I hope nobody feels I am being ungrateful by casting a critical eye over a gift as valuable as an invitation to Kiwi Foo Camp, a private gathering of some of the most interesting, driven, intelligent and friendly people you're ever likely to find in one place. It feels a little like being a guest in Auckland, and being asked "well, what do you think of our city?". You might venture platitudes about the nice weather, beach proximity and stunning gelato, but my god the traffic! How do you stand the mind boggling tedium... apologies, I digress. On the contrary, I was most surprised and grateful for my invitation (thanks Nat!), and offer this honest feedback in the hope that other attendees - and future first-timers - will learn something from it.
Luckily, I left the great Auckland why-the-hell-doesn't-somebody-fund-public-transport traffic jam behind as I road-tripped to Warkworth for a weekend of stimulation and good-natured mayhem. Foo starts only with the attendees - there are no "speakers" on Friday night when we arrive - but by Saturday morning, everyone had combined to fill the weekend with a broad array of sessions: poetry, software, law, science, even surviving the Zombie Apocalypse. Although I spent the morning running some 18 kilometers around the hills of Warkworth with a few others. That's the kind of gathering Foo is - if it sounds like fun, somebody makes it happen .
Foo advertises itself as a place where the attendees "network, share their works in progress, show off the latest tech toys and hardware hacks, and find new partners for collaboration". A noble statement, which we shall return to later. For now, perhaps a sample of the experience... somebody brought a working Tesla coil; others were pitching startup ideas; a meterological balloon was seen all over the place as the "Kiwifoo space programme" spied on proceedings from on high. A debate on Saturday night had everyone in stitches while we dealt out some medieval mob justice, and sessions were held on on all manner of topics from drugs to designing a container house. "Energising" doesn't even begin to describe it. There were times when if the Average Joe had walked in on us, things might have ended with a Dotcom-esque visit from the police. But among this group, Tesla coils, poetry and Zombie Apocalypses are viewed as "cool!" and/or "interesting!", which is exactly as they should be.
The sessions... well. This this the part where I tread carefully. Most of them really were fantastic, the calibre of the attendees saw to that. But I found that one or two of the discussion sessions were echo chambers, and in some, there was barely any listening. Someone would be talking, and others would be poised on the edge of their seats, busting for the current speaker to finish, so they could throw their opinion against the wall. In both cases, louder people tended to end up dominating the conversation, and I would come away from a session thinking that nobody had learned anything.
Still, many of the sessions were run most admirably , and others were saved. In the session on drugs in New Zealand, it was obvious quite early on that we were all in favour of at least decriminalising drug usage, if not blanket legalisation. Against this backdrop, the reactions to the recent law commission report were quite negative. "Drugs should be seen as a health issue..." yes, we all agree. It was only after someone started role-playing a rich, white, conservative parent that the room began to see that we should be more behind the report. It is a pathetically small step, but - we now realised - it's not an insignificant one. If its recommendations are adopted, we move the law in the right direction, and we can take up the conversation later from a higher position. After the session, I felt like we'd had a small success - now a room full of people were able to make a more informed judgement about something.
However, on reflection I realised that the sessions were merely appetisers for a deeper reason to come to Foo - to discover people worth knowing. In this respect, they did not need to solve a problem, or even be remotely productive - they merely provided a topic and a list of people to seek out for further discussion. The real value comes in the conversations afterward .
Returning to the Kiwi Foo advertisement, it's now possible to see why Foo is such a roaring success. What better way to find people worth knowing than to gather them together, give them permission to show and tell, let them talk about the things currently on their minds, and above all, keep them together? Providing all food at the venue is a masterstroke (and what excellent food it was), as is letting some of the attendees sleep on site. Conversations can go much further if you know your bed is just a door away.
The whole experience was a blast, and if you should be lucky enough to receive an invite, my advice is to accept it greedily. My final thought is this: If Foo is about discovering people worth knowing, then it would make sense to maintain a strong intake of new faces each year. I have no idea how Nat, Jenine and Russell could balance this with keeping the camp small enough to manage, but I envy their dilemma. There ain't no party like a Foo party.
In response to a draft of this, John Hart pointed out a couple of ABC's that I neglected to mention, which first-timers will appreciate:
It's probably worth noting that an un-conference is nothing like any other traditional conference format - attendees should expect to be part of the content. It's not a place for passive consumers.
Complete participation is the best way to get a 2nd invite. Throwing yourself into the spirit of sharing (and especially hosting a session) will ensure you get the most out of the experience.
|||Getting up before 7am after a night of revelry, being driven miles down the road and sent into the bush to run back, knowing that you have just as full a day of mind-expanding discussion and merriment as everybody else still ahead of you, might not sound like fun to most people. I guess we gluttons for punishment will either die out or inherit the earth. Draw your own conclusions about my attendance at the Zombie Apocalypse session.|
|||One in particular, which was in my opinion a success against the odds, was the session on rebuilding Christchurch. There seemed to be more opinions than noses in the room, yet the discussion chairs listened, were engaged, and appeared to gain a lot from the participants.|
|||Which makes me regret not suggesting a session on webapps: what's new, what's cool, where are they heading. Maybe another time.|
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