At the ASU+GSV Summit, 3,000 purpose-driven attendees gather to forge the next normal

Posted by Munir Haddad, September 2021

“The ASU+GSV Summit connects leading minds around education and skills to ensure a new era in which all people have equal access to the future. The 12th annual global conference takes place both online and in San Diego, August 9-11, 2021.”

I usually describe it as a meeting of educators, entrepreneurs, policy makers and money. 

This year should have been the victory lap for all of the attendees: Over the last 12 years, most of the participants have been at the forefront of bringing technology and solutions to improve educational access and attainment. 

In the last five years or so, that evolved to be more explicit about including skills attainment for talent development. The COVID-19 pandemic “black swan” event is the moment when all of the thought leadership and hard work from the Summit’s participants is put to the test. However, when shocks occur, the transition to the next normal is rarely orderly.

The attendees at the Summit were not running around giving each other high fives and saying “I told you so!” though they could have. Many attendees were expressing the advantages of better access to systems, infrastructure and education since the outset 12 years ago. Bill Gates even took the main stage a few years ago and expressed his concerns about a global pandemic. 

There could have been an air of righteousness. Instead the attendees were assessing the next normal, the performance of their systems and solutions at scale, and reviewing their hypotheses about what worked well and what needs improvement. There is no resting on laurels in this group. Only forward progress.

Some observations of this year’s themes from a party of one:

Testing – The next normal will require some form of bio safety and security (at least until we’ve forgotten about the pains of the pandemic. Okay that’s pessimistic, but we forgot the Spanish flu so we’re likely to forget COVID-19, it’s just a matter of time) and the Summit accomplished that by requiring a negative COVID-19 test to register for the event and masks inside. 

Benefits of in-person events – Human interaction at scale brings joy, a rush of endorphins and there have been studies of the psychological benefits of social interaction

Chance encounters – When people are together at a Summit there are opportunities to run into friends, colleagues and meet new people. The benefits of these “chance encounters” (at least in an office setting) was supported by research presented in Harvard Business Review, “Chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance.” For me, being able to run into colleagues re-ignited a passion for the work that we do and provided tangible ideas that we are already executing against.

Hybrid sessions – The Summit organizers did a fantastic job of incorporating themes of what the “next normal” might look like for conferences: testing at registration, hybrid sessions where the audience was physically present but all of the presenters were virtual, hybrid sessions where a moderator was virtual but two of the presenters were in the room and the audience was both in person and online and completely online sessions

DEI – Finally, there was a content theme that could not be ignored: diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The Summit has a history of championing access and accessibility, including actively broadening diversity, equity and inclusion. This year, the events of the recent past had put a tighter focus on the intention of the efforts. It will be exciting to see what this brings in our shared future.

It’s critical that we continue to balance our physical health with the mental exhilaration of our social connections. Physical gatherings are important and a “next normal” is emerging.

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