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Why the tech industry must kill “fake” networking events!

Off to mega music and tech festival SXSW next month, Pavegen entrepreneur Laurence Kemball-Cook says dated conference formats need to die

I am heading to South by South West in a few weeks, and it made me think about what to expect there.

I've been attending conferences, on behalf of Pavegen, for years since I founded the business. From the World Economic Forum in Davos to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. There are countless.

My perception on conferences changed entirely, however, when I went and completed my first TED talk in California.

I walked into the huge hall and was handed a glass of champagne, Beastie Boys was playing full blast as I was ushered in to find a bean bag waiting for me. I sat beside Paul Zak, a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics, who proved in his TED talk that it was him who had discovered the power of the trust hormone in humans.

There were even dogs running around, and after attending my fair share of corporate conferences, it was an experience like no other. We spent the evenings around camp fires discussing the future of education, and the mornings around the pool discussing how to solve healthcare for the elderly.

I made some friends for life. In comparison to some of the larger events I've been to, I gained a lot more from TED that benefited me in the long-run.

So why is the tech industry still organising conferences where we are forced into “fake” networking environments; standing around awkwardly and consuming coffee, staring through name badges asking what they can do for my business, eyes skirting around the room for that CEO so we can make our fake excuse and find someone more “important” to talk to?

Networking through experiences

For me, networking is about making friends and meeting people with passionate interests. I don't want to ask someone what they do, I want to hear about their dreams.Laurence Kemball-Cook cycling

My best networking environments are often not what you expect, from Ironman competitions in Korea, where we share deep experiences with fellow competitors, to cycling across the Italian mountains with Crowdcube. We share experiences, similarities, and maybe some business.

With an attendance of 70,000 in 2015, the Burning Man is one of the largest gatherings emphasising the importance of community and innovation. Essentially, the world's most prevalent leaders in tech gather to party hard. Why is a desert a more effective setting than a desk?

I've been invited to South By South West this year – the music festival turned tech meet-up, as an ambassador for Tech City on behalf of British government. In a few weeks' time, I'll be travelling to Austin, and I'm really excited to see how it'll compare to both TED and the corporate, structured offering of larger conferences I've been to in the past. Looking to hear from people who are keen to share genuine experiences, stories and look to change the world together.

Pavegen generate electricity through footsteps, and we're hoping to take this technology across the globe. We've had huge support from the UK government – I've been on several trips with David Cameron, who's an advocate for our clean-technology solution, and also worked with the likes of Akon, Pele, and to spread the word about our technology.

Last year was truly pivotal for us – we raised over £2m in Crowdfunding through Crowdcube, formed our first Advisory Board, spearheaded by former Senior Apple Exec Jeff Martin and former Interface FLOR president, Greg Colando. I also took networking to new levels – completing the Ironman in South Korea, cycling through the Italian mountains and even singing awful karaoke with the CEO of the largest property firm in the world at MIPIM [ I won't say who 😉 ].

That's where the strength and capabilities of a true networking opportunity lie – you're more likely to find me swimming in the lakes or jumping out of a plane than sipping coffee in my suit. And I'm keen to find out what everyone else is planning for their SXSW trip as we join to look to disrupt and reshape industries. You may find me holding a raft-building competition at SXSW – 11-15th March, Austin Texas, looking forward to meeting you all and sharing our experiences. Please give me a shout if you're gonna be there.

Laurence Kemball-Cook is the founder and CEO of clean tech company Pavegen, the flooring technology that turns the wasted kinetic energy from footsteps into renewable electricity. You can follow him on Twitter at @laurencekc


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