Campus Party, The Biggest Tech Event You've Never Heard Of

The real potential of innovation comes from the power of surfacing unexpected ideas, connecting the dots, and putting them together in new and magical ways. Enter Campus Party, the next-next event in connecting ideas and sparking creativity.

It’s 11:17 a.m. in São Paulo, Brazil. A stadium-size room sports 4,500 pup tents, many settled by students and new entrepreneurs, sleeping, finally, after one more night innovating until dawn.

Meet Campus Party, the largest event on the planet for connecting ideas and sparking creativity. Innovationpalooza at its best.

Campus Party organizers take over empty warehouses and even aircraft hangers, creating a giant petri dish where innovation thrives. The massive mashup includes fighting robots, beanbag chairs, leading-edge technology, bathrobes, big names in tech and science, and some of the youngest, brightest, most pioneering people in the world.

Vivek Dev, Group Director of Digital Services at Telefónica, Campus Party's global partner, describes the event as, "Woodstock for young geeks," as we tour the giant indoor festival. As far as the eye can see, future tech leaders—young people in emerging markets, eager to make a difference and a name for themselves along the way—experience collaboration’s power firsthand.

Together industrious people come up with solutions that can become products serving niches or whole industries.

Thanks to the arboretum-size pizza cafe and seemingly endless shower stalls, Campus Party smells sweeter than Woodstock would have on day four of a seven-day event. This is a new day and a new breed of party. Launched 16 years ago, having reached over 180,000 people, and still largely unknown in the English-speaking world, it’s coming to a country near you.

While Campus Party’s sheer size astounds, attitudes and vibrancy in the building take your breath away. At times I found myself looking around, in search of what caused the buzz. It wasn’t one thing, rather many. Three stand out.

1. Intentional Encouragement

Imagine yourself standing in line at a swarming supermarket, waiting to pay and finally go home. Your mobile phone rings and you confirm you’re heading to Campus Party. You hang up, staring at the powerful device in your hand, wondering why you couldn’t use this same phone to check out and leave.

When you arrive at the event you share this observation. A young woman you’ve never met before says she wrote some code that could be used for something like this. An old friend searches the web for news of a similar system he’s heard about. You calculate the percentage you would need to charge. Three more people begin writing other features, talking back and forth at their keyboards.

Within a few days you have a prototype. You pitch your idea to a roomful of leaders in various fields brought in by conference sponsors. They encourage your new team to consider where else this technology could help people get back to their lives. You're energized as you refine what a few days ago was only the question, "Why not?"

Innovation is not something you can directly pursue. At Campus Party innovation rises out of the creative tension and electrified atmosphere that comes from asking "why not" then "how." Trying, doing, mixing, fixing, then digging in again. It’s born out of circumstance, intersections, and need.

In the new book Jugaad Innovation, Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu, and Simone Ahuja introduce the colloquial Hindi word jugaad that roughly translates to "an innovative fix." Jugaad is widely practiced in India, Brazil, China, and Kenya, anywhere entrepreneurs pursue growth in challenging climates. Brazilians call this approach gambiarra. The Chinese call it zizhu chuangxin. Kenyans refer to it as jua kali. It’s a gutsy way to respond to adverse conditions, transforming insufficiency into opportunity. Some of the most successful are simple solutions address vexing problems that fellow citizens face.

Telefónica awards a prize for the most commercially viable plan. The winning team gets a yearlong contract with technical, marketing, and legal support so the ideas reach all the people who will benefit. When I met with some of the teams, each was authentically overjoyed at the opportunity to talk with people about their work. The prize was only a small part of what drove them.

Encouragement taps into an intrinsic well, filled as you turn a nascent idea into something valuable to the community around you. Encouragement amplifiies as people celebrate with you because they know that what you can accomplish together is better than what any of you would do alone.

2. Inclusive Diversity

Campus Party, the brainchild of Belinda Galiano, Pablo Antón, and Paco Ragageles, was created to spur innovation in communities that have historically relied on the ideas of others. To generate energy and cross-pollinate thinking, they encourage something beyond working together with technology. They also focus on entertainment, geekdom, and #somethingbetter.

"It's wide and it’s young," says Galiano. "We unite talent. They create the future." Young people want to put their creative skills to use for a larger cause. A 2011 report conducted by Euro RSCG showed 92% of millennials agree the world must change, and 84% consider it their duty to drive this change.

The same research showed a majority of millennials believe it is women, not men, who will lead change. Unlike some tech events I’ve participated in where men outnumber women 5:1 and everyone leaves their family back home, Campus Party nurtures a fusion of women, men, and children. While the tented areas were for individuals, some families came for the day, imbuing an even-deeper sense of inspiration, creativity, and energy, grounded in the real world.

This ensures ideas flow in what Steven Johnson calls liquid networks, representing a free-flowing, high-contact medium. Campus Party provides an environment where an eclectic diversity of thoughts collide, people learn faster, and ideas spread widely.

Writes Ragageles, "The word impossible only lives in the minds of humans who have never loved. Campus Party is about people who through their love for technology, are making the world a better place and for them nothing is impossible. Habito en el tercer planeta del sistema solar (I live on the third planet in the solar system)."

3. Impassioned Hearts

At the heart of Campus Party is the human factor. A banner reads, "The Internet is not a network of computers, it’s a network of PEOPLE."

And they are happy people, participants and sponsors alike. Sponsors get access to a massive pool of tech talent and the vibrant energy that comes along with it. They often hire people from the event and provide yet another value, moving passion toward purpose.

Radjou, Prabhu, and Ahuja found in their research that jugaad innovators rely more on heart and intuition than on analysis to successfully navigate a highly complex, uncertain, and unpredictable environment. "They use their gut intelligence and innate empathy for customer needs to innovate breakthroughs that defy conventional wisdom. Their underlying passion acts as the fuel that sustains their efforts to make a difference in the lives of the community they serve." The fast-paced volatile environment forces many to think on their feet all the time.

When Tim Berners-Lee set out to develop the web, he envisioned a technology that could serve as "a collaborative medium, a place where we can all play; a place where we can all meet, read, and write."

That vision plays out each day in unconference-style BarCamps, global online mega-events like IBM Jams, and both offline and online hackathons focused by the Management Innovation eXchange on management and Facebook on code.

At Campus Party, where Berners-Lee spoke when I was there, he also now sees how the connections the internet enable encourages people to foster change even when they aren’t online. At this party, young entrepreneurs learn to be themselves, they’re not alone, and that ideas come in all shapes and sizes.

By finding encouragement, catalysts, and heart, young people locate a fountain they’ll be able to learn from over a lifetime.

Brian Duperreault, President and CEO of the Marsh & McLennan Companies, has said, "There’s now an equal, and maybe greater chance, that innovative ideas will come out of [emerging markets], where the action is, where the need to deliver more for less is even more heightened."

Campus Party is a global phenomenon leading the way; ensuring young entrepreneurs, women and men alike, are at the forefront of that action.

Are you ready for the party? Campus Party coordinators are looking now at large venues in Silicon Valley to host an event later this year. Perhaps then it will work its way to cities across the U.S. If you’re interested in participating, check out the website. If you’re interested in sponsoring one of the events, sponsor details are posted there too.

If you think this isn’t really all that unusual, consider the two Guinness World Records set at Campus Party. Most people on a single network using ipv6 and the most people in bathrobes. Really.

[Images: Flickr user Loïc Le Meur and Marcia Conner]

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2 Comments

  • Doug Upchurch

     What a powerful way of looking at innovation!  I love the three key stand out factors you highlight.  Intentional Encouragement, Inclusive Diversity, and Impassioned Hearts remind me that the technology is just a delivery mode.  We get to decide what we want to send through it.  And how exciting is it to see the connections that are so easy to make on the internet are now resulting in new connections in real time face to face.  I love this concept and am very intrigued about what could be possible with campus parties inside of an organization.  Great article, Marcia!  Thank you!

  • Marcia Conner

    Some fabulous videos from previous Campus Party events just posted to the Telefonica Digital Blog http://j.mp/LgmEee Includes pieces by Stephen Hawkings, Al Gore, Tim Berners Lee, Steve Wozniak, and more.