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Last weekend I made my rookie appearance at the invite-only Fireside unconference, the fifth annual version of which blossomed in the Ontario wilderness just north of Bancroft. Four hundred and fifty entrepreneurs and innovators from across several industries gathered from Thursday evening to Sunday noon among tall pines, a quiet lake, limited wifi and no cell service. During that time I was honoured to co-host the newly added Legal Innovation Summit subsection.
Fireside is not your typical conference or unconference event.
There isn’t a vendor exhibition area, and no vendor demos. There isn’t any hard selling. The swag is of very high quality, it’s useful, and it’s simply branded as Fireside; including ear plugs, just in case your cabin is filled with snoring participants.
Cabins filled with enough bunk beds for 15- 18 campers. Cabins where water is hot and toilets are modern. Cabins which sometimes included showers – while those without were only a short walk to shower huts.
Each morning we awoke to the 2019 version of Radar O’Reilly wishing us a good morning over the public address system, followed by a music selection that was a sometimes an overly syrupy Coldplay, and other times a more contemplative Crosby Stills and Nash.
We did sunrise yoga, meditation, water skiing, canoeing, volleyball and axe throwing. We learned to pick locks and safes. We banged drums together. We learned to roll joints (yes, there was cannabis subsection). We discussed culture, scale, investment, process, pitching techniques, technology, skills and even new ways to govern. We shared successes and failures. We actively engaged with manels and womanels, many of which were racially and ethnically diverse.
We spoke to each other around campfires, at the mess hall, at the docks, in camp buildings, on fields, basketball courts and tennis courts. We shared ideas with each other. We gave constructive feedback. We listened. We learned. We found new friends and strengthened existing bonds. We ran into university friends we hadn’t seen for awhile. We were hungry for information, ideas and wisdom. We sought out those who were passionate about our interests, but we also cross pollinated ideas with those in other industries and businesses.
And we ate. And ate. And ate. The supply of food, and of Ontario-sourced craft beer and liquor, seemed endless.
We learned that a couple who had met at the first Fireside were now getting married. We signed a card for an injured Fireside attendee. We cleaned up the mess hall after eating. We put our hands up in the air when asked to be quiet during announcements. We said, “hello,” waved to, and (gasp!) even spoke to, people we didn’t know. The nights were crisp, clear and starry. The final evening of fireworks, loud and colourful.
We were away from media, technology and even money. We were away from the world. We were our own society in a complete state of nature; and while our time together was short, it was neither nasty nor brutish. The most recent public broadcasting documentary on Woodstock cited many interviewees fondly remembering the love, beauty, cooperation, and friendliness of being in nature with others. That’s what we felt at Fireside. And just like at Woodstock we had a rainstorm that passed through. But it didn’t matter, that minor adversity merely brought us closer together. That was the magic of Fireside. We weren’t attendees who flew in for a few hours to hear talking heads on a stage before moving back to solitary, siloed existences. We were all in this together for 60+ hours.
It’s tempting to describe Fireside as an innovators version of Woodstock. However it wasn’t Woodstock – or Coachella, Glastonbury, Afrika Burn, or even Burning Man. It was all of them and none of them at the same time.