Why Lift 13 was good. And how Lift 14 can be better.

It is post-conference week: I am back from Lift 13. Some of my articles here mention previous editions of LIFT (e.g. Lift 11), but up to now, I have not yet blogged about the actual conference. Which is a shame, because this has been my 6th Lift conference. I discovered the conference in 2010 only, but I have tried to catch up by also attending LIFT France. Twice.

And this time, I promised to blog.

I have been a fan since my very first LIFT. And it is as a fan, acknowledging the efforts and energy of every single one of the organizers and contributors, that I take the liberty of pointing out what could make Lift 14 even better than Lift 13 was. Please do keep in mind that the critiques express complaints on a high level: LIFT, overall, is a great unique event. Then why point them out, you ask? For (at least) two reasons:

  • I’m interested in having a public discussion. Because I would like to know what others think… first time lifters, but also other liftosaurs.
  • Also, I am convinced that some points are weak signals of something crucial to be taken into account by the organizers – the earlier the better. (I’ll elaborate.)

What is so special about LIFT conference?

Lift 13 conference weird presentation slide

One of Lift 13′s weirder presentation slides

These lines are for those of you who don’t know LIFT: you have been missing something (hey, I told you I was a fan!). I have had the honor of welcoming first time lifters several times, and everything I said the first time is still true: it is all about interaction and magic.

LIFT is interaction between people coming from very diverse backgrounds: students, CEOs, artists, engineers, journalists, designers, sociologists, communication professionals, lawyers, IT specialists, futurists, professors, entrepreneurs etc. Not surprisingly, LIFT is a place where ideas are born. And where ideas meet. Most of the time, ideas do not just happen: there is a prologue. There is a setting. And there are the people making it happen.

The way I have come to know Lift conference, the organizers and conference designers have always been eager to provide a stimulating setting. Magic. And the people making it happen? Well, the LIFT community is one of the most outstanding communities I know…

LIFT Community and LIFT spirit: the DNA of success

The LIFT community is more than the participants. It includes also the amazing volunteers (info desk, cloak room, stage management, coffee stands, social media management etc. – all handled greatly by volunteers. Have you noticed? Have you left a tip?), the workshop hosts, past attendees (Christian, Honor, Yasmin, Marcel, Charles and many more – know that you were missed!), the speakers and the organizers. People with very different backgrounds and characters, all meeting and interacting, being more or less shy – but similarly open-minded.
Lift Atmosphere by Ivo Näpflin
And the LIFT community is more than the sum of all people.

During three days, there is something in the air I’d like to call the LIFT mindset. Or the LIFT spirit.

And there was a lot of LIFT spirit in the air during Lift 13. A lot more than I expected in my worst nightmare scenarios beforehand where I pictured a new wave of first time lifters consisting of strictly business-oriented entrepreneurs, heads of business development and social media consultants discovering – and smothering – my favorite conference.

To be honest, I was even ready to declare that the LIFT spirit was as ubiquitous at Lift 13 as it was during previous editions. Until others (mostly not-first-time lifters) shared their experiences with me, and why they thought it wasn’t. Which has made me re-evaluate my Lift 13… and led to the present lines. All while appreciating Lift’s speed dating, some stated – and regretted – that they had made much fewer unstructured serendipity encounters. Some thought that fondue and coffee break discussions were more formal and utilitarian, in a careerist way, than before. Some found the overall mood among participants less friendly. Some simply miss Laurent.

But it is not about Laurent. It is about what people have found at LIFT that they haven’t found at other conferences: interaction. Ideas. Unplanned serendipity encounters in a friendly, informal ambiance, leading to seemingly off-topic – but highly inspiring – discussions. These are crucial because they are part of Lift’s successful DNA.

By the way: this is why the LIFT fondue is often quoted as the essential Lift moment. And I did enjoy this year’s LIFT fondue – despite the fact that the venue’s kicking out began quite early (at 10pm, with clearing the tables where people were still sitting, the refusal to serve any more drinks and obnoxiously loud music). Now let me tell you an anecdote: like in 2011, I deliberately chose to join a table where I didn’t know anyone yet. I understood quickly that the five(?) people already seated belonged to the same company, incl. spouses, and strangely enough, they would not only block empty seats around them (for colleagues who finally wouldn’t show up during the whole fondue), they also dodged every attempt by their table neighbors to start a conversation… Frankly, if you want to avoid talking to other people, maybe don’t come to the LIFT fondue. Never mind me or your other table neighbors. But it is contrary to the LIFT spirit. You basically hijacked a community event for your company outing.

To me, this anecdote remains exactly this: an anecdote. And please don’t get me wrong: at the fondue, I was more amused than irritated. But now I think it might be illustrative of that lack of LIFT spirit other lifters have expressed.

What if these apparent negligible experiences are the top of an iceberg which are the result of a less community-oriented conference design and ambiance?

Communities don’t just happen

Suddenly, along this line of thinking, I am able to find strikingly many separate examples of a rather careless handling of the LIFT community. Let’s start with the conference design, something Lift used to be – rightfully – proud of.

Well, the conference design of Lift 13 was practically a copy of Lift 12. But poorer. The conference layout hasn’t changed a bit – except for LIFT experience having become very very small and thus, sorry to say so but: almost irrelevant. (I remember spending so much time in the LIFT experience section I accidentally missed talks. No risk of this kind of immersion this year!) The name badges seem to have been standardized, whereas previously discovering your badge was part of the surprise, deciphering its meaning a playful challenge…

There was no omnipresent Lift 13 theme. (Remember Lift 11?) Actually, there was no theme at all. Only a gorgeous conference poster, left unused on its poster paper. True that I might have been spoilt by the PICNIC 12 experience. And true that this might sound like a “good ol’ times” rant. But I do recall the conference being more attentive to its overall design. Surprises and playfulness were part of LIFT and catered to the LIFT spirit.

Yes, I noticed – and loved – the post-it tribute to Aaron Swartz. And I liked the two white giants. They were great. They were a surprise. But this surprise was such an isolated experience that a first-time lifter asked me which sponsor had sent the giants. Because, unaware of the “no pitch” rule, he didn’t realize that LIFT was where the magic happens. Usually. All the time.

A propos “no pitch” rule – it is part of how Lift has managed to build trust. Trust is crucial. Lifters know that their time and attention will not be misused for advertising purposes. Some Lift 13 talks seem to have been gambling with that trust…

Also, I know I am not alone to miss the old website. The community platform was simple but efficient. I even linked to my Lift profile from my website (“I am a LIFTER”). No Facebook page or LinkedIn group can replace the great hub of people and ideas the old website used to be: its richness in terms of content, a readable participants’ list, the personalized participants’ profiles, a legible schedule, transparent workshop subscriptions, videos and line-ups of former editions easy to find (btw: the videos are here)… and above all a description of LIFT that resembled less the one of yet another agency – a description of LIFT that actually made me want to be part of it!

Let’s upgrade LIFT

In my favorite talk of Wednesday afternoon, Micah Daigle suggested to “upgrade democracy”: to innovate when it comes to our political structures, but to keep the old humanist values. Which corresponds probably quite exactly to the challenge LIFT is facing since its change of ownership a little more than a year ago (now belonging to LIFT President A.Oreibi, Agency Emakina.ch/Label.ch and LIFT CEO S.Reinhard): to move ahead without ignoring its DNA.

And as I said before, the unique essence of Lift’s DNA is the informal, friendly LIFT spirit. “A conference that acts as decompression.”

This is why there is not much point in arguing over the quality of the talks when describing Lift. (In my opinion, the speakers were all wonderfully chosen, but some did have some difficulty in getting their message across – a feedback Lift seems to have received in 2010 already and, well, remember how they geared up for Lift 11?) Or as a fellow lifter, coming from abroad, said: “I don’t care about the talks. I’m only here for the people anyway.”

Still, a few words about the talks: they will find their way into future articles. I’m still processing the three conference days. Many many impressions. Much information. And I do not wish to diminish their importance by trying to squeeze them into what has finally become a much longer article with a different focus than I originally intended to write.

I am very happy that there have been many new first time lifters at Lift 13. And I am even happier to read their positive experience when it comes to interactions with other lifters (thank you for blogging, Marcel and Rich).

Therefore I am convinced that an “upgraded” LIFT will keep on valuing the LIFT community, and not take it for granted.

Will I be back?

Yes. And you?

2 thoughts on “Why Lift 13 was good. And how Lift 14 can be better.

  1. Hannes

    IMHO (FWIW) those few that complain about the “pitching” didn’t quite get what the presentations where about. There were no pitches. Caroline? No way that was a pitch, that would be just like saying a presentation about the architecture and internal mechanisms of Wall Street was necessarily an ad for speculation at Wall Street: Yes sure, as there is only one Wall Street you have to talk about the thing itself, but it’s about the architecture and the mechanisms, not about winning you over as a customer. Or a simpler example: if Kickstarter would have been there then as the very example of crowdfunding, not to root for them. The other candidate would be Oliver. Heck that guy never ever talks about himself as a business man, in other presentations he’s all font maker / designer / craftsman. I urged him to mention that his way of doing work is a actually a good way of doing business, just to make sure nobody comes up again with stuff like “yeah sure, those designers that don’t ever make a penny, they can afford to be passionate about their work, sure”. So if you say that’s gambling with trust I reply with a clear “maybe”, but for me those clearly were not company pitches trying to sell to potential customers or investors.

    Concerning the atmosphere I see two things: on one hand there were clearly more Swiss-Germans participants. That already makes a difference. They prefer a little structure (like the speed dating thing, done by a Swiss-German), and they’re usually not as “chaleureux” as their latin counterparts. Maybe they should be given less structure, not more, to bring them into a latin sort of mindset. Maybe less “explicit networking” should be done, although that was mentioned in the feedback as positive thing most often. Interesting point. On the other hand, there were more Swiss-Germans on the curatorial side of things. What they like is not so much “fun” or “exotic” talks, but tough shit like democracy or craftmanship. I’m just like that: it ain’t fun if it ain’t a good challenge. But sure, maybe that can be équilibré a bit.

    Then for reform and upgrades: I’m all for that. There’s so many good ideas around, and the idea of a conference can still go so far. More coherent sessions! Different kind of social activities! More doing stuff! And so on! But: as you mentioned there was an organizational .. restructuring .. going on behind the scenes, for reasons we don’t have to get into. If I take into account that this could well have meant “no Lift ever again”, I’m really glad there was one. One that was stabilized, one that, looking at the audience, was more relevant to the entire country. One that, as rumor has it, was commercially sound. That many long-time Lifters considered as the best ever is nice (and I don’t even agree), but you’re right: this thing can go much, much further.

    Disclaimer: these are just my late-night thoughts and not an official response at all, I’m not employed by Lift and those opinions are solely my own, yaddayaddy etc. :-)

    1. Anna Jobin

      Thank you, Hannes! You see, I mostly agree with you – personally, I didn’t mind Caroline speaking about Etsy at all, for instance. Whereas Oliver’s “We redesigned Freitag’s website. Their ROI was huge. And we are not cheap” sounded more self-promotional than making-a-point to me… Glad to know how this has come to happen :-) Anyway, I hope to have made it clear in the beginning: these are mostly small details in a great overall picture. But, I prefer sharing rather than ignoring them in order not to leave potential weak signals undetected.

      I know there have been huge efforts behind Lift 13, and I am thankful to the people who have made it happen.

      Of course, there are many tough decisions to be made. Finding the right balance between fun/playfulness/discovery and solid/useful/tangible content (if considered a dichotomy) is tricky, no doubt, and you can’t please everyone. [A helpful hint from existing sociological knowledge: ceteris paribus, experimental conference content will always be more community-building than "practical" conference content even if the community doesn't like the experimental content!]

      By the way, don’t you think it is significant of the LIFT community that even first time lifters have pointed out “the people” and “the discussions” as the conference’s main asset? I was very happy to read that…


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