Uncharted Festival aspires to become SXSW of Berkeley

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on October 21, 2013

From The News Desk

What's the point of a conference? To make connections, network, learn about new trends, exchange ideas, get inspiration or problem-solve pain points. They're very useful, which is why they're still popular. But they've never been particularly sexy. Nothing screams conference quite like bad fluorescent lighting, stale bagels, and hard folding chairs.

But recently some organizers are trying to flip the conference model on its head with anti-conferences. The first one to cross my desk was OpenCo, an inside-out conference where attendees go to various startups to meet the founders and hear them give presentations in their own office. Then there's the Georgetown poli-sci professor hoping to reinvent the academic conference with presentations that encourage interactions between speakers and the audience.

And now there's Uncharted, a Berkeley based conference that's launching this year. "We don't call it a conference. We call it a festival," says Lance Knobel, the organizer. Berkeleyside, a local Berkeley news publication, is running it. It's hoping to grow Uncharted in the manner of SXSW by starting small and eventually becoming a definitive place for exchanging ideas and raising the Berkeley profile the way SXSW did for Austin.

The festival lasts two days. Instead of panels, there are "conversations" on stage between two people, structured to be a free flowing dialogue versus a prepared presentation. Although entrepreneurship and innovation is a big running theme throughout the program, there are also talks about public policy, gender, food, and other topics.

The conversations have names like "Could an app have saved Trayvon Martin?" and "Everything you know about entrepreneurship is wrong" and "I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords." The evening after party at the Berkeley Art Museum involves "locavorious libations," "vittles,"  and a Cuban Band.

It sounds like fun, and it's definitely off the beaten track of the typical tech conference. There's a few high profile SV types -- like Vivek Wadhwa or Autodesk's Carl Bass. But for the most part the eclectic speaker range highlights people you wouldn't normally see at a tech talk, like Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights or Phil Bronstein, Executive Chair of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

It's fitting for Berkeley to host a tech anti-conference. Despite the university's dizzying array of Nobel prize winners and brilliant researchers, the city has stayed outside the Silicon Valley purview. Not nearly as many startups come from Berkeley, despite recent forays into incubators and entrepreneurship centers.

"If we did a tech conference in Berkeley...that's not the core of what Berkeley is," Knobel says. "But the broader range of ideas would be like Berkeley."

Anything that tries to make the tedious conference model a little more bearable has my vote.

[Image via Franco Folini]