Les Carlisle, andBeyond’s Group Conservation Manager and Rhinos Without Borders’ Project Manager, was one of the delegates at the first-ever ‘un-conference’ makeover of the Conservation Lab. Read on to find out what the experience meant to him.

When I was asked to meet Ryan and Serge at our office in Johannesburg, as our CEO couldn’t make the meeting, I was really intrigued to hear what they were planning. I had never heard of an ‘un-conference’ before and was very sceptical of the new format’s ability to facilitate real dialogue. From this first meeting, Ryan and Serge displayed a commitment to get real and meaningful dialogue going, and that was exactly what was achieved. It has been a real privilege to be part of a real shapeshifting conference.

My fears were allayed to some extent when the details were announced and we were all asked to pitch our TACTIC talks, 15 slides of 15 seconds each. I do a fair amount of public speaking for andBeyond, and am very comfortable with our story. I am comfortable to speak for 20 minutes or 2 hours on the subject without much notice. I couldn’t believe how much planning it took to prepare a 4-minute presentation – which still needed to make an impact! I thought the TACTIC talks were an excellent idea because it meant that everybody had the same platform and time to get their own point across. Often at these conferences, if you are the last speaker in the session, you have to reduce your talk from 45 minutes to 20 minutes because the previous speakers just don’t keep to the time allocated.

Les gives his TACTIC talk live on stage during Day 1 of the Conservation Lab
Les gives his TACTIC talk live on stage during Day 1 of the Conservation Lab

The introduction and welcome and dinner were all absolutely fantastic, as was the fact that there were a great deal of authentic conservation practitioners in the group. One of my problems with conservation tourism is that the tourism industry often sees the issues differently to the conservation practitioners. We had General Jooste provide the overview of the security issues that the state conservation agencies are facing in a frank and realistic way. This keynote really gave context to the Southern African conservation issues.

The presentation and selection of the TACTICS was well done in that it covered a range of the issues and potential solutions that were on the table. Most importantly, the rules of engagement set by Serge facilitated the ability to present different opinions without disagreement. A real winner, and an essential part of the dialogue.

The concurrent sessions during the GAME PLANS were insightful and a really great way to engage. What a coup to have the absolute doyens of community conservation (and my heroes) at the conference, participating meaningfully as they always do. The insight that Garth Owen Smith from Namibia and Clive Stockhill from Zimbabwe brought to the GAME PLAN discussions were a real win.

My only complaint of the whole Lab was that I couldn’t get to the GAME PLAN presentations that I so desperately wanted to, as there were too many discussions on relevant and topical issues scheduled at the same time. This is a fantastic complement to the Conservation Lab, as during the concurrent sessions normally people just network and the sessions are only partially attended. The Conservation Lab format really created great opportunity for taking advice, gleaning ideas and getting different views on potential solutions.

The final evening’s TEAMWORK presentations were great fun, with creative thought applied to the real issue of conservation funding. This was an extremely topical subject for the moment, as it is increasingly clear – if we cannot dramatically increase the funding for conservation security, we cannot stop the local extinctions of species in the wild.

Once again, congratulations on revolutionising the traditional conference with this ground-breaking ‘un-conference’ format. Certainly for me, it achieved real networking engagement and dialogue opportunities. Well done to all involved.

Find out more about the Conservation Lab and the new ‘un-conference’ format

John Segar

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