Sara Huntingdon, SSGP Manager at the UK Space Agency, reflects on the value of attending and participating in conferences
I get at least three invitations a day to speak at or attend conferences which have nothing at all to do with the space. As I sit there cursing my ever expanding in-box and the “faceless marketing people” responsible for filling it up…the realisation dawns…I am also guilty of the same heinous crime...trying to generate interest in a particular topic or theme and ensure there is a wide and diverse audience to help stimulate a meaningful discussion or debate.
As SSGP aims to raise awareness of what space can do for the public sector, we try and stimulate stakeholder interest any way we can. Getting a wide cross-section of people involved with a common interest, all in one place, can be a very efficient means of communicating and lead to new and exciting opportunities and an expanded professional network.
I have blogged before about focussing on end-users and their application needs – it is fundamental to the work we undertake within SSGP. Being able to access the right stakeholders is particularly tricky when responsibility for delivery has been devolved away from central government control and spans such a wide geographical area (and the resources and travel budget will always be limited). Being able to assess the supplier landscape and engage public sector stakeholders in one place can be an incredibly effective way of gathering intelligence and scoping out whether a new topic or theme could benefit from using space/satellite applications.
Early in my career, I used to think that attending events and conferences was just an excuse for a day out! Those who attended seemed to come back physically exhausted…but also strangely invigorated and enthused with new ideas, additional contacts and stories of the latest inventions (and an amusing collection of attractive and exciting conference artefacts – squishy globes/ torch /canvas bag anyone?)
I never really understood why a day away from the office left people tired…and then I was offered the opportunity to attend my first major event. Apart from cultivating an unhealthy addiction to free pens and the inevitable bowls of sugar laden jelly beans on offer, I got to meet new suppliers, find out about existing capabilities, the current policy challenges and future direction the sector was heading in. My mind was buzzing with the possibilities, my jaw ached from talking too much and my feet and back hurt from lugging round a bag full of handy leaflets that I had picked up to read on the train home. The ’day out of the office’ didn’t just stop there though…once I had factored in the time following up on those new contacts and seeing how this new found knowledge could help transform my day job…either straight away or in future. The value I got from that day far outweighed the time away from the office.
My excitement over a free pen has waned a bit over the years...but the opportunities which arise from attending these types of event remains a real source of inspiration – as you never know what you will find out or who you may meet.
As part of the preparatory work SSGP undertook on developing the Disasters and Emergency Services Roadmap earlier in the year, a Resilience Direct colleague invited SSGP to speak at Ambition 2017. I spoke about the role and aims of SSGP and how space applications and data could help with disaster and with emergency response. After my presentation, I had a small queue of people lining up to share their thoughts on space in general or ask me specific questions. One of those who came up to me gave me his business card and said “We already supply operational services to the UK Government AND we use satellites – we need to talk!”
I was intrigued…this wasn’t the usual post-presentation approach I had come to expect, but I was really glad he made the effort to stay behind and seek me out. It turns out the company he worked for didn’t attend the usual ‘space sector’ events – so they weren’t already on our supply chain radar at that time and we didn’t have any existing contact with their government end-user. As well as raising awareness of satellite applications for disasters and establishing many new government and industry contacts that day, that one chance encounter led to some fruitful follow-on discussions. SSGP had found another powerful case study example – which was operational and successfully showcased how satellite services could be used within the public sector. The company also got to find out about a wider range of opportunities aimed at the space sector at home and overseas which they had not been aware of. That one chance encounter led to a mutual positive outcome just by taking a chance and having a quick conversation.
SSGP ran its third annual conference (or Showcase) last week. We changed the approach this year, purposely designing it to impart information on the art of the possible, show progress on implementation, highlight the emerging policy challenges and facilitate face-to-face networking opportunities, discussion and debate. We embraced social media, approached our end-users and supplier networks, and tried to promote new initiatives and funding sources.
We had a record number of attendees from across the public sector and industry this year. It is very hard from a write-up or a set of slides to get across the real feel of an event or share the background buzz in a room – when people are actively engaged, interested and challenging the status quo and levels of ambition. It is perhaps inevitable, given the size of the public sector, that there were people we still didn’t reach who could have benefitted from being there, but I hope the post event write-up inspires them to talk to SSGP and come along next year.
So next time I get an email about a conference…before automatically reaching for that delete button, I will try and remember it may not be a faceless marketing ploy designed to add to my to-do list…it could be a networking and learning opportunity that is waiting to be seized!