I’ve been working in Chicago for almost two months, and I just had the pleasure of attending my first fancy conference. Go me.
Let’s set the scene. I actually don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet, but I work for this super feisty non-profit called the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic (LTFHC). Like the name would suggest, they are, in fact, building a floating hospital on a lake in Africa; but that is definitely not all they are about. It would take hours to adequately describe everything they are involved in, but in a nutshell; they deliver essential healthcare, conduct scientific and environmental research and build relationships with the communities and the governments of the four countries on the lake, overall creating a sustainable, integrated health system in one of the world’s poorest and most isolated regions. It’s pretty exciting stuff, so if you want to check out the website here it is.
Anyway, so that’s what I do 9-5. Or 8:30-4:30 if we’re being accurate. I work in the policy arm of the organisation and am based at their HQ in the Wicker Park neighbourhood of Chicago. Today, though, I’m being sent to the Global Water Summit: a two-day event hosted by the Nature Conservancy at the Swissotel in the downtown area. I’m there to learn about ways we can achieve water security while also maintaining biodiversity and report back to HQ. And also to mingle with interested parties and inform people about the work we are doing. And also to eat some posh food. Today will be a good day.
It’s my first commute on the El, Chicago’s iconic elevated railway, and I’m feeling pretty special in my conference attire, heading towards the Loop, blending in nicely with the rat racers in the packed Blue Line carriage… It may be difficult to look snappy when you’re dressed for sub-zero temperatures, but I think I’m doing just fine. I get off the train at Clark and Lake and it’s so cold that I know I won’t make it all the way to the hotel without stopping off somewhere with heating. There’s a Corner Bakery about half way, where I warm myself under their hot air blasters while they brew me a latte. This is good, actually, because holding a caffeinated beverage will help me further homogenise with the Downtown Working Crowd. I’ll pretend I need it to function or something.
I collect my look-completing name badge in the Lobby, mingle with other attendees for around an hour then head up to the ballroom where the opening presentation is being held. Having read the agenda, I know that this is supposed to involve brunch, which makes me happy. My expectations were surpassed as soon as I sat down and saw that there was also cake, and then surpassed again as Giulio Boccaletti, Global Managing Director of the Nature Conservency, and Heather Tallis, their Lead Scientist, gave a highly informative presentation on how global demands for food, energy and shelter are putting serious and unprecedented pressure on our planet’s resources, how water is right at the center of it all, and how essential it is to adopt new approaches to address this. I sat beside a nice lady from the Bureau of Oceans at the State Department, and used the opportunity to tell her all about the LTFHC and the awesome work we are doing. To top it all off, the table wasn’t entirely occupied, so we got extra cake.
Next, was a plenary regarding the role that conservation can play in achieving water security, and how this might be scaled through the use of partnerships and levereging expertise. This, again, was highly engaging, with a fantastic panel of experts who were really on it, but what I want to bring your attention to next was the TRAIL MIX BUFFET that occurred afterwards out in the hall area.
This spectacle very nearly blew my mind. All the ingredients of trail mix; chocolate chips, M&Ms, granola clusters, raisins, cashews and pecans laid out with spoons in big bowls on tiered slate podiums all the way along a sparkly glass table. You take a small square receptacle from the end of the table and fill it with all the stuff, in just the ratios that you want, so you have a personally tailored little bowl of trail mix just the way you like it to munch during the next presentation. These people were like “oh yeah, a trail mix buffet” like it’s a standard conference-break activity and not something straight out of Charlie and the blooming Chocolate Factory meets Home Alone 2. America knows what it’s doing.
The next plenary was all about how to scale solutions to make change happen at a global level, with a panel of CEOs from various global companies, and following that was the launch of the Nature Conservancy’s Urban Water Blueprint, which is basically a massive report analysing the state of water in over 500 cities worldwide and giving insight on natural infrastructure solutions that cities can use to better manage limited water supplies and promote sustainable communities. Very cool.
After this, I go for a quick wee trip up the elevator in search of a nice lofty window from which to gaze out at the downtown Chicago skyline. This is a 40-storey building, and, as you are probably well aware, it’s rude to spend time in a skyscraper without seeking out the highest accessible floor. The results, as you can see, were quite satisfactory. Anywhere that has a view of the architectural sublimity that is John Hancock Center is a good place to be, I always say.
As if we thought things could do with getting any better, they then dropped upon us a holy trifecta of exciting news: The dinner buffet was about to open and it involved PIZZA, amongst other things; the mayor of Chicago, silver fox RAHM EMANUEL, was on his way to educate us about his water policies; and somebody had brought an ICE LUGE carved into the Chicago skyline from which a GIN COCKTAIL would be served. WHAT IS THIS PLACE?!
Rahm gave a nice presentation about how he’s looking out for Chicago’s water supply and how much cleaner the Chicago River is now that he is mayor, then he came and mingled with us common folk. Yes, calm yourself ladies, I got to meet Rahm. He shook my hand. I told him my life story. He moved on. I didn’t
The ice luge depicted the watershed of the Chicago River, travelling all the way from the forested hills to the skyscrapers of the Loop. The Lugetender mixed the cocktail (a potent gin-based delight aptly named Thermal Velocity) and poured it in the trees, where it weaved its way trough meandering Illinois valleys and down waterfalls and was collected, chilled to perfection, in a Martini glass somewhere on Michigan Avenue.
A couple of cocktails later, we were all enjoying the networking much more. I made a lot of useful contacts and a few nice friends, before thinking it wise to get outta there before more gin made arriving back here for tomorrow’s 7am opener more of a struggle that it would already be.
The next day was a pretty similar affair, except that, instead of plenaries, there were a series of concurrent break-out sessions covering everything from the financing of water markets to scaling freshwater conservation. In the evening, we all got into coaches that took us to the Art Institute of Chicago. Here, we congregated in the auditorium for a final series of presentations called “Entertainment as a Conservation Strategy”, which was all about the importance of communicating the water challenge to the world through film. There were three speakers: Dave Allen talked about his film Passion Planet; Jamie Redford (son of Robert Redford), told us about his organisation, the Redford Center, and renowned director Eric Valli spoke of his collaboration with Swarovski which uses film as a medium to generate awareness about the importance of clean, sustainable water sources.
Finally, there was a fancy gala dinner in the main entrance hall of the museum, where Ken Powell, the CEO of General Mills gave a closing address.
Also, it is snowing.