Net Change: Not your uncle’s conference

Net Change: Not your uncle’s conference

Dear conference-goer,

The end of June marks our fourth annual Net Change Week, and as organizers, we pause to reflect on our lessons learned, our favourite moments and advice to fellow conference-goers. Much like an entrepreneur identifying a problem to solve, we felt underwhelmed by the same old conference experiences, so we set out to do something about it.  And we thought our unique angle – social tech for social change – would make us an easy sell.  We launched in 2008 on a hunch that other people would feel the same way. In that first year alone, we were impressed with the event’s success:

  • 3,000 people attended
  • people from 45 different countries participated from abroad
  • more than 50 unique videos were created
  • 15 new partnerships with other organizations were formed
  • volunteers clocked 80 hours of work

Much of the success lay in our ability to capture the collective intelligence of the people in the room.  Net Change was really about our new communications paradigm – how we collaborate, create and invent new ways of disseminating information. We wanted the event to reflect this, so we experimented (and still experiment) with format: fireside chat instead of panels, provocations instead of keynotes, genius bar to round out training sessions, 48-hour jam sessions, crowd-sourced submissions…


Sounds like some “pop-y” branding, but this was more than semantics. These sessions were designed to elicit two products: stories from people doing cool things and the creation of net new relationships.

Here are some of our favorite outcomes:



  • Jen Ziemke, founder of Crisis Mappers and Harvard Fellow, attends Net Change as a speaker on Crisis Reporting 2.0.  (She took her shoes off to feel more grounded on stage). Michelle Hamilton-Page, local mobile tech whiz (Toronto Public Health and CAMH), learns for the first time about Crisis Mappers and wants to do something about it. They keep in touch. Jen invites Michelle to do a course. Michelle invites Jen to work with her father, a holographer, to visualize the Crisis Mappers information over the years.
  • Dale Zak, a facilitator in our Mobile Tech for Social Change training 2010, was so disappointed he couldn’t be a part of 2011 that he burned through his allotted online minutes by following the Twitter stream…from Nairobi!  He went one further by creating for the group a mobile app for a change database – a desired artifact for attendees.
  • Ric Young talks to the “next” generation of changemakers (not his usual audience) on the Shock of the Possible. The emerging leaders in the audience return the love by putting him in the top 10 videos on Vimeo for the better part of the month.
  • Future Lab 2010: 45 people meet for the first time. Three groups are formed around three unique projects, all of which are still active.
  • Our MaRS CEO, Ilse Treurnicht, and Professor Iqbal Quadir met for the first time at Net Change. Professor Quadir leads the Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship at MIT and developed Grameenphone in Bangladesh. Ilse has since been invited to speak at MIT and the two remain in contact. You never know where this powerhouse connection may lead.
  • And so many more!

Get the most out of your conference experience!

  1. Fight the FOMO (fear of missing out): Don’t feel you have to attend a conference just because others are. If it seems like a been-there-done-that program, it most likely is.
  2. Be candid: It’s the only way to find like-minded individuals and those who’ve gone through similar experiences. That’s when the true relationships happen (not just over card swapping).
  3. Bridge the gap: Find an opportunity to work with people with a different skillset.  If you’re a coder, find a policy wonk. If you’re a businessperson, find a designer. You’d be surprised at how well you jam together.
  4. Do!: Don’t just take the day off at a conference. Unless the topic of the event makes you feel like a first-year undergrad (i.e., super spongy), find events that let you experiment, build and co-create.
  5. Give feedback: Surveys aren’t fun, but it’s the best way conference organizers know what worked and what didn’t.

Yours in action,

Lisa, Geraldine Cahill & the Net Change team

For more information on what happened at Net Change over the years, look out for our monograph, coming soon to

Interested in coming this year?  Register here: