MaRS Impact Week aims to find solutions to the big problems of our time. But attendees might find themselves faced with a more pressing concern: How to get the most out of this new online experience? For conference-goers who are drawn to the buzz of packed auditoriums and lively drinks receptions, the pivot to digital can be a little disorienting. But, unconstrained by distance, online events offer unique opportunities to hear from some of the world’s leading thinkers and connect in new ways with participants from around the globe.
Here’s how to approach MaRS Impact Week and get real benefit from a virtual conference.
To create an engaging experience, MaRS Impact Week will use a digital platform that replicates the feeling of live conferences. There will be main stages and breakout groups to drop in on, networking sessions to attend and exhibitor booths to explore. Julie Angus, CEO of Open Ocean Robotics and a fan of digital events, recommends attendees try to immerse themselves in the conference as much as possible. Block out the time in your calendar, resist the urge to multitask and turn off anything that makes a distracting ping. Since networking is a substantial part of the experience (even if it is done from the kitchen table) Angus also suggests dressing accordingly. “When you go to a conference you wouldn’t wear a sweatshirt or pajamas, so put a nice shirt on,” she says.
In Angus’s view, a key advantage of a digital conference is the productivity boost it provides. “You’re able to attend a lot of events as you can go back-to-back with sessions because you know you won’t get lost walking from one room to another,” she says. In the digital world, you can’t take cues from the crowd and happen on an engaging speaker or interesting vendor booth, so a little planning will go a long way. You don’t need to scour the agenda like it’s a train timetable, but you should have a solid idea of the sessions you want to attend ahead of time. Angus also recommends being prepared to take advantage of digital tools like screen grabs, so you can get as much information as possible from every talk.
Even with good planning, conferences bend to the same universal rule as busses and sometimes two sessions you want come along at once. At MaRS Impact Week, you may not have to choose which to attend. Many (but not all) sessions will be recorded and the video will be available on the conference platform to watch later. Work-from-home tip: The video archive is also useful to check any points you miss when your kids burst in at the vital moment of a talk.
MaRS Impact Week’s program is broad and deep. Its Impact track explores questions around how tech and innovation are changing society, while the Social Finance and Cleantech tracks delve into the key issues facing these sectors. Alexandra Baillie, president of Good & Well impact investment fund and a frequent visitor to the Social Finance Forum, recommends taking advantage of this range of subject matter. “I view the Forum as a way to get more plugged into what is happening in the space,” she says. “I go to things that directly relate to my work, but I also like to attend a couple of talks that just pique my interest. You never know how that’s going to relate to your work or how it might inspire you.” Baillie suggests catching the lightning pitch sessions from ventures, which are always fun. “They really give you a sense of the interesting ideas that are out there and what people are working on,” she says.
Other sessions to consider for your inspiration checklist: Rocket Woman, which features former astronaut Nicole Stott talking about her time on the International Space Station, and A Path to Hope, in which political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon draws on history, research and The Lord of the Rings to explain global threats such as climate change, economic instability and political polarization.
At a digital conference, you can’t scan a room and make a beeline for someone you want to speak to. Networking takes a new approach. Consulting the participant list before the conference and reaching out to set up video calls with people who interest you is more important than ever.
Without the need to travel between meetings and with MaRS Impact Week’s global audience of 5,000 participants, you’ll likely be able to network more extensively than you would at a physical conference. But Angus advises giving yourself enough time to properly talk to the people you are meeting, even if a video call isn’t the same as grabbing a coffee together. “I like to chit-chat,” she says. “I think that’s an important part of making a connection.”
Those looking to replicate some of the serendipity of bumping into people at live events might check out the Networking button on the Impact Week platform. It’s perhaps best described as Chatroulette for professionals and will place you in a time-limited one-on-one video call with another attendee. The algorithm is predisposed to match certain groups, such as entrepreneurs with investors, but when you click the button you’ll be rolling the digital dice. Still, it is an efficient way to grow your network. And that, after all, is one of the main aims of MaRS Impact Week.
MaRS Impact Week runs from November 30 to December 4.