The Epic Rise Of Conference Collaboration


Image: @boetter,, CC by 2.0

This post was written by guest columnist and TED staffer Stephanie Kent. You can follow her on Twitter @StephKent.

Our digital connectivity shows no sign of slowing down and the value of quality offline time has become immeasurable, which might explain why innovators are showing up to creative conferences by the busload. Leaders in the conference space are thinking beyond cocktail hours and breakfast panels to provide their attendees with a new backdrop for their action-oriented crowds: collaborative workshops.  

Brainstorms, hackathons, and creative prototyping sessions are making a splash on the event scene and seem to be thriving where professionals from many disciplines are gathered. Conference organizers (and their sponsors) are investing resources and program time to inspiring conference-goers to take action and create something meaningful together.  Here’s a look at three events that offer collaboration opportunities in addition to their mainstage programming.

The Feast

The New York City-based conference, The Feast, is a two-day event that brings together entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and brands to address some of society’s most pressing challenges. The year 2012 saw the launch of The Feast Worldwide, which effectively scaled the event’s aim to take on the biggest problems of our day to dinner parties all around the globe. 

During the conference, a bevy of presentations, physical exhibits, and networking sessions are focused on tackling the year’s chosen challenges. Onsite attendees also liaise with over 500 groups around the world hosting similar experiences over satellite dinners. The challenges at The Feast are entirely a group effort. Unique from most events, all attendees participate in one of the projects, and their action-focused problem solving is aided by online resources and dedicated partners who aren’t afraid to put their money where the solution is. 


Texas conference giant SXSW stands out in its approach to collaboration as a tool for learning and professional development. The Austin event has a bit of something for everyone, and in the case of group collaboration, SXSW Interactive Workshops are at the helm in this department. These sessions offer a deeper dive the tune of up to eight hours per workshop into a range of topics led by innovators in various industries. Unlike the other conferences mentioned here, SXSW workshops are focused on specific skills (creative coding, typography, or buying and selling Bitcoin, for instance) and serve to utilize the collective energy of the group to learn or build upon a tool or talent.

There’s no shortage of courses to choose from. The upcoming March event prompts attendees to take their pick of over 80 Workshop sessions, but it takes a bit of browsing to find a truly collaborative, action-driven project in the lineup. The upcoming Story Lab workshop on Domestic Violence promises to connect and inspire, prompting attendees to break into teams and create engagement campaigns for the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. 


TED’s sister event attracts innovators in technology, entertainment, design and beyond, and its TEDActive Projects are as varied as its attendee base. In recent years, Project topics have spanned productivity, begging the questions “what’s your lifehack?” to “how might we use color as an effective tool?” to “how do we measure the impact of good?)

Prior to the conference, attendees are invited to signup for a Project team, supported by one of the conference’s partner organizations and led by a facilitator from design firm extraordinaire IDEO. Teams of 15-20 attendees meet online in the weeks before the conference to get acquainted and begin early discussions about their project theme, aided by TED’s network of university partners and online project collaborators. Once they arrive to TEDActive, they prototype their ideas and present their findings to the rest of the conference by week’s end.

Among the interesting elements of the TEDActive Project is that a great idea is encouraged to take any form. In 2011, the Travel Project, hosted by Delta, had attendees reimagining a “beta plane” that humanized the travel experience, while 2012’s Urbanization team planned and created a model city run on electricity born of the kinetic energy from onlookers’ footsteps. 

While collaborative workshops at The Feast, SXSW and TEDActive might share an aesthetic of post-it notes, white boards and graphic recordings, their similarities come to an abrupt halt there. Our hunger for meaningful interaction might be the impetus for coming together at such conferences, but these events’ commitment to harnessing creative potential and providing the tools needed to unlock innovative, actionable ideas has the potential to solve some of the biggest problems of our time.  

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