Trip Report from the BMW Foundation Conference, Merida – Dec 2019

I just got back from Merida, Mexico where I had the privilege to attend the Responsible Leaders conference held by BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. It was a really good experience and an incredibly well-organized event attended by close to 400 people. This post gives me a chance to reflect on some of my learning and takeaways from the conference and how we can incorporate it into future events that we are part of. Before I go into details, I’d like to thank Barbara Mueller from the foundation for inviting me to be part of the network. I’d also like to express my deep gratitude and heartfelt thanks to everyone at the BMW Foundation along with their on-ground partners in Merida for organizing this amazing event. Without further ado, in my normal style of listing things, here’s my list based reflection of the event

  • Organizing a conference at such a large scale is always a hard thing. Things are rarely on schedule. However, this conference ran like clockwork. Everything started and ended on time across multiple haciendas spread across relatively large distances. To some extent, it did seem like we spent a lot of time on buses traveling across Merida and the Yucatan. However, it was also by design and accomplished two important things: We got to see and appreciate a new culture and place, and it also helped us get to know our seatmates and have a longer more extended conversation with then. Also, the changing of the venues on a daily basis gave people the freedom to intermingle and meet new people multiple times during the event.
  • Two things that struck me about the foundation and the board. The humility of the board members and the generosity of the foundation. As Marcus (the board member of the foundation) put it so nicely when we had a conversation on the bus: To a large extent, it is a gift by the foundation to the leaders. They’ve done this quite a few times to know that this gift will keep on giving down the line in ways that they may not even foresee. The power dynamic that we typically see in many conferences (at least the Indian conference I’ve attended) was never seen here. The board and staff at the foundation were as involved in all the sessions and activities as the rest of the participants
  • This was also to a large extent a transaction-less conference and a major networking event. You never knew who you were going to meet on the bus or around the dinner table. People were interested, in who you were, what you did and why you did it. So the conversations were long, diverse and ranged across multiple topics. It was not an NGO conference, nor a social impact conference. If there was a theme, it was probably meeting and learning a lot from people who are trying to do good in the world in their own ways and style.
  • Another amazing aspect was the geographic breadth and sector-wide diversity of the people attending the conference. From business to social entrepreneurs, from bankers to NGO leaders, from environmentalists to media folks it was a wide spectrum. There were folks have been attending the foundation events for the past 20 years, and there were folks like me who were new. Folks who attended every single event, and people who just reconnected with the conference because it was in the right place at the right time.
  • Another participant mentioned to me that connections aren’t really solidified until some time after the conference. That makes total sense because it does take a while for folks to think about their conversations and the people they met and how their work may or may not intersect. In some cases, it happens after a few years. As with many things, there will be a few short term wins from a collaborative perspective, but it’s the long term wins over a period of time that the forum lays the ground for.
  • Many parts of the forum were organized like an un-conference. Having attended and organized a fair number of these, I do love the format and flexibility of this style. You can contribute to a session if you know a lot about a specific topic, or learn about something totally new if you are interested in one. As with other un-conferences, the success of a session depends on the coordinator and the participants in that session. At one of my sessions, the moderator had done some research into each of the participants and their background and this did help structure the conversation really well. The nice thing about the gathering was the “everyone” sessions were kept around 60-90 mins, covered multiple high-level topics, and made people get out of their seats and do things. The smaller group un-conference sessions were much longer: 90 -150 mins and did allow in-depth explorations and discussion.
  • Interestingly enough, we did have a Tech4Dev session. It was a bit strange to see how different people interpreted the word and the session, but overall it was a well-run session and we hope to make this a bigger priority going forward.
  • They did make good connections about their location choices and why they were made. The forum did a great job tying the larger objective to the place that we were having our conversations. The pace of the conference was relaxed as it should be with a ton of “empty time” in-between, that allowed people to either have conversations or for folks like myself (who can only talk for so many hours in a day), go off and wander in the large event spaces.
  • We also did a bit of journaling a couple of times. I thought they handled this aspect really well. Not a lot, but doing it at super key moments, giving folks time to reflect and think back.
  • I was quite surprised by this, but even though a fair number of the participants had attended past events and knew each other, all participants made the newbies feel super welcome and immediately drew them into the conversation. 
  • Finally, for such a large conference, the food and wine were incredible. We were fed super well along with copious amounts of caffeine and sugar 🙂

So a few things, I’m still trying to rationalize and figure out the role it played in the conference and its importance

  • I would have liked to see (maybe online on the app), some high-level points on what each of the smaller sessions discussed. This potentially gives you a basis for having a conversation with a few folks based on sessions that you could not attend.
  • Another participant made this comment, and I kinda semi-agree with it. A lot of the networking happened with random collisions and who you ended sitting next to etc (especially for the newer folks). I do love random collisions for a large part, but is there some more structured way also to augment it?
  • It seemed to me that not too many folks were aware of the open-source/open-data movements. Personally, I think these things are super important if we want to share things with the world and try to not rely on the network to provide the information every time. 
  • As with many un-conferences, a lot of lists and action items are created. I don’t know the community well enough to know if progress will be made on at least some of them. From my end, I do hope to contribute and help the Tech4Dev session action item list.

A couple of interesting logistical and operational numbers. The foundation had a team of 7 people working on the conference quite intensely for 6 months. A few of them were on the ground in Merida to continue the preparation for 6 weeks before the conference. They had more than 40 local partners to help with everything from food and drinks, to transportation and venue staging. For many of the events, we had around 9 big buses to take us to the various haciendas. The haciendas chosen for the meetings and dinner were spectacular.

Overall, I’m glad I attended. I learned a lot, made a lot of new friends and got a much broader exposure and a more global perspective of the work done by others around the world. There is a lot of synergy between what we do at Project Tech4Dev and with many of the NGO / Social Impact folks at the forum. Here’s looking to more collaborations and adventures.

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One response to “Trip Report from the BMW Foundation Conference, Merida – Dec 2019”

  1. Really interesting way to run a conference. In fact, it might as well been called a “get on the bus conference.” I suppose you could go all in and do a conference that is almost completely done on buses. Pick a venue (the US or anywhere), a destination hours away, and design travel an hour or so at a time (with breaks). You switch seats/buses, etc. you get to see the countryside along the way. Presentations could be done at meals if you pick the right venues for those to give some focus during ride segments. Regardless, sounds like an amazing time.

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