Dates - 30th August-1st September 2017
Venue - Dalhousie Building, University of Dundee
Delivery Partners - University of Dundee, Dundee City Region Convention Bureau
Attendance - 350 delegates from 33 countries
Impact on the local economy - £427,780.50
Transformation in Practise
Bringing together an interdisciplinary delegation from around the world, Transformations 2017 aimed to address challenges around sustainability to enhance people’s wellbeing while also placing a focus on the Earth’s ecosystem.
The third in a series of biennial conferences – following those in Oslo and Stockholm – conference organiser Professor Ioan Fazey, of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) at the University of Dundee, sought to tear up the conference rule book.
Prof Fazey says, “The aim of the conference was to bring together an international body of those working to create significant changes in society for three days of collaboration. The conference served as an anchor point for activity taking place around the world, building a community with a growing interest in thinking about how to significantly change how society is organised both in an academic and practical environment.”
Eschewing the traditional conference format, Prof Fazey – with help from Dundee City Region Convention Bureau – chose to focus more on collaborative thinking than traditional presentations.
As delegate Mark Reed notes, the conference “was a revelation: it turns out that it is possible to do conferences in a radically different way. This was less of a conference and more of a conversation, but at a scale that I didn’t think was meaningfully possible. There were over 300 people at the event, and yet it was designed and facilitated to enable learning and ideas to emerge […] in a way that engaged every single person in the conference.”
Prof Fazey adds, “While it was an academic conference, and we had to have that element, we also wanted to make the event more about communication, dialogue and discussion. In doing so, we changed the format considerably. I very carefully selected the keynote speakers; I didn’t necessarily go for the very big academic names, but instead chose those who I thought could contribute something different and meaningful.
“The sessions became very dynamic, with a lot of people engaged a lot of the time – and almost everyone staying until the end, which is rare for this sort of event. We received a lot of very positive feedback with a number of delegates stating it was the best conference they’ve ever been to.”
Throughout the conference, speed talk sessions replaced traditional presentations: five-minute presentations followed by 40 minutes of facilitated discussion. This created a more dynamic atmosphere and allowed delegates to contribute in ways they are not usually able to. Another afternoon was dedicated entirely to one question, with 10 professional facilitators guiding smaller groups in discussion that was brought together towards the end of the conference.
The conference also drew heavily on the arts, not just as entertainment but to engaged people with their field in a way they never had before. Building on the theme of transitions, an artist was employed to work with delegates to create a new work of art. Viewing the conference itself as a transition, delegates were asked to write down three words of things they wanted to let go of. Then, throughout practical sessions, they worked with the artist to use these words to build a piece of art. Towards the end of the conference, the artwork was burned, which provided a very powerful, symbolic message to delegates. Throughout the conference, poetry and cartoons were also created to capture what was happening in new ways.
Transformations 2017 also formed part of a series of events which addressed similar topics in the days preceding the conference. Facing the Future 2017 was a two-day conference and interactive workshop for Masters, PhD and early-career researchers organised by the CECHR and the James Hutton Institute, the results of which were fed into Transformations 2017. Similarly, a set of one-day Transformation Labs (T-Labs) – focussed on key topics like decision-making, confliction, action research and social innovation – held the day before the conference again provided greater insight for the event which followed.
For Prof Fazey, Dundee was always his first choice for Transformations 2017. After attending the events in Oslo and Stockholm – and knowing that the next one would be held in Santiago – he knew that this was Dundee’s chance to shine.
He says, “I knew that I wanted to hold the conference locally at the University of Dundee’s Dalhousie Building, and the venue was really helpful. At first, we perceived it had some limitations, but we managed to turn these into great strengths. Our main conference hall was a lecture theatre, with doors for delegates to come in at the front of the room, near the speaker.
“While at many academic conferences people come and go as they please, this forced people to enter on time and to stay for the duration of the sessions. We were careful not to let anyone in until the speaker was finished so as not to disrupt the audience’s concentration. It helped us make a really serious point: if you’re here for the keynotes, then they need to be taken seriously.”
In working to build in a real Dundonian element to the conference, Prof Fazey worked with local artists and musicians to ground the event in Scotland. Attendee Mark Reed says, “Most conferences you go to are fairly place-less, but this conference involved a range of cultural activities that very clearly situated it in Dundee and Scotland.
Each morning was opened with a musical performance from traditional artists, rather than a speech, with each of those mornings set to create a different kind of emotional space.”
For the conference dinner, Prof Fazey again looked to find somewhere different and outside of the usual selection of venues. Settling on the Falkland Palace and Estate in nearby Fife. Prof Fazey says, “We worked very hard to find the right venue for dinner, and sustainability was a key concern. The owner of Falkland Estate is not like your traditional Scottish laird; he is very much interested in opening up access and living sustainably. It was an exciting Scottish venue and, more than that, very relevant to the theme of the conference. In fact, the laird was also involved in presenting a keynote at the conference itself.”
This relevance to the conference was noted by Mark Reed, who adds, “Rather than remembering things I learned at the conference in a disembodied way, those memories are rooted in a place and with a context, which will help me make sense of those memories and make them more useful and actionable.”
Another bonus for Prof Fazey in organising the event at the University of Dundee was the help and assistance provided by Dundee City Region Convention Bureau (DCRCB). He says, “The help provided by DCRCB was amazing. We were initially working with a professional conference organiser that then couldn’t continue, so DCRCB stepped in to help us manage the project. We didn’t have a lot of resources, but they did far more than I ever would have imagined they would, and really helped us pull everything together.
“DCRCB were there whenever we needed them for support, and we really benefitted from the team’s experience. From assisting us with putting our initial budget together, to managing accommodation bookings and arranging buses to and from airports to assist delegates in getting to the conference, they were fantastic.
“If I had to give DCRCB a rating, it would be six stars out of five! Their contribution made a huge difference; the conference would have been a lot more stressful without them and would have been very difficult to organise.”
Beyond the Conference
During the conference, delegates were asked to write postcards to their future selves outlining the actions that wished to undertake following the conference. These were posted weeks later, ensuring that all who attended were reminded of their transformative experience and encouraged to build upon the work undertaken in Dundee.
Prof Fazey says, “Transformations 2017 has a real legacy. We’re now at a threshold with this conference series and community of researchers; larger international organisations are now aware of us, and are working with us to take things forward.”
An impressive 44% of respondents to a post-event delegate survey indicated that they have a concrete idea that they plan to implement directly as a result of the conference. One delegate outlined that they planned to adapt “the climate change conversations by the Scottish Government for a Cape Town/South African content.” Another stated that they planned to begin “a collaborative project on meta-narratives with participants in the SDG Transformation Forum that followed the conference.” Another still highlighted a design to “run a workshop on creative practice and transformation to sustainability.”
For Prof Fazey, this spirit of collaboration and further working is one of the key takeaways from the conference. He says, “After the conference, we brought some experts together to discuss how we can influence thinking at an international level about how sustainable development goals can be more transformative. This high-level group is keen to take this forward, building up a wider ecosystem of activity anchored around the conference series.”
Beyond the academic and practical outcomes of the conference, the event’s innovative structure and programme has highlighted that Dundee and Angus is a place where experimental events can flourish, while provided with the support they need.
Organisers of future Transformations conferences have taken note of the ways in which the experience can be more involved, and are now working with Prof Fazey to look at ways in which future events can engage with delegates to achieve more meaningful and transformative outcomes.
Conferences can lead to both knowledge exchange and impact – we just have to do them differently – Mark Reed
Engaging both the head and the heart: Reflections on Transformations 2017 – Dr Chris Ives
People-powered knowledge production and ‘Transformations2017’ – David Brent
Connecting and nurturing multi-level transformative knowledge networks at Transformations 2017 – Mutizwa Mukute
Five fallacies of innovation, and what they mean for understanding the nexus – Iain Soutar
Transformations 2017: My fears lit up in flames – Thomas Macintyre