FUEL Vancouver: A new conference series born from Pecha Kucha

The Future of Urbanity, the Environment, and our Lifestyle: Jane and Steven Cox want you to help shape Vancouver's future. The duo is pitching a conference without speakers (yet): will a framework alone attract Vancouver's thinkers and doers?

Steven Cox & Jane Cox of Cause+Affect (Image: causeandaffect.com)

FUEL for thought

"Please be kind..." Steven Cox of Cause+Affect was about to unveil a brand-new dialogue series. His audience was the friendliest imaginable: a packed house at Vancouver's Pecha Kucha Night, people willing to queue around the block to see new things and hear some new ideas.

[Before you ask, it's Puh-CHAK-cha, and not Petcha-Kootcha; though mispronouncing the event's name has become a bit of a tradition. Pecha Kucha is sort of like TED talks for the rest of us: less elitist and more ruthless in its time constraints.]

Steven and his partner (in both senses), Jane Cox, announced FUEL Vancouver, a dialogue series on sustainable urban development.

The event description reads in part, "FUEL will inspire creativity, encourage local and global connections, plot our collective future and ignite the culture of our city."

Jane said, "We didn't want to create another talking-heads event with a passive audience. Our goal is to engage [the public]."

Talk about hitting the pressure points: the notion of Vancouver's transformation into a massive resort town for the rich is so pervasive, it affects how the rest of us treat each other (pdf).

FUEL (the Future of Urbanity, the Environment, and our Lifestyle) aspires to be a conference with a twist: early ticket-buyers will have a say in shaping the course of the event.

Originally approached by the City of Vancouver to potentially build something local around TED 2014, the potential collaboration did not, in the end, come together. Jane said, "the City was great and worked really hard to try and put the two events together, logistically it was just too difficult."

While FUEL (and any other upcoming conference) will inevitably draw comparisons to the 800-pound gorilla with the headset mic and slide-show clicker, TED's exclusivity is its Achilles heel.

In speaking to Jane, I mention the Onion's TED parody series, which hits pretty close to home on occasion.

Jane has seen the videos, and confirmed with a laugh, "A lot of our audience is of the mindset"; Vancouverites looking to build a better future need gears that actually mesh, rather than "The duck goes quack".

The first FUEL conference begins May 29, running across two days and one evening. The format includes presentations, dialogues, and mixers.

Maybe Steven's reticence in announcing FUEL is evidence of a larger problem facing not only Vancouver, but Canada. Perhaps this nation suffers from low self-esteem. We see indicators of low self-esteem daily, as we get routinely taken advantage of.

Come on: we give away our natural resources for nothing, or next to nothing. Our brightest minds get whisked off to Silicon Valley, where Canada has a proper diaspora. If we want to keep Vancouver (and Canada) attractive, we need a healthy intellectual environment as well as a healthy physical one.

Steven Cox MCs Pecha Kucha Night, Jan 30, 2014

The mystery list

At the moment, FUEL has only a framework to attract attendees, and not a stable of speakers. There is a point at which all the types who will attend a conference at the drop of a hat will have jumped in, and then it'll be up to Jane and Steven to woo the rest of the city.

Jane acknowledged this: "A lot of people are sitting back to see who (those speakers) will be. It’s taking a risk to be part of something that you don’t know about."

Jane and Steven are zeroing in on the format: the idea that the attendees are the actual focus of the conference. Jane said that she and Steven are focused first on getting the moderators. "Because it’s a topic mashup, they have to be able to speak broadly on these topics."

As to the speakers and moderators it's all still very much a work in progress: "No-one is confirmed-confirmed."

Mutating from Pecha Kucha

Pecha Kucha Night in Vancouver will continue to present its ruthless twenty-seconds-per-slide format.

Pecha Kucha is great at introducing the public to a cavalcade of interesting people; in bite-sized chunks and in a friendly atmosphere. It reminds us that Vancouver can be, *gasp*, cool.

However, there's no clear sense, of how Pecha Kucha Night's short presentations are shaping attendees' choices and paths.

"Pecha Kucha procures great stories, but we haven't documented it, or shared that with people," notes Jane, “What is the change, really? We need to spend a little more energy and time [in following up on what attendees do with what they've heard]. Is it working? Is it not?"

FUEL has different aspirations, more in line with a get-sh*t-done event such as Passive House North.

Take the power back

FUEL could be part of a larger catalyst, one that turns us from viewers into participants; by creating a conference of people to be spoken with, instead of being spoken to.

Most conferences consist of a cavalcade of people describing to an audience how they did something. Very few involve actually doing stuff, making progress then and there. Perhaps FUEL will be part of a new breed of Vancouver conference, one that can scratch that urbanist itch.

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