One day, at a time

Ciara Judge - big screen at Dots

Yesterday was the Dots conference, part of the Brighton Digital Festival. I was there to do a little bit on Unthinkable but mostly just to sit and enjoy the conferences with the 200 or so other attendees.

In terms of content, this was the conference’s difficult second album, after a blinding debut last year including Russell Davies, Mark Earls, John Wilshire and many others.

Antony and the team at Brilliant Noise ensured a low-pomposity affair at the Duke’s cinema. Light-hearted but packed full of short, impactful presentations (oh, and very nice food).

My key take-aways:

Adam Morgan, inventor of the phrase ‘challenger brands’ opened (obvious headliner!) with an interesting piece on how constraints drive creativity. Some of the examples may suffer a little bit from the ‘selection bias’ of picking winners out of history that fit a particular thesis. However, the concept that an entrepreneur is someone who doesn’t assume that the available resources are only those which are under their direct control would prove to be a theme that ran throughout the rest of the day, and forces us to look quite differently at many of the challenges we face.

Continuing his naming flair, Morgan came up with the “Uber Generation” to describe our currently emerging ‘unreasonable’ consumer who expects more for less and presented in a prettier box. Whether we like generation Uber or not is left to the reader. However, they are presented as the target market for the Next Big Thing.

Next up was Tess MacLeod Smith from Net a Porter. She’s behind the brand’s Porter magazine (a bi-monthly global fashion magazine to rival vogue but with built-in shopping off the page) and various other apps and social media components.

For me, the most interesting thing was to see the huge change that an ostensibly traditional media person (MacLeod Smith) had experienced in leaving Hearst and Harper’s Bazaar to go to a tech startup which was basically doing the same thing. Perhaps it’s equally interesting that once she had learned the new ways (agile and all that), that she had little intention of going back.

The idea of starting a magazine today is also so counter to traditional wisdom that is causes us to look once again at all of those “x is dead” statements.

Last before the break was a wonderfully irreverent insider look at the transformation of FT.com from its CIO Christina Scott. Unlike the standard case study (and it should be said, Net a Porter), Christina offered a peak at the real challenges faced when trying to get innovation and transformation away inside a big firm. If I had to pick one thing, it would undoubtedly be the rule that execs at FT (including Scott herself) are no longer allowed to attend governance meetings because of the impact they have on projects. Sound familiar?

I remain convinced that real life stories such as Scott’s are the most valuable inspirations for all of us trying to affect some kind of change (which is probably most of us), even if they are not shiny, simplistic or have the best outcomes.

Next up was Antony himself with a great talk about organisations, leadership, transformation and possible futures, a topic he had unapologetically half-inched from Nick Price, a late addition to the afternoon line up.

Again a theme which would be echoed several times over the day, Antony talked about businesses as organisms not mechanisms. Good line. And about the concepts of ‘possible futures’. For example, will we end up with centralised or ‘stacked’ web that Facebook, Google, Amazon and others are pushing us towards, or the radical decentralisation which blockchain promises and has historically been the hallmark of the web?

Either way, we should think of the future not as a 10-tonne truck which is hurtling towards us, but a range of possible outcomes over which we have influence and where there is tremendous opportunity.

Contrary to earlier promises, however, Antony did hold a metaphorical large melon (in the style of TED):

Antony-Mayfield

Before lunch we had the treat of Steve Chapman. Steve made a compelling case that we spend most of our lives deliberately avoiding the creative zone and presenting lots of ideas for getting out of our comfort zones, including some toe-curling conference experiments. Plus great, hand-drawn, pseudo science charts making good points:

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 08.46.45

A panel discussion after lunch covered how companies are working with start-ups. Although it quickly became obvious that the answer lies somewhere between ‘they aren’t’ and ‘unsuccessfully’, although we hope in the future things might improve.

Nick Price followed, standing in for Eva Applebaum, and talking about future thinking. I’ve personally never come across this before, beyond the somewhat pointless ‘futureology’ of generic trends forecasting. It was a great introduction to the art form, and reassuring to hear that Neal Stephenson (who has incredible form in predicting the future) is part of the US chapter of the several organisations trying to turn future thinking into a discipline. Simplistic take. Don’t start with the end in mind. Start with the possible ends in mind.

After that it was me. Slightly too sardonic as usual and I think the only person to actually be profane but people were very nice about it and luckily only one person knew who Steve Sasson was.

I’m very glad the lady following me wasn’t on before instead as I think she probably captured the conference’s imagination most. Ciara Judge (pic at top) is the winner of the Google Science Fair, an entrepreneur, and a very compelling speaker. She talked about the fact that people chose to focus instead on the fact that she is 17 and a girl. She made the case that social constraints and expectations are largely imagined restrictions, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her on a TED stage very soon. Whether she’s young or not, I think a lot of us were humbled that she’s done more in 17 years than we have done in twice as many.

She didn’t mention One Direction. Not even once.

Actually, however, I think Ciara was upstaged. The next presenter was Stuart Turner. Stuart joined by Skype, not least because he is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. He told an extremely inspirational story of more or less dragging himself out of his ‘prison’ of disability using modern technology: first wheelchairs and assistive devices, and then robots and drones which allow him to travel, run and experience more of the world once again. Even doing the presentation was clearly highly tiring for him, again humbling us with the ‘constraints’ we feel in our lives.

Steven Ramage introduced What three words – a new approach to mapping based on the idea that combinations of three words (out of the 40,000 available), creates enough variants to uniquely identify any 3x3m square on earth. It’s a tantalising promise of creating addresses for millions worldwide who do not currently have them.

Wrapping up the day was Sam Conniff, Co-founder of Livity, a fascinating social enterprise. Facing statistical obsolesce as Livity approaches its 15th birthday, Conniff took a philosophical and wide-ranging look at characteristics of businesses which last 100s, not 10s of years, concluding that we need to replace today’s profit-focussed and self-centred business leaders (under which he invoked Kim Kardashian and – phrase of the day – ‘Jack Welsh’s disgraceful face’ ) with leaders who care about society and sustainability – modelled on the Rowntrees and Rockerfellers  of the past.

To do this Conniff has appointed himself the world’s first Chief Purpose Officer.

In a twenty-minute presentation that covered about 40 topics, Conniff was an energising end to a brilliant conference.

For those of us exhausted with traditional conference formats, speakers and, frankly, pricing, Dots has now twice proven to be the perfect pick-me-up.

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