Reinventing FWD50

FWD50 2020 won’t be like past years. And it won’t be like other conferences. For the last six months, the entire team has been experimenting and reinventing so we can deliver the world’s best digital government event in a safe, engaging way to a global audience.

The short version is:

  • The event will run November 3-9, entirely online.
  • We’re adding new tools and technologies to make talks fascinating, workshops productive, and networking fun.
  • We’ve added partners from around the world to help us dive deep into leadership, civic tech, regional government, and more.
  • We’re streaming some of the content for free, and are making pairs of tickets available to any municipal, state, provincial, or territorial digital public servant, as well as members of global civic tech organizations.
  • We’re tackling some hot topics, including digital health, COVID response, and resilient democracy, in the new lineup.

Here’s what the grid looks like:

Now here’s a lot more detail on how we got here; what it means for our attendees, speakers, and partners; and what you can do to make the most of this year’s event.


Six months is a long time

Back in February, it was clear that 2020 was not going to be a normal year in many regards. As the organizers of three events—Scaletech with Georgian Partners, and Startupfest with the Fondation du Startup de Montreal—we knew we had some changes to make. We modified formats, and started learning tools. And we decided that, in August, we’d look at the science of the pandemic and finalize how FWD50 2020 would happen.

In fact, we made a timeline of how we got here, if you want to see the journey we’ve been on.

What we’ve learned in the last six months could fill an entire report (in fact, we wrote one, with the help of thirty conference organizers we’ve known over the years.) We’ve found ways to turn the lemons of COVID into a surprisingly delicious lemonade. As I wrote in May, saying “back to normal” is a fiction. The way we gather and learn has changed forever, and the sooner we figure out how to make the best of it, the better.

The new FWD50 features an extended format that’s packed with experts, workshops, and networking. An unprecedented list of partners is helping us create the world’s biggest digital government event.


A look at the lemonade

Purely virtual

Attendees, speakers, and partners will all participate virtually. There’s no in-person event this year (though we have surprises planned to create some of that in-person energy!) A single ticket gives you access to keynotes, breakouts, networking sessions, workshops, and recordings of every talk.

Fewer tracks, more days

The conference will run from November 3 to 9. Because we aren’t relying on a physical venue, we can spread the content out so more people can attend more things. 2020 is more like a festival than a traditional event; and your ticket is more like a pass .

This also lets us organize content around specific topics or groups, and means you’ll be able to tune in for the keynotes, then pick the sessions that apply to your job, technology focus, or level of government.

More learning and interaction

Conferences in the real world can be dull. Having speakers in tiny rectangles makes this far worse. Fortunately, we have a history of changing things up, from Chain Reaction panels to Oxford Debates to Circlesquare. Heck, we’ve even run elevator pitches in the Eiffel Tower, and a hybrid studio audience for Startupfest 2020.

Once you get past the disappointment of not seeing people in person, dozens of new formats are possible online. We’re adding one-on-one and group networking that manages not to feel forced or creepy; workshops using real-time collaboration tools, and surprising technologies that will keep participants engaged and learning.

And of course, a digital event means recordings of every session, conversation, and slide, so you’ll be able to catch sessions you missed and continue your learning on your own time.

Partners from around the world

FWD50 has always been a global event. But the restrictions of travel, money, and visas meant we weren’t able to welcome everyone. With a purely virtual event, digital-curious public servants from every government on earth can participate.

Our extended format means we’re also able to devote an entire day to a particular group:

  • Executive leadership, presented in collaboration with APEX.
  • Global co-operation, hosting the Digital Nations.
  • Public-private co-operation, alongside the CIO Strategy Council.
  • The Regional Digital Government Summit, with the Chief Digital Officers of many states, municipalities, and provinces.
  • Civic Tech efforts, presented with Code for Canada and the global Code For network.
  • Policy Ignite, with whom we’ve produced Ignite-format talks since founding the event, will be back to entertain us—but keep it brief!

Each of these organizations is helping us produce content on a specific facet of digital government.  We’ll also be running recorded sessions so that people half-way around the world can still share their ideasat FWD50. We’re confirming other partners in the coming days, so stay tuned.

Free content

“It made me realize I’m not alone.”

After our 2019 edition, we heard this refrain from many people working tirelessly to improve government with technology. We want the conference to be a safe, welcome home for digital public servants around the world, and we’re changing radically to make this possible.

FWD50 is a private organization, and we depend on ticket sales and the support of sponsors to make it happen. But going all virtual gives us a chance to deliver this conference to a far wider audience that really needs it. So this year, we’re opening up the conference dramatically:

  • The Digital Nations keynotes will be livestreamed online for all to see.
  • Every municipality, territory, province or state in the world is eligible for two free passes to the General Conference.
  • We’re giving the global Code For network dozens of tickets so civic tech teams from around the world can join us.
  • As always, our Inclusion Initiative makes the event accessible for those who might otherwise not be able to participate.

We couldn’t do this without the support of partners, and we’re excited to show the world what’s possible with digital government and public sector transformation.

New ways to support the event

Many conferences are struggling today because they relied on “expo halls” and tradeshow floors for revenue. FWD50 has never had a show floor, and has focused instead on meaningful conversations, breakouts, and workshops.

Traditionally, our Industry Innovations track, as well as vendor-led workshops, give companies a way to demonstrate and teach. And we have fireside chats with major tech innovators on our main stage. We work hard to make sure our partners are a valuable part of the content we deliver—and we don’t miss the awkwardness of tradeshow booths one bit.

Digital events have more to offer our supporters, including engineered interactions, recorded interviews, and collaboration tools that let partners do actual work with customers and prospects within the event itself. We’re discovering new ways to inspire and connect with attendees almost daily. If you want to reach thousands of digital government professionals worldwide, let’s talk.

Deep-dive into specific topics

We published our 2020 content survey a few months ago, which people are using as they propose talks in our Call for Papers. But we’re also focusing on specific topics across the conference:

  • Leadership in hiring, policy creation, diversity, and metric-driven management on November 3 in the Executive Track.
  • Digital Healthcare sessions on November 4.
  • AI and Cloud Computing workshops on November 5.
  • COVID Response on November 6.
  • Resilient Democracy on November 9.
  • The Civic Tech movement on November 9.

The new, broader schedule gives us time to explore these critical topics in far greater depth than we would otherwise be able to.


A focus on regions

In 2019, we launched the Regional Digital Government Summit. With the help of Digital Officers from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and the State of Georgia, we ran a day of content exclusively for regional government executives.

The results were better than we could have hoped. Chaired by the effervescently firm-handed David Eaves, the summit led to monthly collaborations among regional officers, and provided links that were vital for rapid COVID response.

We’re increasing the regional emphasis in 2020, bringing in more regions—and making a pair of FWD50 tickets available for free to qualifying digital government workers in any municipality, territory, province, or state.


Getting involved

FWD50 has become a labor of love for the team behind it and a network of technologists, speakers, and civil servants worldwide. We’re eager to show the world what’s possible in this new reality, and can’t wait to show you the future of public service and virtual conferences. Here’s how you can get involved:

  1. Buy tickets, if you work for a national or federal government. FWD50 counts as a training event for budgetary purposes in most jurisdictions.
  2. Sponsor the event, if you want to reach digital-focused public servants.
  3. Tell the world about the conference, and the already-amazing speaker lineup!
  4. Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.
  5. Propose a talk, if you haven’t already.
  6. Contact us, if you have any questions or suggestions.