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Thinking Digital 2023

Chris Dymond reflects on the sellout conference in Gateshead.

Earlier this month, Chris Dymond, one of our Directors, jumped on a train up to Newcastle for his annual geek holiday/pilgrimage to the Thinking Digital Conference. This was the 14th time it’s been held in person, always in the same iconic venue at The Sage in Gateshead. In this post, Chris shares some highlights and reflections from the event.

Once again Thinking Digital was a sell out with around 1,000 delegates packed into the barrel-shaped Sage Two auditorium for a day of TED-style short talks from scientists and expert communicators on a wide range of topics covering myriad ways in which technology is transforming the world around us.

AI and large language models featured a lot, of course, with talks from entrepreneur/philosopher Sean Williams, Turning Institute ethicist Mhairi Aitken and education futurist Dan Fitzpatrick. But there were also insightful and memorable talks about the structure of our oceans from aquatic physicist Helen Czerski, cryptocurrency skepticism from actor-turned-critic Ben McKenzie, the likelihood of all this being just a simulation from super-computing cosmologist Andrew Pontzen, lessons in finding meaning after military service from straight-talking “drill sergeant” John Beamson, and a host of others – you can find the schedule here, and I’m sure videos of all the talks will be posted over the summer.

The event featured a day of TED-style short talks from scientists and expert communicators on a wide range of topics

Short talks, socialising and learning new things

As something of a connoisseur of short talks, I liked some of them more than others – some I’d essentially seen before or didn’t cover anything I wasn’t already aware of, but all of them provide food for thought and it’s often the talks or insights you don’t fully agree with that lead to the best conversations and debates afterwards.

I’ve been attending TDC since almost the very beginning and, with exception of the two covid years in 2020 and 21, I’ve missed only a handful over its 14 year span. It’s always great to reconnect with other conference stalwarts and the social side of the event is as much of a draw as the talks are. The conference dinner is a fun affair, whether you’re sat near old friends or new acquaintances (and I recommend a mix of both!), and it was great to bump into a few friends from Sheffield over the two days as well.

The dinner was on Wednesday evening, with the talks the next day, but even before then the conference offers an afternoon of workshops and masterclasses, or alternatively you can attend the Startup Competition and watch pitches for a few hours.

I’ve changed what I do on the opening afternoon over the years – I originally preferred the workshops, then switched to the startup competition for a few years, but since the post-covid return I’ve been enjoying the workshops again.

This year there were sessions on “Boosting your creative confidence”, “Using rapid design interventions”, learning to use the “Latest audio, visual & machine learning tools” and “A beginners guide to language models” (of course!). However I decided on a session called “Building Better Products or Services by Revealing Your Customers’ Unmet Needs” delivered by Fred Pernet of ProAgile. This introduced and expanded on innovation management legend Clay Christiansen’s ‘jobs to be done’ concept. Lots here I didn’t know about, which was a bit of a surprise, to be honest, and a pleasant one.

Still going strong

This year’s conference certainly held up to previous years, a fact which even the doyen of the show, Herb Kim, seemed a little surprised at – delighted that the event is still as vibrant and well attended even after all this time.

One thing that also strikes me about the conference is how the local tech ecosystem in Tyneside uses it to showcase itself. The vast majority of the sponsors are indigenous firms and organisations, and the conference dinner was sponsored by the city council, with their dedicated digital and tech industry Senior Inward Investment Manager, Dawn Dunn, talking to the assembled delegates before the meal. She explained the significant local assets and told the story of recent investments in the city, including the expansion of the BBC’s research & development tech hub in the city, which draws prominent internet nodes such as Bill Thompson and Ian Forrester to the event.

So, as I enjoyed a pint and spicy tacos at the Thursday night after-party in the quayside container-park food hall, By The River Brew Co, I reflected on how what started as a council-funded TED-style conference in the mid 00s had morphed into a successfully independent two-day tech festival that brings Tyneside’s ever expanding digital business and cultural ecosystem together to be inspired by experts from far and wide, to celebrate what they are doing and share it with the rest of the world.

And if I had to pick a favourite moment from the two days, it would have to be Andrew Szydlo’s utterly bonkers chemistry show that closed the event. He said he’d filled out all the health and safety assessment forms, but I’m not so sure…