“Falling Walls” may initially seem an odd choice for a conference name, but it makes perfect sense as soon as you hear how the conference was conceived. “The fall of the Berlin wall, Nov. 9, 1989 [was a] powerful historical moment of the world coming together, the end of the Cold War, the celebration of a peaceful revolution, and the reunification of Germany,” Falling Walls Foundation’s Felix Rundel told Convene via email. “Falling Walls builds on this historical moment and metaphor.”
Held in Berlin on Nov. 8–9 each year since 2009 — the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall — the conference measures up to that momentous event in its ambitious scope and mission. “We invite our speakers and audience to discuss the question: Which are the next walls to fall — and how will this change our lives?” said Rundel, who is the foundation’s head of programs and international development. “The topics range from scientific breakthroughs that won and will win Nobel Prizes, across revolutionary technologies and their societal benefits, to the collaborative solutions that will be needed in order to tackle the world’s thorniest problems, such as climate change, global epidemics, or the ethics of disruptive technologies like gene editing or AI.”
We asked Rundel to share how Falling Walls fosters discussion on research and innovation and promotes the latest scientific findings among a broad audience from all parts of society — science, business, politics, and the arts.
Please tell us about Falling Walls’ “breakthrough” approach and your program format.
[Our] 15-minute keynote talks form the backbone of the conference, [so] curation is key. We invite scientists, scholars, thinkers, and artists who combine the highest reputation in their field with the charisma and enthusiasm to really impress the audience during their talks and highlight the urgency and importance of their relevant topic. Thus, the selection process is very rigid and depends on our international network for recommendations and references, as well as our distinguished board of trustees, headed by Prof. Jürgen Mlynek. Once a speaker is confirmed, we work towards the talks in a continuous exchange. The goal is for each talk to inform and inspire — but also show up surprising facts and connections that people weren’t aware of. We use a lot of creative interventions, experiments, and audience interactions to create memorable experiences during the talks that illustrate key concepts that may sometimes be difficult to grasp. Also, we have our mime, Klaus [Franz], who acts as our creative timekeeper and ends the talks strictly after 15 minutes. He is a cult figure among our audience by now.
After each session of four keynotes, the exchange on the keynote topics is continued simultaneously on four panel stages called Falling Walls Forum. The Forum is in the middle of the area where people eat, drink, and chat during the breaks and it really brings a marketplace feel to the breaks. These sessions are 30 minutes long and we match each speaker with a science journalist as moderator and add a co-panelist who represents an entirely different angle on the topic. That way, we try to widen the discussion and bridge several fields — for example, an AI technologist with an ethics expert or a nano-materials researcher with an industry representative. The entire panel practically takes place on eye level amidst the audience, which is invited to ask any questions they might have. This is very important to us in terms of providing direct access to our speakers and encouraging the exchange between the audience — who are all experts in one way or another — and our speakers. In order to have discussions while everyone is chatting and eating all around, we use a “silent disco” format for the panel discussions: Every participant has headphones to connect to the relevant channel of a panel discussion and questions are asked using microphones.
Another way of enabling a different mode of exchange is in breakout sessions that take place on the MS Falling Walls, a ship docked right next to the conference venue on the Spree River. The breakout sessions are hosted by partners like X (formerly Google X) or Bayer Foundations, bring together some 20 participants in each session, and topics range from moon-shot thinking to impact entrepreneurship. These sessions are hands-on, collaborative, and often provide a great way to network on a shared-interest basis.
How do you foster networking?
Now this is the cue for our main networking tool — it’s called brain dating (or Falling Walls Connect). Instead of having the usual business-networking atmosphere you find at conferences, we moved on to a peer-learning philosophy in how we facilitate connections at Falling Walls. The inspiration to do that came from our friends and partners from Montréal, e-180, the inventors of brain dates. They provide a platform for participants to book 30-minute meetings, so-called “brain dates,” based on learning interests. So as a participant, I am asked to put forward things I could contribute to the conference. That way, other people can find me on that basis and book a meeting, or even a group meeting. The online platform that does that, also matches participants with contributions they might find useful and interesting.
When at the conference, participants meet at our brain-dating lounges. They find a check-in counter staffed with trained matchmakers who show them their date. But more than that, the matchmakers and the entire brain-dating lounge create an atmosphere that encourages participants to be open, personal, and outgoing. We also use ice-breaker cards handed out to participants to kick-start conversations. In any of the brain-dating lounges you will find this fantastic energy and the feeling that it’s okay to talk to anyone, from a young successful researcher to the CEO of a global firm.
From the brain-dating lounge to the Forum stage and the lecture hall, we always try to create spaces and atmospheres that benefit and encourage certain interactions and experiences. For that, we use the tools and perspectives of meeting design. Each year, academic institutions around the world are invited to host a Falling Walls Lab to showcase the quality, diversity, and passion of their region’s most innovative minds, according to your website.
How does this feed your mission and intersect with the Falling Walls annual conference?
The Falling Walls Lab is our global program for young and emerging scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovators of all kinds. At each Falling Walls Lab, a number of participants are invited to pitch their “breakthrough idea” in three minutes to their peers, guests, and a high-level jury. The jury later picks a winner, but in fact, everyone wins. The participants get to meet like-minded people who are just as talented, enthusiastic, and driven as themselves and they get a chance to expose their work or project to leaders from academia, policy, media, and business.
For many, this is a life-changing experience, especially since the winners of each regional Lab are invited to the Finale in Berlin, on the eve of the Falling Walls Conference. We currently are running 84 such events in more than 60 countries with our local hosting institutions, usually local universities. One hundred winners from these global events will travel to Berlin, pitch their breakthrough projects, and join the other participants at the conference. The winner of the Finale even gets to speak on the grand stage on Nov. 9 — and, in turn, receives a lot of media attention and cooperation offers. The amount of international exchange happening at the Falling Walls Lab is extraordinary. Lab participants are also the power users of our brain-dating platform.
I also understand from your website that the Falling Walls Venture showcases the most promising research-based start-ups from around the world, nominated by universities and research institutions. Twenty companies are selected to present their ideas in Berlin. Could you tell us more about that initiative — and Falling Walls Circle?
Falling Walls Venture shares a similar fast-paced pitch format, but its target group is international, science-based startups. In this case, the jury selects for the best business model, and the societal impact achieved by the company. It also takes place on Nov. 8, in close proximity to the Falling Walls Lab.
Falling Walls Circle is our gathering for high-level science strategists, C-level representatives of companies that do a lot of R&D, science media leaders, and science policy-makers. Each year, we provide a different framework to discuss meta-level questions on science, business, and society. This year’s topic is “Human Genius in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” and it will feature input from renowned AI experts as well as lots of space for facilitated discussions.
How do you enable cross-disciplinary collaboration at Falling Walls? What do you think is the benefit of bringing people together from different disciplines to address a particular issue?
Jennifer Lavers’ 2017 show and tell on ocean plastics pollution. (Photo/Florian Gaertner, photothek.net, Falling Walls)
To us as conference hosts, enabling cross-disciplinary collaboration means that we need a wide range of people with different backgrounds and expertise in the room — ranging from basic research, industry, and technology, to the humanities and arts. Our ambition is to host an audience that can help each other take on different perspectives and inspire each other to do things differently. Then we try to create an atmosphere in which people feel encouraged to connect, not just on a professional level, but also beyond that. The goal is to create a setting where participants can best find shared interests, but it obviously takes more in order to get to the point of cooperation.
Serendipity is an element often quoted when we hear about spontaneous fruitful meetings that led to later cooperation — as in, “I met this guy in the coffee line and it turned out he had the answer to the question I was stuck on for weeks.” Of course, gathering interdisciplinary groups also requires a different approach to how content is presented. Our conference language is English, that’s clear, but in order for everyone to be able to join the conversation, keynote talks and conversations need to stay within a certain level of complexity — you could call it a “challenging, but lay-friendly” style.
In scientific research specifically, but also in the private sector, we see a trend towards highly interdisciplinary teams to tackle particular problems. The large-scale brain-research projects in the U.S. and Europe are an example. There is a growing insight that many of the complex challenges we’re facing today can only be tackled by [bringing together] experts from lots of backgrounds and perspectives — and more than that, by joining efforts between science, business, policy, media, and society/consumers. That is one of the messages we try to highlight with our speakers when it comes to topics like climate change, coral reef decline, ethical guidelines for gene editing, and more.
Do you intentionally bring different disciplines together to discuss to ensure you have a good mix or is it entirely up to the participants to decide how to spend their time at the conference?
Participants can generally decide on how they spend their time, but we do provide a program that makes sure that to some degree, everyone shares the same experiences and knowledge. During our 16 keynotes, all conference participants are listening to the speakers at the same time. No one leaves the auditorium, no one works on their computers, or texts. It’s a shared experience for everyone that later program parts build upon. We do intentionally curate the Forum stage panel discussions so that you can find this interdisciplinary element, and our general message to participants is: “Talk to your neighbor, she might just be the expert or collaborator you were looking for.”
In all our programs, from Falling Walls Lab to Venture and Circle, we do try to curate the mix of participants as much as possible in terms of international representation and diversity of sectors and fields. By doing that, we try to break up the traditional ways of field-specific conferences. Over the years, we’ve found out that this specific audience mix is something our participants very much appreciate.
You draw participants from 80 different countries. How important is this global makeup to the outcomes you seek from the event? Has it become more or less challenging to attract attendees from around the world?
It has always been our ambition to gather participants from all continents in order to create conferences and a community that represents forward-thinking from all over the globe. Most of the “next walls to fall” cannot be tackled by individual nation states or merely “Western” or “Eastern” alliances. Therefore, any discussion should aim at including as many diverse voices as possible. Since our international network has grown a lot over the last 10 years, and Falling Walls has also gained in reputation, it has become easier to attract international attendees. The wide spread of the Falling Walls Lab events has also been an important factor in spreading our message of international dialogue on science and innovation for furthering sustainability and human well-being.
Can you provide a specific example of how participants from different countries and different disciplines have collaborated to work on a pressing issue/particular challenge of our time as a result of participating in Falling Walls?
Speaker William Moerner was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (Photo/Florian Gaertner, photothek.net, Falling Walls)
Just the other day, I heard from a very successful German robotics researcher who was a panelist at Falling Walls in 2017 and just started a large, new research center in Munich. He had a conversation with one of our young scientists participating in the Falling Walls Lab. The young researcher is from Sudan and gave a winning talk on combining artificial intelligence and robotics to help people with disabilities. The two of them met during one of the conference breaks and will start working together this fall, because the young researcher was offered a position at the robotics center in Munich. This is just one small example of successful outcomes. In one of the earlier conferences, a leading German psychologist, Tania Singer (Max Planck Institute), and Olafur Eliasson, the superstar artist with Danish-Icelandic roots, started a collaboration on the theme of empathy which lasted for several years and had various outputs.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
As conference makers, we are always curious to find out how we can improve our participants’ experience and create better value for them. Often we look to other events and conferences in other sectors and try to find out which of their solutions could work for us. What I would wish for is more international platforms for this kind of exchange in our own field, more shared perspectives — and more cooperation between event organizers on an international level.
Sherrif Karamat, President and Chief Executive Officer
Sherrif Karamat, CAE, is President and Chief Executive Officer of PCMA. Karamat also serves as President of the PCMA Foundation and Publisher of Convene magazine.
As CEO, Karamat leads the vision, mission and promise for PCMA’s global family of brands. Karamat serves the greater business events industry as a prominent business architect, enabling our community to become a catalyst for economic and social progress, organizational success, and personal and professional development.
In his previous role as Chief Operating Officer, Karamat led the development and implementation of PCMA’s new vision: driving global economic and social transformation through business events. In addition to his responsibilities at executive level, Karamat also directed streamlining of PCMA’s content creation and delivery channels into one organization. He oversaw partnership, business services, membership, business development and technology teams.
As part of PCMA’s growth strategy, Karamat has led a major data intelligence program and played a key role in the 2017 acquisition of Incentive Conference & Event Society Asia Pacific (ICESAP).
A leader in the business events industry, Karamat previously served as Vice President of Business Sales and Services for Toronto Convention & Visitors (Tourism Toronto). He has served on various boards and is currently a director on the Destination International Board of Trustees.
Karamat is a life-long learner. In addition to completing his bachelor’s degree and Masters of Business Administration from York University in Toronto, Canada, he has completed postgraduate certificate programs at Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. At Harvard Business and Law School, he completed a program on strategic negotiations for senior executives and a program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one on data intelligence and big data.
Robert Haas, Chief Administrative Officer
Robert Haas is responsible for PCMA’s IT, human resources, data and finance departments as its first Chief Administrative Officer. He utilizes data, content and personalized experiences to help PCMA better understand its members’ needs and develop an audience-focused strategy.
Haas has more than 15 years of database marketing, product development and consulting experience from working in business-to-business and business-to-consumer industries. He understands how innovation, research and technology intersect and evaluates what is leading edge versus cutting edge.
Haas will leverage data to determine best practices in business events and how the industry can drive global economic and social transformation.
He previously served as PCMA’s Chief Innovation Officer. He joined PCMA as Vice President of Business Development and Data Intelligence. His previous roles include Senior Vice President of Strategic Product Development and Marketing at Scranton Gillette Communications Inc. and in direct response marketing for Tribune Direct.
He has a bachelor’s degree in international business from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Mona Cotton, Chief Business Officer
As Chief Business Officer, Mona Cotton leads the Business Development, Client and Member Services, and Business Services teams. She has more than 20 years of business leadership experience in the areas of partnership, sponsorship, business development, media publishing and business services.
Cotton, a PCMA leader for more than 15 years, takes a strategic approach to transforming PCMA’s client relationships and business opportunities. Her role at PCMA is to facilitate connections between business-to-business organizations and business-to-consumer operations, identifying opportunities to fuel economic and social progress and success for PCMA and its members, customers and clients.
While she has watched as business events shifted from logistics to engagement, Cotton said the value of relationships remains steadfast in the industry.
Prior to PCMA, Cotton led and supported various sales efforts at the National Association of REALTORS, Airborne Express (now DHL) and Fox Associates, a Chicago-based magazine representative firm. She received a bachelor’s degree in marketing and advertising from Indiana University.
Michelle Crowley oversees regional brand development, content outreach and innovation as PCMA’s first Chief Growth & Innovation Officer. She is responsible for regional and revenue development in the Americas, Asia Pacific (APAC) and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) regions. In addition, Crowley is responsible for education and product development.
She leads PCMA’s global growth strategy by evaluating and identifying how the organization can deliver value to its members through new and existing business models, education programs and new products.
Crowley began her career at PCMA and continues to work with global travel brands, build strategic relationships and partnerships with key markets, and design year-round engagement campaigns. She has held various positions at PCMA including Vice President for Global Growth and Business Transformation.
Crowley is 2019 MBA graduate of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She received her bachelor’s degree from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Meredith Rollins, Chief Community Officer
As PCMA’s first Chief Community Officer, Meredith Rollins leads the community engagement team.
The team delivers programs and services that strengthen the connections between PCMA members, facilitate knowledge sharing and advance the network of professionals in the global business events industry. Her key areas of responsibility include community and chapter engagement, research, social impact and volunteerism. She remains Executive Director of the PCMA Foundation.
Rollins joined PCMA in 2007 and held roles in project management, global development and account management with the PCMA partnership program. She was Director of Strategic Development for the Association for Corporate Growth, a global community for middle-market M&A business leaders from 2012 to 2015. Rollins became Executive Director of the PCMA Foundation in 2015.
Rollins received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Gina Meier, Director, Human Resources
Gina Meier is Director of Human Resources for PCMA, a position she has held since 2006. She is responsible for helping PCMA execute its vision of driving global economic and social transformation through its human capital.
Her responsibilities including professional development, culture, talent development, employee integration and employee engagement.
Meier began her human resources career in 1999 as human resources manager for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide LLC, now a subsidiary of Marriott International Inc. She previously worked as director and manager in Starwood’s housekeeping division.
Meier received a bachelor’s degree in hotel/motel administration and management from Eastern Illinois University.
Bruce MacMillan, Chief Marketing Officer
Bruce MacMillan is responsible for PCMA’s global brand development and marketing strategies as PCMA’s Chief Marketing Officer. He leads the marketing, events and print and digital teams, which includes Convene magazine.
MacMillan has more than 30 years of experience in the global business events and tourism industry and has worked with business enterprises on every continent. His past leadership roles include CEO of VisitDFW, a regional consumer content marketing venture, CEO of Meeting Professionals International and CEO of Tourism Toronto.
He developed and led Vancouver, B.C.’s successful national bid for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. MacMillan also runs BANDWIDTH consultancy, advising destinations on event sales and marketing strategies and served as consortium consulting partner in the Destinations International DestinationNEXT global initiative.
MacMillan has received numerous awards including twice being named one of the Top Twenty most influential people in the global MICE industry.