Lift Conference (Geneva, 25-27 February) is an opportunity to meet the people who are transforming technology. It was started by an expat in 2006 and is now attended by more than 700 people from around the world.

Once a year, Geneva becomes the converging point for everyone who is anyone in the unstoppable world of technology. Laurent Haug who founded the Lift Conference three years ago at the age of 29 has made How a young man who is patently not a geek has created an international trampoline for virtual ideas is what we tried to find out.

Haug, who is French, had no idea where to go for his university studies and ended up in Switzerland almost by accident. Now he has become one of its best ambassadors. He says that Lift is just the accelerator of the energy, innovation and creativity that are already present in this country, but points out, ruefully, that 80% of the companies are run either by foreigners or by Swiss nationals with a foreign parent.

“Switzerland’s a great place to become an entrepreneur, but for the wrong reasons” explains Haug. Because there are so many obstacles, “if you actually do succeed, you feel protected and things get easier”. According to Bruce Sterling, the best-selling sci-fi author and a regular participant in the conference, Lift has built in three years what others build in seven.

In fact, Haug shouldn’t even be in Switzerland. When he finished his studies in the business section of the University of Lausanne, the quota of work permits had dried up. Despite this, he secured jobs with a variety of companies, all of which, he points out, collapsed when he joined him, including the unsinkable Arthur Andersen. That’s when he decided to found his own.

Along with his generation, Laurent Haug had fallen head-first into the web. But he felt intuitively that there was more to technology than protocols. He observed that deep social changes were taking place and he decided to connect the people the globe over who were making them. Lift was born.

The Lift program is a captivating balance between techno-pioneers from Microsoft, Netvibes, Podtech, Creative Commons, Mozilla, Intel, etc. and people from unexpected horizons. See the on-line videos of talks by: Sister Judith Zoebelein who set up the Vatican’s progressive website, Sugata Mitra who brings $100 computers to school children in India, Jan Chipchase, the anthropologist who helps Nokia design phones for the illiterate, Kevin Warwick, the first cyber robot with web controlled implants, Eric Favre , the inventor of Nespresso capsules, Florence Devouard, the former chair of the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation (that owns Wikipedia), who will also be returning this year.

Haug gives credit to his team and partners, a community of talented individuals who are expected to bring a spark of intellectual and artistic novelty to make the three-day event interesting and memorable. The conference’s creative collaboration with Bread and Butter, the adventurous Lausanne design studio, has helped produce a strong identity and brand. As for the Advisory Board, it is composed of people with a desirable combination of vision and connections.

The theme of the Geneva conference this year is Where did the future go?, a reflection on predictions that did not materialize or that may yet prove us wrong. The man most often called the “father of the internet”, Vint Cerf, will be giving one of the key speeches.

But Lift is not just a conference, it is an experience. An on-going collaboration with artists brings a zest to the proceedings and enlivens the otherwise drab Geneva International Conference Center. This year’s edition will feature installations by Think Tank Kitchen Budapest , MIT media artist, Kelly Heaton and Nabi, a hip art center in Korea. One of the star speakers is Natalie Jeremijenko , an Australian new media artist who works in New York at the intersection of contemporary art, science, and engineering.

And now with an autumn edition of Lift Asia that takes place in South Korea – a country that Haug considers to be at the forefront of invention – the Lift community is expanding.

In the first three years of its existence, Lift is said to be surpassing other techno-ventures on account of Haug’s quiet magnetism and his ability to identify and attract the people, trends, ideas and opportunities that will impact our future. Lift is only one of his many entrepreneurial projects and it is clear that Laurent Haug is out to make a difference. But he also wants everyone to have a good time: the Lift fondue party (imagine serving 700 fondues!) on the second evening is legendary.

Full program on Lift09.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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