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11 May


Open World Games & the conference experience

May 11, 2015 | By |

Open world is a term for video games where a player can move freely through a virtual world and is given considerable freedom in choosing how or when to approach objectives, as opposed to other computer games that have a more linear structure. Source: Wikipedia

Examples are games like Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed or Minecraft. If you’ve ever played one of these, you might have experienced the feeling that on the one hand there’s LOTS to explore, a huge world to walk/ride/run/climb around in. On the other hand, there’s a plot line that runs through the game and provides some guidance, should you choose to follow it.

Keep this in mind as Exhibit A.

Now consider immersive theater experiences like – maybe most famously – Punchdrunk‘s pieces Sleep No More or The Drowned Man:

(I won’t link to any spoilers; the video above is Punchdrunk’s official trailer for The Drowned Man, the links before go straight to their website.)

The worlds that Punchdrunk creates are immersive; they are vast, and rich, and textured. At any point there is a plot – mostly, in fact, several plots in parallel, that you can follow. Or you follow an actor instead. Or just can just go on and explore the world, and dig around the rooms, or look for easter eggs and hidden passages. Or you just sit and let the world play out around you. Either way, you will never be bored.

I got to watch The Drowned Man in London once, and it was magical; one of the most memorable experiences, and certainly by far the most impressive theatrical experience I’ve ever had.

(I hasten to add that my experience with immersive theater is otherwise very limited.)

Take this as Exhibit B.

How can Open World Games inspire conferences?

So I’m wondering: What can we take from Open World Games and immersive theater and bring to the conference experience?

This is a starting point for my thoughts; nothing yet but exploration. I’d love to hear your ideas as I start to evolve mine.

A conference (if we’re not talking about the boring old school type of full frontal grey suit congress) is an interactive format, one that encourages exchange of ideas. Conversations, making, learning. Peer-to-peer interactions as well as master-student type sharing. (I personally believe that there is a good place for both of these types, although I know some will disagree.)

Their main appeal is they provide a simulated reality and allow players to develop their character and its behavior in the direction of their choosing. In these cases, there is often no concrete goal or end to the game. (…) An open world is a level or game designed as a nonlinear, open areas with many ways to reach an objective.

Design principles for open world events

These two characteristics (source: Wikipedia) are what I think can guide this line of thought, and help shape design principles for open world events:

Open world events…

  1. … allow participants to develop their own journey and interactions.
  2. … are designed as a nonlinear, open experience with many paths to explore the event.

Onboarding & guiding the experience

I imagine that the magic is in the right mix of activities and formats, which could and should include:

  • Recurring rituals that help bond among participants and foster group dynamics.
  • A strong narrative that centers and grounds the overall event, a thread that ties everything together.
  • Drop-in and drop-out points aplenty so it’s possible to join for the “main narrative” for a while, but also be able to join or start other alternative activities.
  • A mix of more active and more passive formats, like talks and workshops and immersive experiences and group conversations.
  • Spaces for intense social interactions as well as personal/private spaces to retreat, because sometimes a few moments of quiet save the day.
  • Space & opportunity for participants to start their own activities. Could be physical or virtual spaces, or just encouragement.
  • Allow for a wide range of stakeholder agendas, because where more partners contribute by promoting their own agendas (read: follow their goals & passions, not distribute marketing), the event has more layers and more depth.
  • What else?

At any given time, there should be something to do, something to explore, someone to meet. This could be part of the core program, some smaller-scale, more intimate experience or activity, maybe some personal downtime for reflection.

This would create a richly textured & layered event, and a highly self-directed, interactive journey, and a rewarding overall experience.

I’d be curious to learn about your experiences with things like these, or examples where this was tried (and worked), or generally speaking pointers to other sources/people/projects to check out. Thank you!

16 Jul


Just launched: TICOH, The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook

July 16, 2014 | By |

Cover: The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook


Max Krüger and I teamed up to write a handbook for indie conference organizers. In fact, that’s the name of the book: The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook – A practical guide to running your very own indie conference.


It’s available for free under a Creative Commons (by-nc-sa) license as a PDF (TICOH, 5.2MB PDF), and in a more e-reader friendly format for a small fee (aka The Support Us Financially Version) in the Kindle store.


The book clocks in at some 13.450 words or 43 pages.


All details over on the book page.

16 Jul


The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook (TICOH) – A practical guide to running your very own indie conference.

July 16, 2014 | By |

Cover: The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook


Max Krüger and I teamed up to write a handbook for indie conference organizers. In fact, that’s the name of the book: The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook – A practical guide to running your very own indie conference.


It’s available for free under a Creative Commons (by-nc-sa) license as a PDF (TICOH, 5.2MB PDF), and in a more e-reader friendly format for a small fee (aka The Support Us Financially Version) in your local Kindle store (,


The book clocks in at some 13.450 words – that translates into roughly 43 pages in PDF format or 66 pages on Kindle.

Why write a book about how to run a conference?

It’s simple: When we first set out to organize our own events, we wished we had a book like this ourselves. Instead, we asked lots and lots of more experienced people for advice – people we will forever be grateful to. Now, a few years in, and with a number of conferences under our collective belts, we realized that we have somehow turned into these more experienced people. We felt it was time to give something back, to make it easier for those planning to organize an event around a topic close to their hearts. The hope is that you won’t have to reinvent the wheel, and with some luck, you can profit from our mistakes (there were many). In some sense, we made these mistakes so you don’t have to.

When writing this handbook, we tried to keep things as practicable, applicable, and actionable as possible. Where appropriate, we included our thinking behind certain recommendations, but otherwise, we stuck to the hands-on, day-to-day realities of bootstrapping a conference. Sometimes we laid out all the options; at other times, we gave a clear recommendation. As always, this can only serve as a guideline – your goals, context, and background might be very different. If in doubt, trust your gut over our recommendations. That said, we hope you’ll find our experience helpful.

In Praise of Indie Conferences

Our background is not in event organizing. Rather, we began running events for a simple reason: each time we were looking for an event—a focal point where we could meet like-minded people or those with shared interests—we could not find one. So we decided to put on the events we wanted to attend. After all, if we weren’t going to do it, who would? Rather than complain, we started looking for a date and some collaborators, and off we went.

As such, we’re big fans of indie conferences. While events should be as inclusive, affordable, and accessible as possible, we also firmly believe that it is possible—even necessary—to create events that are self-sustainable. After all, you can only exploit your free time so much before burning out. If you want to keep doing what you love, it’s important to think about the sustainability of your efforts. That’s why we will also cover the relationship of budgets, sponsoring, and ticket sales, among other things.

To cut a long story short: We believe that events can be independently organized (full-time or on the side) and be financially and structurally self-sustainable. And we applaud people who try to build such events around the topics they are passionate about.

Table of Contents

The book covers all the main aspects of running an indie conference:

  • Intro
  • Goals
  • Team
  • Programming Your Conference
  • Finances
  • Planning
  • Locations
  • Tools and Processes
  • Internal Communications
  • Marketing and Communications
  • Recording Talks and Documenting the Event
  • Sponsors
  • Partners
  • Diversity and Inclusivity
  • Catering: Food and Drinks
  • Decoration, Swag, and Lots of Love
  • Rituals
  • Moments of Crisis / The Organizer’s Fear
  • The Big Day
  • The Day After
  • Checklists

A sample

As a sample, the beginning of the chapter The Big Day to give you an idea what to expect:

You made it: Today is the big day. With some luck, you got a good night’s sleep. More likely, you spent the evening setting up the venue or putting out fires or dining with your speakers and team, and now are sleep-deprived and high on adrenaline and coffee after 4 hours of sleep. That’s OK! Because you know you’ve prepared everything you could prepare, your event manager is around to run the logistics, and your main role is to step in if something goes wrong. The rest of the day, you are here to welcome guests, make sure speakers and sponsors have everything they need, and to just generally speaking represent.

Our recommendation is to show up at the venue early and with a few snacks and coffee for the team, or to send someone to grab breakfast. Bring some duct tape as well as pen and paper, and a phone charger. Take a last walk through the conference and try to visualize it from the different perspectives: As a participants, what do I see upon entering? Do I know where to put my coat and suitcase, and where to register? As a speaker, is it clear where I should go before my talk? Are signs up where they should be? Is it easy to find refreshments, bathrooms, food, the stage or stages? Often this is where the need for a few more signs becomes apparent – if in doubt, just print or paint one on a sheet of paper. Did we mention duct tape, pen and paper? Always carry duct tape, pen and paper.

Why are we the right authors?

Max and I have – both independently and together – run quite a number of events including conferences, festivals, workshops, hackathons and lots of hybrid formats. You might recognize some of the events we had a hand in creating, like ThingsCon, UIKonf, Global Innovation Gathering, Cognitive Cities Conference, just to name a few. We know what works and what doesn’t, and how to avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls.


Max Krüger is a freelance event organizer and manager. He is interested in fostering collaboration, creativity, and learning, as well as growing communities – something events turned out to be rather effective in doing. Max used to be in charge of the workshop program et betahaus|Berlin, where he helped organize the People in beta Festival. More recently, he served as the event manager of UIKonf. He is a co-founder and chair of ThingsCon, and organizes a global exchange of ideas between innovators around the world under the name Global Innovation Gathering. He is also part of the team behind re:publica. Follow Max on Twitter (@krgermax) or get in touch at


Peter Bihr explores how emerging technologies change the world we live in, and helps spread the insights of innovators through consulting and conferences. He is the founder and managing director of The Waving Cat GmbH. As a strategy advisor, he helps organizations large and small excel in an environment shaped by digitization, connectedness, and rapid change. As co-founder and chair of emerging technology conferences – including ThingsCon, UIKonf, and Cognitive Cities Conference – he fosters communities of innovation and the exchange of ideas. As program director of NEXT Berlin, he highlights the macro trends that will shape digital businesses in years to come. When he’s not organizing a conference, he can often be found speaking at one. Follow Peter on Twitter (@peterbihr) or get in touch at


We wrote this as a book sprint in a couple of days of writing frenzy, then had the book (much unlike this blog post) copy-edited by the fantastic Natalye Childress. As per the Creative Commons (cc-ny-nc) license, you are free to download and share the document non-commercially as long as we are attributed as the authors.

We love to hear back from you. Let us know what you think, what worked for you and what didn’t, and if there are areas we should expand on. We currently have no plans for this handbook, but if there’s enough interest we might update it at some point in the future.

If you enjoyed the handbook or think it’s useful to people in your network, we appreciate a shout-out on Twitter or Facebook.


So what are you waiting for?

  1. Download the book now as a PDF or
  2. Buy the Kindle version &
  3. recommend it on Twitter using the hashtag #TICOH and the shortlink


Thank you!

28 Apr


Radio silence during the conference season

April 28, 2014 | By |

This week, the conference season pretty much kicks off. For me, this means the red-hot production phase for ThingsCon (FRI/SAT), NEXT Berlin (MON/TUE), UIKonf (mid-May), followed by a trip to San Francisco to speak at O’Reilly Solid. For good measure, there are two or three short trips sprinkled in between, too, and to top it all off I’m sorting out some freshly arisen legal paperwork for my new company (currently doesn’t have a website – if you want to collaborate, please ping me directly for now).


These are exciting days. I can’t wait for all the conversations the next few weeks will bring.


All this means that response times on my end will be much slower than usual, or the replies might be very brief. Thanks for understanding – and see you on the other side!

Ps. If you’re around at any of the events, come say hi!

13 Mar


Conference themes of the last 8 years

March 13, 2014 | By |

Just re-discovered this list of themes of some of the more well-known tech-related conferences across Europe and thought it might be nice/useful/fun to have around for future reference.

There’s a lot of link rot and not every conference has a theme every year, so there are some gaps. (If you can help me fill one or two, ping me.)


Without further comments:

PICNIC Festival

  • Celebrating Creative Genius (2006)
  • Feel, Play, Make (2007)
  • Create the Future (collaborative creativity) (2008)
  • Never waste a good crisis: turning points, exploding media, rebuild! (2009)
  • Redesign the World: Life, Cities, Media and Design. (2010)
  • What are you bringing? (2011)
  • new ownership (2012)

NEXT Berlin

  • next 10 years (2006)
  • Alle Macht dem Konsumenten!? (2007)
  • get realtime (2008)
  • Share Economy (2009)
  • Game Changers (2010)
  • Data Love (2011)
  • Post-Digital (2012)
  • Here Be Dragons (2013)
  • The New Normal (2014)


  • Leben im Netz (2007)
  • Die kritische Masse (2008)
  • Shift happens (2009)
  • now here (2010)
  • Action (2012)
  • IN/SIDE/OUT (2013)
  • Into the Wild (2014)


  • renaissance? (2006)
  • human? (2007)
  • free (2008)
  • ACTION (2009)


  • Challenges and opportunities of technology in society (2008)
  • Where did the future go? (2009)
  • Hands-on Future (2009)
  • Connected people (2010)
  • dot-Real: Webify the real world! (2010)


  • Who can you trust (2006)
  • Volldampf voraus (2007)
  • Nothing to hide (2008)
  • Here Be Dragons (2009)
  • We Come In Peace (2010)
  • Behind Enemy Lines (2011)
  • Not my department (2012)

Disclosure: I’ve been involved in NEXT Berlin for a long time, including helping to choose some of these themes.

01 Feb


Conference juggling

February 1, 2013 | By |


It’s amazing to me how many moving parts conferences have, how it involves always juggling a lot of balls simultaneously. Even moderately sized events for a few hundred people can easily turn into something massive, but the big ones – where the audience is counted in thousands – can be insane.

At Foo Camp last year, I learned a bit about the background of Maker Faire on the West Coast, where tens of thousands go to play – in many cases quite literally with fire, or at least electricity and heavy machinery and sharp objects. Crazy! Amazing, too!

Web conferences are a little less daunting that way, as there’s less actual danger involved. The logistics are, however, hardly much less intimidating. Over at NEXT, we’re looking at some 2K participants; at CoCities it was maybe 400 or so; our Ignite Berlin nights tend to be in the range of 200. And the logistics involved, the number of connections to make and dots to line up and connect, increase exponentially to the size of the audience.

An Ignite night, with a well-attuned team, can be a matter of a week or so of full-time work spread out over a couple of months if we’re lucky. CoCities was a massive effort for a small, new, and somewhat distributed team. NEXT, I can say without spilling any confidentials, is a professional effort that keeps a whole team busy for the better part of a year.

As an example, my responsibility over at NEXT is mostly in the programming, and even just arranging the program means handling lots and lots of mobile pieces and trying to fit them into a coherent puzzle, a good-looking, well-balanced picture.

Among the many things to take into account is your topic and speaker wish lists (what should be presented, and by whom), availability (which speakers could be available, which have other keynote obligations or a new born baby that makes travel harder), gender balance (wherever possible and without excluding or giving undue preferred treatment to anyone based on gender), travel costs (flying in one speaker from the West Coast to Europe can easily cost as much as five or six speakers from Europe), sponsor involvements (what’s the best way for sponsors to engage with the audience), logistics (which speaker is available at which exact point in time? after all many speakers also line up appointments or can only “swing by” for an afternoon or so), and many more.

All that with several people or teams working on aspects of it all, and with a massive amount of parallel, ongoing conversation threads both internally and externally, spread out over a wide range of channels.

It’s daunting, and very rewarding when you see the pieces come together. And now, about three months in, is the time where the pieces are starting to fall into place. It’s great to watch that happen.

Disclosure: NEXT is a client.

12 May


Experiences from planning a big conference

May 12, 2012 | By |

Next12 is over, and it’s been intense and quite an experience. Feedback from speakers and audience alike has been positive as far as I can tell, but of course there’s always lots of stuff that can be done better. So first up, a shout out to the team both at SinnerSchrader and the crew on the ground: Great work!

Next Experience

That said, let’s dig into some of the bigger questions that I’ve faced at pretty much all the events I’ve been involved with, ever.

Twitter / @frauenzeit: yes, and there are always ...

Diversity: Too few women, always.

What can I say? It’s true! And as a curator I’m as responsible as anyone, if not more so. If I say I’m aware of it and I try to get a diverse and gender-balanced lineup, you can only take my word for it. The fact that the panels aren’t gender-balanced still holds true, no matter what my intentions were. Whenever events I’m involved in I do try to get things as diverse as I can, and I can tell you: It’s not easy. At all. It’s not like there aren’t many smart and interesting women out there who could tell a great story. There are, of course there are, and I feel happy and honored that so many fantastic, smart, engaging women agreed to speak at Next12. But we were far from 50/50, and picking a speaker line up there’s a million aspects to consider. Among them: availability, experience, name recognition, willingness to speak, internal politics, sponsoring deals and last but not least: a good chunk of pure luck. Do I know the right person? Can they make it at that time?

I won’t name any names, and I’m writing this to my best recollection without going back and double checking the exact numbers. As far as I remember, three or four speakers (and a curator among them) dropped out because of health-related issues; two or three of them happened to be women who were awesome and considerate enough to propose a replacement, in at least two instances men. Several people had conflicting engagements and had to drop out (in this case, mostly men, some of whom made it eventually, some who we replaced on short notice). The list goes on. Please note that these are just some of the reasons I remember most vividly, and that no gender arguments should be made regarding the reasons for these cancellations! Let me repeat just to be clear: I’m not indicating that more women cancel due to health related issues, and I strongly recommend not to fall for some stupid argument like this – this just happened to be the stats in this very instance, no more.

In many other cases, the people on stage are on stage because they are considered experts in their fields, and in many instances this recognition as an expert is a function of being in a senior position. In a corporate context, this often means that the person has moved up a corporate career track, which statistically means significantly more men than women. Sadly, I’d like to add, for all the wrong reasons. Corporate careers are still ridiculously male-oriented. Or men just play along with it, or whatever the reasons might be, the stats are pretty clear on this one. You can see how that doesn’t apply where I invited speakers from less established fields: design, research, UX, startups, IoT. Here, younger people often are the experts, and once you take the corporate structures out of things, you get a much more diverse mix of experts. Look at the track called Experience at Next12, and you’ll find that it’s a lot more diverse in many ways. No gender balance, but a tad more diversity.

I once read, and sadly can’t remember where, a tip for men in tech: If you’re offered a slot to speak or join a panel, ask who else is on the panel. If it’s only other guys, propose a woman to replace you. I’m kinda liking it, and want to get into the habit of doing that more.

Speaking of which, we have a few events coming up, and we’ll try even harder to get to true gender balance. In fact, checking the lineup just now, for our event on the quantified self and personal analytics today (link) it was exactly 50/50. So there’s a start.

Politics are part of the game

Any organization has some level of internal politics to work around. No point in bitching about it, just get used to it. It’s part of the game.

Budgets are never what they appear to be.

I want you to re-read that sentence slowly and repeat after me: Budgets are never what they appear to be.

I’ve attended uncountable conferences and have been involved in quite a few in different roles – lead organizer, speaker, live blogger and many more. Events always (!) look like they have more budget than they really do. All events I know are less profitable than they might seem, or at least that’s my understanding of things. I can’t remember the details, so don’t quote me on that, but I think we put together CoCities for less than 50K. If you’ve ever organized anything at scale, you know that that’s ridiculously little money. Bigger commercial conferences probably run on a different economic model, but consider that the budget pays for speakers (travel, maybe fees), location rent, insurance, food & drinks, staff, rent for tech and people to handle it, logistics of shuttling all kinds of stuff back and forth, wifi (even if it turns out not to work flawlessly), printing etc etc etc. It’s a long, long list, and it keeps growing. Events are expensive to run, even if you bootstrap them. So before I say something like “how hard can it be?”, I take a deep breath and think for a moment of the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t, and I think a moment about how hard it might actually be, and usually by that time I don’t feel like that sentence should be uttered, ever.

Language barriers are tricky

International conferences are always a bit of a challenge from a language perspective. Mixing languages is possible, but hard to do well. Excellent (!) signage is the least you can do. But really I’d opt for going all English. In fact, I believe that’s what I’ve always done so far. If in doubt, go for common ground. Most conference attendees will speak it well enough to understand what’s going on, and your pool of potential speakers is many, many times larger than otherwise. There’s different philosophies on this, so it’s a bit of a personal question. In the French-speaking part of Canada for example, things tend to be bi-lingual instead of English. That’s perfectly fine too, as long as people are used to handling that kind of thing. Make sure that every speaker, moderator, sponsor and organizer speaks enough of whichever language you choose that there’s no awkwardness. And make sure that everybody knows what to expect, then things can’t really go all that wrong.