This is a long and deep look at the behind-the-scenes of my trip to speak at Innotown in Norway a few months ago, if you’d like the shorter version with Sketchnotes of the talks from the conference go here, else read on!
I have Richard Mulholland to thank for many things. He’s someone who’s inspired me in many ways and the story of how we first met is quite a funny one: moral of the story is don’t have a typo in your email when you’re telling someone about a typo they made somewhere.
Rich is a titan of industry on this continent when it comes to speaking and presentation strategy and a great guy as well. He runs Missing Link and 21Tanks two companies I could rave about. He also happens to have some brilliant presentation advice you should download called Attention Spam. I had a great time working out of Missing Link’s indescribably rad (no other word comes close) office in Banbury Cross in Johannesburg and see first hand how they make the awesome.
But last year, more importantly, as Rich and his team at Missing Link do, after attending a bunch of innovation and creativity conferences across the world, he shared his experience. This one particular conference that made an impression on me was Innotown. Taking place in the tranquill fishing town of Alesund in Norway, Innotown is as he described it as “…the Goldilocks of conferences i.e. they got everything “just right”.” For me, I was smitten, not only by his review but by researching Innotown, reading blogs and finding out about the founders and the essence of the conference.
It could have ended there.
I signed up for the email list and kept it in my thoughts. A few months later, thinking about Innotown, they announced they were ready for their 2011 conference and announced early bird tickets. And shortly after that is when I got in touch with them. I approached them and shared my passion for telling a new story at Innotown 2011…a perspective frequently seen and less often heard first hand: an African narrative.
And then in all my sensibilities, I went back to work, back to life. Until I received an email response from who were to become 3 of the warmest souls I’ve ever come to meet. I remember every single thing about the moment I received their response. All I was thinking of was a discount to attend and take up a seat at the conference, but they saw past my ambition and challenged me to put together a video on my mobile phone and to share my story with the medium that had so changed my existence. I had to earn it.
This retrospective look into my not-so-long life helped me see something that had never been truly clear to me. As the adage goes, sometimes you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. And this stood out as I looked as far back into my life as my childhood. Those who know me well may know that I was a child actor and model, but that aside, the way everything came around full circle to my current line of work made sense to put into a story that personified the new generation of Africans online.
So the story was sent, and I went back about my business awaiting the response of Cecilie, Dag and Gro Linn and lo and behold, they were impressed by my story and it was to be that I would speak at Innotown, as a special surprise for the conference.
I didn’t know this at the time, but this whole exchange between us and the culmination being my 9 minute talk on innovation in Africa through my story would so lead Innotown to introduce a new segment to their conference called “My Story” and I encourage those of you with great stories to tell to approach the conference. I can’t put in words how elated I was to share the stage with such a wide selection of genius at the conferences. I was fortunate to share the stage with visionaries such as Anand Giridharadas, Bill Strickland, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Dayna Baumeister, Peter Draper, Stephane Garelli (his presentation is online and I highly recommend you check it out), Richard Heinberg and Sylvia Earle.
An interesting addition to my trip that was a first time experience like many things I found in Norway was when I got a call from the lovely Cecilie With who asked “Mark, how would you like to be a TV star?” Without a moment’s hesitation I accepted the opportunity to have Norway’s National TV Station TV2 chronicle my experiences of the country and the conference.
I was catapulted to reality TV stardom from my arrival at the airport, hailing a taxi, getting to my hotel and doing what really brought me to Scandinavia in the first place, being an African ambassador for an emerging market revolution of technology and innovation. You can watch TV2’s final piece which aired Saturday 10th June here or by clicking the image below.
The African contingent was strong though, I met up with Dayle and Sam from Missing Link and Laurie Slatter of 36One Asset Management and as the only Africans at the conference we rocked out as seen in the awesome Flickr of our experiences there.
Alesund is a beautiful and peaceful fishing town that has a very calm and soothing atmosphere to it. A population of 42,000 (of whom I ended up seeing a total of about 1,000 during the time I was there and by 1,000 I mean in a week, I hardly saw anyone around except tourists from when cruise ships docked. Nevertheless it’s the largest fishing town in Norway and one of the most innovative and dynamic regions in Norway with a history of groundbreaking inventions in the maritime sector and furniture industry. After the great fire of 1904, Alesund was rebuilt and given a distinct Art Nouveau architectural style that is hard not to fall in love with.
The conference began for me with a beautiful boat trip. Innotown’s organisers host a special VIP party each year and I was invited aboard a speedboat with about 20 other guests among them speakers, partners and sponsors to dine at a beautiful and quaint 19th century trading post (one of the oldest ones in Norway). The dinner was an amazing selection from one of the best chefs in Alesund, a banquet of sea food in tapas style. An interesting mélange of exotic and rich tastes that was as memorable for its variety and its was for its congruence.
One thing that I loved about Alesund was the long summer days. I loved the fact that the sun was always out even at midnight though it did give me an interesting first night’s sleep. In some parts of the north, the sun doesn’t ever set, it just dips over the horizon and rises again. On the flipside, when there’s winter in the north there’s darkness for 18-20 hours a day or sometimes all day!
For my coverage of the conference you can go through my Sketchnotes from some of the speakers. One thing that I loved about the speakers and the content of the conference was the fact that each of these speakers had one hour each. TED’s perfected the 21 minute or less talk but there’s still a counterpoint that though selection and criteria is higher, long-form talks can be brilliant and just as mind-blowing. Innotown has a radically distinctive way of curating that is easy to fall in love with. The entertainment was also out of this world.
What I loved about how it all began was it’s calm yet timely progression. We met upstairs in the big lounge area to network and interact before the conference began. That’s partly where I met Tom Carpenter, though we had spoken some the night before and he is one of the most endearing people I’ve met. He’s got such a positive and warmness to his personality and this was his 6th year moderating Innotown. There was actually one gentleman who had been to Innotown all 10 years and we gave him a hearty applause for his commitment and endurance.
The party that evening was great as well. The organizers blocked off an entire street in Alesund to host the party and Sam, Dayle, Laurie and I were up to no good laughing at every inopportune moment to the “you had to be there to get it” jokes.
I had already been acquainted with the stage during my mic check and got to rehearse the day I arrived in Alesund. And so it was as a complete surprise to the conference, that I would appear shortly after the afternoon break, I was called up on stage (a little conspicuous though was my microphone and the TV2 Camera Crew filming me as the conference regrouped after lunch) and I gave what is still “the talk of my life” in more ways than one.
I appreciated the response, the engagement and the attention of the audience and hope I did this continent proud. We’ll see if the talk will be available soon online perhaps as it was recorded by the conference.
Overall it is one of the highlights of my personal career and certainly my life. The experience, the story and the power of connecting across seas, oceans and continents in this day and age.
I recommend you attend and follow them, they just announced the dates for next year’s conference: 6th and 7th June 2012!