our group during the tour of CERN added so much to the event. And, I was greatly humbled when he agreed to speak at Singularity so that we can all hear the story of the birth of the web first-hand from him (Ben was Tim Berners-Lee's mentor at CERN.)

I also met Kushtrim Xhakli, who is involved in providing free IT training in Kosovo, as part of IPKO Institute, and Genc Kastrati from The Global Fund.

Day 3

The long days and late nights must have been catching up with me because I couldn't really concentrate on the sessions on the last day. That said, the Gaming track and the Two Kevins had my undivided attention. The first Kevin was Kevin Warwick, the human cyborg, who had a microchip implanted in his body for scientific research. It was fascinating to hear his story. At one point his wife had one implanted also and when she moved her hand, he could feel his own hand moving. The other Kevin was Kevin Marks who gave an insightful talk on Open Social. Social Network Portability is a topic that I've been thinking about a lot recently in the context of Singularity and I'm attending a day of workshops at the WebCamp on Social Network Portability in Cork on March 2nd.

Kevin Marks presenting on Open Social at LIFT - Robert Scoble

At night, we had a lovely dinner at a Senegalese restaurant (best lamb chops I've ever had) and dropped in to the official wrap up party for a few moments before grabbing a drink elsewhere and heading back.

Somewhere along the three days, I met Pedro Custodio, who is a wonderful guy and organizes the SHIFT conference in Portugal. He was presenting a workshop at LIFT on Online Communities. And, I'm very happy that he is going to be presenting a session on Community Design Patterns at Singularity.

Day 4 and CERN

With the conference officially over, Serena and I took a cab to CERN in the morning to join others from the conference in a tour of the Large Hadron Collider. It was fascinating and an honor to be among the last people to actually see the LHC before it starts operating this summer. Following our tour of the LHC, Ben took us through the CERN Museum where we saw Tim Berners-Lee's first web server (a NeXTcube).

Robert Scoble has a post on the CERN tour and some great pictures on his blog, including the one below.

Cern tour during LIFT - Robert Scoble

Unfortunately, I couldn't stay for the full museum tour and had to leave directly for the airport from CERN (and good a thing too as I only just made my plane!)

In conclusion

LIFT was so much more than the sessions; it was about the wonderful people I met and talked to between them. It was the stands outside where you could record a song on the LIFT theme tune (my ad-hoc composition got into the top three and I took away a t-shirt for my efforts), scan your handwriting so you could blog using your own font, have a picture taken that would be included in the morphing projection on the wall and printed on the large format printer, etc. All these activities were imaginatively organized and expertly executed by Cristiana Bolli Freitas of Bread and Butter and, along with the community-oriented web site, they gave the conference a wonderful read/write aspect. (I only wish I had heard about the conference earlier so I could have taken part in the various community activities from the start; a mistake a won't be making next year!)

Here's a big thank-you to Laurent Haug and his stellar array of co-organizers and volunteers, as well as to the wonderful attendees who gave the conference so much atmosphere and life.

LIFT is a conference that you absolutely should not miss if you can help it.