For those who have never attended, COFES is hard to describe. It’s a mix of conference sessions, facilitated discussions and informal chats that disrupt those poor folks who came to a resort in the Arizona desert for sun and swimming pools. It’s not about product announcement or partnership press releases but about thinking and talking through what will happen in engineering and design in 5 or 10 years. Everyone takes away different impressions; following are a few of mine:

• The crowd seemed younger this year. We had the usual quota of industry veterans but there were quite a few energized people in start-ups, trying to crack the staid PLM industry wide open. From augmented reality for combat and firefighter training (think video games with a purpose), to lightweight collaborative technologies and bacteria that can store data, a lot of very creative people are looking at traditional problems in new ways.

• There was optimism in the air: we made it through the economic downturn of 2009/2010 and people can now look up and out again, searching for new technologies and ways of doing things. We can be creative and forward-thinking rather than hunkered down and reactive.

• There was a lot of tweeting going on – this crowd is definitely hot on social media, social design and blogging. We talked about new means of communicating ideas and data. Some of the best discussions centered on how mobile computing and data/apps in the cloud will change how we all work and the implications this has for data security, since the most harm is typically done by disgruntled employees rather than outsiders.

• We held a bloggers roundtable discussion with lots of good ideas on starting and continuing a blog – and on what makes for a good blog. Schnitger Corp’s Hot Topics blog was slammed for not allowing comments, since that makes the communication one-way rather than interactive and conversational. I heard the criticism and am trying to figure out the right way forward. Until I (if I) change the no-comments policy, please feel free to email me via the comment link on any post. The key points of the broader discussion: just start, don’t make it too complicated or censor yourself too much, establish corporate boundaries if you must but trust your people. [And allow comments.]

• Friday‘s keynote speaker was John Gage, Sun Microsystem’s 21st employee and the man credited with coining the phrase “the network is the computer”. Mr. Gage spoke about the history of innovation and the fact that the most interesting ideas typically come from people who have a new way of approaching a problem (students who don’t know the traditional approach, for example) or, as Edwin Land said "… not so much having a new idea as stopping having an old idea" and “invention is a sudden cessation of stupidity”. His central point is that we’re about to see a wave of new innovation, tying together the billions of disparate devices in the world. What if a light switch could be made intelligent? Is that good or bad? What could we do with an intelligent light switch?

• Saturday’s keynote speaker, John Voeller, scared the bejeezus out of just about everyone with his seemingly infinite list of the resources we (as a planet) are running out of and the implications this has for economic growth and first-world standards of living. Mr. Voeller is Senior Vice President, Federal Services Division, Black & Veatch, and has advised the last two US Presidents on global infrastructure as an ASME White House Fellow. His message was about “insufficient plenty” and the fact that governments and industrial competitors need to find alternatives for the key elements we’re running out of — some as soon as 2017. I don’t know if this presentation will be made available to non-attendees, but Mr. Voeller speaks often and his presentations can be found with a few minutes of Googling. It’s scary, daunting stuff and I’m glad someone is thinking about it all, but it was good to get out in the sunshine after that session. [Update: Brad Holtz informs me that COFES presentations will be available to all at as soon as they can be uploaded.]

• I had a nasty cold during the entire event, so put myself to bed early and missed out on the evening activities. Friday night’s “Evening Under the Stars” was at a Moroccan citadel. I hear the Arabian horses were beautiful, though there definitely seemed to be some TMI: Teresa Newton said something about learning how horse breeders do artificial insemination …

COFES 2011 is over. The boxes are packed, Brad Holtz and his team are home again. I’m already looking forward to next year. Not the head cold or the horses, but the insightful conversations and the chance to spend a few days thinking with fewer practical restrictions. Join us!