BIL and the Future

by Allyson Lazar

Thank you to the Museum of Latin American Art for hosting this year's BIL conference last weekend!

Wait, what's BIL, you ask? Ever heard of TED? No? Well, let's start with TED.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and it is an annual conference that, to use its own language, is dedicated to "ideas worth spreading." Each year, TED brings together some of the most eminent, prominent and impressive minds in the areas of technology, entertainment and design and gives them a strict 18 minute limit to share their ideas with the world. With the world? Yes, because even though actually attending TED is prohibitively expensive, the talks are disseminated for free via the Internet. The goal, again in the words of TED itself, is to build "a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other." Some of this year's speakers include Bill Gates, Jaime Oliver, Sheryl Crow, Jane McGonigle, James Cameron and Sarah Silverman.

So that, in a nutshell, is TED. Big names with big ideas, scientists, artists, leaders, innovators, activists, thinkers.

BIL is a response to TED. Where TED costs a lot of money (registration is in the thousands of dollars), BIL costs $20 to attend. But the principle is still the same. BIL is about bringing people together to share ideas and innovations that are changing the world--or that will change the world--but it works on a smaller scale. So that is BIL in a nutshell: like TED, only affordable and with names you haven't necessarily heard of...yet.

BIL calls itself an "unconference." Having attended last weekend I can tell you that an "unconference" looks a lot like a regular conference, with speakers up on a stage, most of whom used PowerPoint. Since there was a strong emphasis on science and technology, there were very few technical difficulties and that was a nice change, but hardly the trademark of an "unconference." What really made it an "unconference" is that the speakers list was apt to change and morph and grow because anyone can speak on any topic. They just have to sign up. Or not. They just have to be there and be willing to speak, really.

Each speaker has 20 minutes, period; if a speaker uses up his/her entire 20 minutes talking, then there is no q&a. Or, at least not in the main lecture room. People were encouraged to wander in and out throughout the presentations and strike up discussions outside in MOLAA's lovely sculpture court.

Another big difference between BIL and more formal conferences (such as AAM or WMA) is that there were no lunch meetings, no business meetings, no formal evening events. There was no-host getting together at a bar afterwards for food and drinks to continue conversations, but no buses to transport people to and from the venue, no conference hotel. In addition, the final day of the conference people gathered in informal groups to enjoy local offerings such as hiking or whale watching and, again, keep the conversations going.

Since these extracurricular activities were all optional and pay-as-you-go, and the cost of the conference hall itself was donated (thanks, Microsoft!),  that is how BIL was able to keep the base cost of registration down at the unbelievably low price of $20. Less, if you were a speaker.

So why would museums and museum people be interested in all this jabbering about BIL and TED (yes, the naming of BIL was intentional) and unconferences? Two reasons.

The first is that information sharing and dissemination is changing. After all, this is a blog post. Five years ago, it might have been in an entirely different format. Ten years ago it certainly would have. Information sharing is transforming and we need to be thinking about how we want to share information in the future, about what kinds of formats are most effective and digestible. Do we value in-person information exchange or virtual? Perhaps some combination? Do we prefer formal twenty-minute presentations or perhaps pecha kucha style rapid-fire presentations followed by in-depth discussions? We should be thinking about these questions so that we can work together to shape optimum strategies for efficiently and effectively sharing information and engaging in professional development.

The second reason why museums and museum people should be interested in BIL (and TED) is because of the content. There were game designers, performance artists, rocket scientists and all kinds of speakers--and most of them were talking about the future. The future affects us all.

One speaker talked about the rising trend of people relying exclusively on their mobile devices for their computing needs. What will that mean for museums if, in the not-so-distant future, all of our visitors are walking around with their computers in their pockets? At the very least, it means that museum websites will have to be optimized for mobile viewing. But think about the possibilities that mobile computing can offer for museums and their visitors. MOLAA is already taking advantage of the fact that most visitors carry cell phones by using Guide by Cell for their audio tour. I made use of my own cell phone in the MOLAA galleries a couple of times and was really glad that I did!

Another presentation was on the topic of "immersive storytelling." Isn't that what we do in museums? Well, instead of exhibits and material culture, these guys talked about Operation Spy-like experiences such as The Tomb and MagiQuest. These are experiences that we can learn from--or watch out for as potential competition. The presenters talked about establishing permanent facilities for temporary experiences to cycle through--sound familiar?

So I'll be blogging in the near future about some of the specific talks that impact museums, but first I just wanted to introduce you all to BIL and get you thinking about unconferences and the future!




great post, Allyson! it's what we all need to be looking at...and so glad we are going to be opening up the form a bit this year in Portland, even if we never get as "loose" as the pic, too!
- james

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