In addition to her many accomplishments in government, Julia Gillard AC — the prime minister of Australia from 2010-2013 — is a non-resident distinguished senior fellow with the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington and supports other education initiatives. So when the virtual event’s moderator, Holly Ransom, asked Gillard how she thought the pandemic has affected society in the way that we work and learn, Gillard’s response was especially insightful.
“We’ve managed to keep working” through the pandemic, Gillard said. At least, she added, most businesses have been able to function with virtual workers. “But we have lost something in the connective tissue,” she said, because we haven’t been able to participate in face-to-face events. She mentioned “the serendipity of going to a conference, of participating in the formal sessions, of listening to the speakers.” But moreover, Gillard said, “it’s that random encounter at morning tea or at lunch or whatever, that sort of changes everything — because you have a conversation with someone who’s doing something you didn’t know about and you can partner together.”
What makes that event truly memorable, as a result, she added, is not so much what happened from the stage, “but the fact that good people came together in a moment for a set of human connections that built connective tissue.”
Gillard is optimistic that those kinds of chance encounters will be possible virtually eventually. “I think we can get better about that in the online environment and as it gets more sophisticated and offers us more opportunities for deeper interactions,” she said. Those “breakout-style interactions, we’ll get better at that. But I don’t think we’re ever going to want to wholly substitute getting large groups of people together for the formal and the beautiful randomness that happens around the formal.”
Gillard said she is very much looking forward to a time when the vaccine is widely distributed and other safety protocols are in place, so “that we can get back to conferences and gathering in person.”
She mentioned that in the political world, she often heard conferences dismissed as “talkfests,” but she always saw far greater value in them. “Human beings solve problems by talking,” Gillard said. “There’s no other way of doing it. There’s never been a big problem in human history that was ever solved by any other way than by people getting together and talking.”
As much as Gillard is looking forward to the return of in-person events, she said that she is grateful for how event organizers have creatively enabled digital gatherings. “The people that bring us together — whether it’s virtually or in person — and put their creativity into the merits of maximizing that engagement are doing us all a tremendous service and I’m very thankful for it.”
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Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.