In June 2012, I joined a large group of people in a community arts centre at a converted bus station. It was the first “Milton Keynes Geek Night” and I really wish it had been me that had penned this tweet:
“Proof that Milton Keynes has geeks and about 200 more roundabouts than Old Street. #MKGN”
The History of Milton Keynes Geek Night
Inspired by Oxford Geek Night, which was upstairs in the Jericho Tavern (QI point: this was where Radiohead played their first gig), Richard Wiggins and David Hughes decided to create something similar for the Milton Keynes (MK) digital community. It took a while to get off the ground, not least because Richard and David were working in different spheres – one in London, the other in MK – but also because they were keen to find the right location. It shouldn’t be a pub, or a hotel conference suite, but something that better suited the event – and what better than a former nightclub above an abandoned bus station?
Aside from a location, Richard and David needed to find speakers. They wrote lists of people they knew, people they admired, people they thought would be good speakers, and the first two – Jon Hicks and Brendan Dawes – both said yes. Oxford Geek Night gave permission for their name to be taken (geek nights were a thing back then) and Milton Keynes Geek Night (MKGN) was born.
It has run on a quarterly basis for almost ten years now, plus an all-dayer (in 2014) and two Geek Mental Health Night specials.
“MKGN came out of a bit of frustration and self-desire to attend something locally with interesting creative and techy talks, with a bunch of like-minded people. I enjoyed heading to London, Oxford and sometimes much further afield to see and hear this kind of thing, but I had a feeling there would be enough interest locally in Milton Keynes. I obviously never expected or thought we would still be going 10 years later.”
[Richard Wiggins, co-founder, Milton Keynes Geek Night]
The Geek moniker
At this point, I should explain that to many of us associated with the term “geek” it is not an insult – but a badge of honour. One of dictionary.com’s many definitions for the word is “a digital-technology expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often used disparagingly by others)”. Another is equally fitting: “a person who has excessive enthusiasm for and some expertise about a specialized subject or activity”.
Call me a nerd and you’ll get a very different response – but a geek is no bad thing.
With all that said, I’m still not sure how I, someone who can appear outwardly confident but is very uncomfortable in a room full of strangers, found himself at the first Milton Keynes Geek Night.
Beer and pizza
Maybe it was the beer and pizza that attracted me?
Playing to the geek trope, MKGN has traditionally had an association with these two forms of refreshment. Milton Keynes-based Domino’s Pizza were event sponsors for a long time, with a huge pile of pizza being delivered at the end of each event. And there is always a bar (with at least one free drink). In December 2015, MKGN 15 even had a specially commissioned beer from Verdant.
Throughout its existence, Milton Keynes Geek Night has kept a common agenda – two headline speakers, with a few lightning (5 minute) talks in between (although there have been some memorable occasions when speakers have pushed the definition of 5 minutes). And, until Covid-19 made passing a microphone between people problematic, there were also some “one-minute wonder” opportunities for people to pitch new employment opportunities, geek clubs, events and the like – but strictly nothing too commercial.
Over the years, MKGN has featured almost two hundred speakers. From the very first event, the calibre has been high – and many have made return visits, like Jon Hicks, Brendan Dawes, Christian Payne, PJ Evans and Ben Foxall. Many of the past events are listed on the MKGN website and I tried to pick some favourites, but there are just so many – from PJ Evans’ “Boiling Nemo” (MKGN 22) to Andy Taylor’s talk about the delivery robots that roam the streets of Milton Keynes (MKGN 40). But these just scrape the surface – the variety of the speakers and the topics they have spoken on is immense.
Throughout it all, there’s been a strong theme around web (now “digital”) design and development but there have been talks too that have covered other creative areas. It’s a format that has worked well for a decade now.
Richard and David have worked hard to deliver a diverse range of talks and speakers at MKGN – and are very conscious of how male-centric some events have become.
The speakers are still selected from a “black book” and the organisers considers themselves to be fortunate that their requests are rarely turned down (although sometimes people are, genuinely, just too busy). Commercial pitches are rejected (“that’s not what we do”, says David) but MKGN has also taken on speakers they haven’t previously heard of who have turned out to be interesting.
“We started off in the kind of digital space, I suppose, but we've always wanted to not be a tech or that kind of conference because “codey” stuff bores the **** out of me and we've always tried to find as wide a range speakers as we can – and we've been really lucky to do that.”
[David Hughes, co-founder, Milton Keynes Geek Night]
For many years, MKGN’s home was “The Buszy”, run by Make a Difference CIC (MaD) in the former Milton Keynes Bus Station. In 2016, MaD had to move out and MKGN had to find a new location for its events too.
Around that time MK Gallery was developing a new venue – the Sky Room – with fantastic views across Campbell Park and the east of the town. The only problem was that it wouldn’t be ready in time for the next MKGN event. But MK Gallery did have a Project Space that could be used in the interim period. This became the home for MKGN until the Sky Room opened with its theatre-style seating in 2019.
MKGN has never been about profit – just covering costs – but, with the smaller audiences in the MK Gallery Project Space, it became necessary to charge for attendance (not least to put off those who may just have been attending for free beer and pizzas).
Then, came the pandemic and, in common with many other in-person events, Milton Keynes Geek Night was forced online for a while. But that had its advantages too – allowing MKGN to bring in international speakers that they could never have flown in for an in-person event.
Nowadays MKGN has returned to MK Gallery – although the theatre-style layout has given way to tables and chairs. This is to help social distancing but has a side effect that it’s brought the format full circle back to the days of the Buszy. Tables of small groups of people, brought together through a common interest in design, technology and creativity.
In the early days, I’d rush home and blog about the event. But an increasingly busy family life and decline in blogging meant I switched to live tweeting events. And now even Twitter seems to have fallen out of favour – with the #MKGN hashtag becoming much quieter than it once was.
Even if I was known as the event’s in-house blogger for a while, Milton Keynes Geek Night’s “official” channels are on its website, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud (where recordings can be found for almost all of the talks), and a community on Orbit.
Recording the events
The first event had around 100 people but as audiences grew there was just too much interference and microphones started to struggle. After the technical challenges that the second MK Geek Night suffered, Richard was researching options for new audio equipment when Andy Hagon and Roo Machell said “we can help”. Since then, every MKGN has had professional sound mixing and recording, first using Andy and Roo’s own mixing equipment and later using MK Gallery’s desk and MKGN’s own microphones.
Both Richard and David speak of seeing the friendships that have developed through Geek Night as a massive positive outcome.
“It’s about bringing people together and letting them hear talks that they probably never would otherwise. I love that so many friendships have occurred over the years at MKGN and I’m lucky to have personally made many good friends too.”
[Richard Wiggins, co-founder, Milton Keynes Geek Night]
Speaking personally, I met both Richard and David through the event (later discovering that we had other shared interests) but there have been many, many more people who have met through MKGN. David explained to me that he started to notice the same groups of people at the same tables each event. And he could see those friendships, networks, bonds, etc. starting to grow. MKGN had become a community.
Over time, the MK Geek Night audience has changed. Some of “the Oxford posse” still come along whilst others have moved away. But Milton Keynes has changed in the last ten years too. It’s become a bit of a tech hub – and that brings new businesses and new people. MKGN still has its “regulars”, but the audience has expanded, and new attendees have brought their own groups. All this change has been positive – and is part of the evolution of the event and the community that surrounds it.
I asked some of the attendees for their thoughts and it was fantastic to hear the warmth and enthusiasm that they have for Geek Night:
“The biggest thing is the people. It's a social event. It's meeting up with these guys. We became friends from Geek Night. And the talks are amazing […] what I come away with every time is always challenged, always enlightened in some way.”
Others spoke of how they are educated and informed by the speakers. One even told me how she is not a geek in the traditional sense – she is a musician – but can take things from the geek talks and adapt them to her profession.
“So, it's adaptability as well. It's not just about coding.”
Another told me about his need to research the things he’s heard about at Geek Night and discover more:
“I would say my typical geek night experience is that I come back from the events with a list of things I want to Google in my head. And I will be up late tonight, researching all these new fantastic things that I've been exposed to.”
What’s next for MKGN?
MK Geek Night’s tenth birthday is coming up on 16 June 2022 and tickets are already sold out. I asked Richard about future plans and it’s clear that there are some big ideas around exploring new formats and keeping the event evolving.
September 2022’s MKGN will be a 2-day creative industries and digital technology conference called All Flows. But, from talking to Richard about the project, a conference is just not the right word. The All Flows team (which also includes Pooleyville’s Simon Wright) are looking to create more of a festival vibe which extends into the evening, including inspirational talks, music, and more. The exact format is still work in progress, but Richard shared with me some of the speakers that are lined up and it sounds impressive. All Flows will take place on 29 and 30 September 2022 although Richard is hoping it will go on to become a regular occurrence – a sort of “Geek Night on steroids”.
Meanwhile, Richard and David are exploring options for the December 2022 MKGN – and whilst I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, some themed events may be on the cards.
It seems that the Milton Keynes Geek Night team have hit on something special. Back in 2012, Richard and David never expected MKGN to run for ten years but the constant evolution brought by changes in venue, a global pandemic, and a desire to stay fresh have become part of the recipe. Add to that a thriving community and MK Geek Night must be seen as one of Milton Keynes’ great successes.