Sunday, June 21, 2015

Madison’s Forward Festival & Civic Hacking

Madison, Wisconsin, has a TIME community event (Tech, Innovators, Makers, Entrepreneurs) called the Forward Festival.

The Forward Festival is an 8-day celebration of innovation and entrepreneurship, August 20 - 27, 2015, for "entrepreneurs, nerds, designers, geeks, hackers, foodies, and creative professionals from the Midwest."

One of the cool things about this TIME community event is that it’s so nuanced that its audience includes geeks, nerds AND hackers

My memory could easily be wrong on this, but it seems like the primary formally-organized civic hacking event in Madison (National Day of Civic Hacking) was subsumed by the Forward Festival. As was, to a large extent, BarCampMadison, a fantastic two-day unconference I helped get started and participated in several times. The Madison de-emphasis on its formal civic hacking event and its annual technology unconference is probably due largely to the creation of a week-long
event which has many components designed to appeal to the same people who might get involved with civic hacking or with barcamps.

Competition For Attention In A Limited Market:  When there is a plethora of tech events scheduled in an 8-day period in a metro area with a limited potential audience, that can have the effect of diluting the appeal or drawing power of one of the festival component events compared to when it's a stand-alone event. To some degree, those multiple tech events are competing for the same potential participants, even when the events are at different times or on different days during the festival. Tech overload or burnout can reduce the number of event participants compared to the number who would attend a stand-alone event.

If the Forward Festival took place in San Francisco or New York City instead of in Madison, it would be much easier to attract plenty of attendees or participants for each of the individual events in the festival. Because of the huge populations in those major metro areas, there are very large potential audiences for each festival component, so those components are much less likely to suffer due to attention competition.

Free As In Beer:  Cost is another factor. Most civic hacking and barcamp participant-driven events have free registration for the participants. Creating a complex festival of multiple events like the Forward Festival requires a lot of coordination, creates competition for resources, sponsors and audiences, might involve paid speakers, workers and entertainment (Forward Festival included musicians and circus performers), and, consequently, will usually require more marketing expenses. These factors increase the cost to organize, put on and clean up after an 8-day festival, which means the festival events are unlikely to be free for people who go to them. I don’t know if the Forward Festival is a for-profit venture, or if they're a non-profit whose financial goal is to do better than break-even. The bottom line is that you’ll probably have to pay more than two bucks to go to the Forward Festival.

Attendance-Driven Focus:  A prime factor that attracts me to civic hacking, barcamps and unconference-style events is that they’re participant-driven, not attendance-driven. A barcamp can be considered a resounding success even if there are only 25 people who show up. An attendance-driven event organized by a company, a government organization, or an event coordinator who is not a participant in the event is likely to be considered a failure if only 25 people show up. There is much more personal engagement at participant-driven events. Participants are responsible for making the event a success. A big reason for participating in unconferences is to meet like-minded people and interesting ‘doers’ who are making the world a cooler place. That level of personal engagement is missing in most attendance-focused events.

If I lived in or close to Madison, and if the cost to participate in all the events of interest to me was free or very low, I’d likely go to ten or fifteen of the Forward Festival events.

However, I don’t live in Madison. It’s a four-hour round trip, so it would be challenging for me to be involved with all the Forward Festival events that might otherwise participate in if they were on separate weekends, had more participants because of fewer competing events, were free or very low cost, and were more focused on participation than attendance.

From a NE Wisconsin civic hacking standpoint, I have four comments to share with respects to various aspects of the Forward Festival:

  1. If civic hacking events are combined with or compete with other events that appeal to the same audience, it will likely significantly reduce participation in the civic hacking events. That’s the inevitable result of the limited population, culture and demographics of NE Wisconsin.
  2. If civic hacking events have a participation fee, it will likely reduce participation.
  3. Having civic hacking events be primarily participant-driven, rather than attendance-driven, will get more of the ‘right’ people involved, will build more relationships and a stronger civic hacking community, and will bring more benefits to the cities and counties of NE Wisconsin.
  4. If Madison had an annual civic hacking event, I’d participate in it. If Madison had a stand-alone barcamp, I’d participate in that, too. But I think those stand-alone events disappeared partly because of the Forward Festival.


[Don’t take this post the wrong way -- I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to the Forward Festival. It has some cool stuff going on. And it absolutely gets more media attention, generates a much larger attendance headcount and brings more revenue to Madison area businesses than would a series of separate participant-driven events. Click here to check out their website. The Forward Festival is just not a TIME community event (Tech, Innovators, Makers, Entrepreneurs) that this resident of NE Wisconsin is likely to take advantage of. But it might be the kind of thing you want to go to Madison to check out.]


No comments:

Post a Comment