The new meaning of Hybrid

Published On Sep 7, 2022

In July, 2020, we ran one of the first hybrid events on record. On a pier in Montreal’s Old Port, fifty socially distanced audience members watched speakers, online and onstage. Their content was streamed to thousands of startup founders.

Two years later, we know much more about both virtual and in-person conferences. And the scope of the two is dramatically different. Put simply: A hybrid event isn’t a single event with a studio audience. Rather, it’s two events, interwoven. It’s the sum of the parts, not their intersection. It’s not the lowest common denominator, it’s the best of both worlds.

Let me explain.

Virtual events have a lot to offer, and while they were nascent pre-pandemic, they rapidly became the norm. Some of their advantages include:

  • Attendees could participate from anywhere in the world.
  • Content could be viewed after the fact, since recording was built into the medium.
  • The ability to overlay transcription and translation—albeit with the imperfection of algorithms—made accessibility more affordable.
  • Organizers had access to the best speakers and experts on the planet, regardless of where the event was held.
  • With everyone at their desk, new forms of interaction—from polls to chats to quizzes, were possible.
  • Since virtual spaces can be spun up on the fly, events had limitless rooms that could be reconfigured on the fly for breakouts, spatial networking, and other online formats.
  • The audience had a voice, whether during Q&A, or joining a speaker on stage, far more than it did when everyone was in a room.

Of course, physical events had plenty of advantages over their online counterparts as well:

  • You had the audience’s undivided attention. A virtual event competes with every other browser tab.
  • Unlike virtual, where bosses think nothing of asking you to “just join a quick meeting,” vital learning is uninterrupted, giving participants the chance to immerse themselves in the event.
  • Serendipity needs the chaos of physicality. It’s too easy to back out of online interactions, but the real world offers myriad forcing factors: Standing in line at a food truck, introducing yourself to a random seatmate, overhearing someone talking about the very same problem you’re facing.
  • Humans are social creatures. Inspiration is a shared experience, and there’s no substitute for seeing the impact something has on others.
  • Speakers can really communicate. Big ideas deserve more than a rectangle, and experts shine when they lose themselves in the moment.

If you were to draw the two in a Venn diagram, it might look something like this:


Hybrid Reconsidered

But far too many conferences don’t deliver the whole picture; instead, they focus on where the overlap is: The things that can be done for both audiences, simultaneously. And that means in-person audiences lose out on formats that work well exclusively in person, such as workshops, networking, Birds of a Feather, and icebreaking; while virtual audiences watching a stream lose the ability to explore content and recordings at their own pace, connect digitally, and explore expansive content made possible by the economics of an online event.

After two years of showing the world what’s possible online, FWD50 is returning to an in-person venue as a true Hybrid event. But that means something very different today from what it did on a pier in 2020.

It means running two conferences, simultaneously. It means weaving them together when possible, but letting them each do what they do best when they can. And while it’s a daunting undertaking, after months of planning and experimentation, we’ve concluded that it’s the right thing to do.

This November, the world’s leading conference on digital government returns with an in-person conference in Ottawa’s Lansdowne park. It’ll have a main stage packed with some of the leading public service innovators on the planet, as well as creative icebreakers, hands-on workshops, and plenty of the engineered serendipity we’re famous for.

This November, the world’s leading conference on digital government also returns with an online event featuring multiple stages with speakers from around the world. It’ll have spatial networking, messaging, asynchronous chat for every session, access to transcribed and translated recordings, and more.

Sometimes, this means doing things separately. In-person attendees will give their undivided attention to speakers on the main stage, but will have to wait to see other stages as recordings. Face-to-face workshops will only be available to those in the room. Spatial networking and topical breakout rooms will be exclusively for virtual participants.

Sometimes, this means duplication. Our partners will join us physically on the main stage for fireside chats, and on virtual channels to discuss the latest tech innovations. And we’ll be creating two stages, one of projectors and curtains and headset microphones, and one of web pages and video streams and chatrooms.

And when possible, it means doing things together:

  • Our main stage audience will pack the venue’s chairs, and join us from hundreds of cities around the world (thanks to the Regional Access Pass program.)
  • Attendees at home will upvote a question submitted by someone in the audience.
  • A first-day in-person ticket holder can stay home to watch online content the next day.
  • And attendees can discuss a session as it happens with simple chat, then join a deeper conversation with both physical and virtual audiences (and perhaps even the speaker) after the fact.

If this sounds like a lot of work, the simple fact is: It is. It would be far simpler to just run an in-person event, but we’d be abandoning the thousands of participants who’ve joined us online in the past two years. And it would be just as easy to stay online, but we’ve heard from so many people that the engagement, learning, and pure enjoyment of in-person networking and learning is irreplaceable.

I’ve been reading Siim Sikkut’s book of interviews with twenty of the planet’s most remarkable digital leaders, in preparation for our upcoming Book Club. It’s packed with advice, but one thing really stood out to me: How fundamental that networking and communication is to the role of digital transformation. Every one of his interviewees emphasizes this.

2022 is a time of shifting goals, widespread skepticism, and demanding users. As the organizers of a global platform for learning, networking, and collaboration, we take our role seriously. So this fall, we’re weaving together two events, either of which could stand alone, and delivering the sum of their parts. That’s what government transformation deserves.