Is the Venue the Message?

I raced into the #futurising conference room 20 minutes late, having arrived 10 minutes early. Except that I wasn’t late because the organisers had thoughtfully put the talk back 10 minutes, and the presenter was still trying to get something to work. I turned to a fella behind me. “That was the slowest moving queue I’ve ever been in.”, I said. “And I’m still early!”

It's pitch black in broad daylight!Came the reply: “This has been organised by Arts people”, delivered in a tone which meant that this was not merely the most feasible  explanation, but the only one.

I could see what he meant. The officials were amiably efficient, but in an other-worldly sort of way. I’m used to conferences where there are people in power suits holding clipboards, timing everything to the second and then flapping when there is a delay. This was more like being part of one of those runny water colours you see in the Tate Gallery or along the Bayswater Road.

But despite that, or probably because of it, the conference worked. It was interesting, “edgy” and, by all accounts from looking at the tweets, useful. But I think a large part of its success was down to the venue.

The Nicholls & Clarke Building in London used to be a Victorian warehouse, which was used as a workplace until just a few years ago. One of the buildings used to be two separate ones, with a narrow alley between them. This is known as “Ripper Alley”, as it was thought to be one of the routes used by Jack the Ripper. You can see how dark and terrifying London once was: look at the pictures and shudder.This was once an external window

The thing about buildings, as anyone involved in designing learning spaces will tell you, is that the nature of the design affects the nature and quality of the activities that go on inside it. We all know this, intuitively if nothing else, and yet we keep insisting on holding ICT conferences in ordinary, traditional venues. How can you think out of the box if you’re sitting in one?

Most of us are familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s "The Medium is the Message". Might it not also be the case that the venue is the message too?

There are more photos on Flickr.

Refurbishment Isn’t The Same As Improvement

One of the places I like to go sometimes is a bar where they have free wi-fi and a relaxed attitude. You can sit there for three hours nursing a single pint (orange juice and lemonade in my case, if you’re buying) without being hassled or asked to leave.

Basically, neither the bar staff nor the owner seemed to care about such things. And as for the clientele, they were all concerned with their own affairs. I wouldn’t call them social misfits exactly but they were, shall we say, characters.

And now they’re gone.

The bar, you see, has had a make-over. It’s been ‘done up’. It’s been ‘upgraded’. It now serves ‘toasties’ and ‘skinny lattés’. It’s more light and breezy. But it’s not my bar.

I’m not, and never have been, a pub-type person. But a pub with free wi-fi and open all hours, now that’s a different matter.

But now that it’s changed so much, I doubt that I’ll be seen there too often. I may venture in there when I need to send an email urgently and I happen to be in the area. I doubt that I will again make it the point of my journey.

All of which makes me wonder: are all refurbishments improvements? Is it possible to have a brand spanking new computer suite, but none of the old atmosphere or user-friendliness?

I visited a school a few years ago in which the computer lab had nothing on the walls. No posters about how to use the equipment. No notice stating who to phone if something went wrong.

“Why’s that?”, I asked my host.

“Private Finance Initiative”, came the reply. “Not allowed to put anything on the walls.”

That should have been negotiated out of the contract before a single brick was laid, in my opinion. But that, and my bar experience, serves as a warning, I think: just because something has been refurbished, or renewed, doesn’t mean to say it’s been improved.