Meaning Conference 2013: The Future of Business in the 21st Century

Anjali Ramachandran, Head of Innovation, on what she learnt at Meaning Conference 2013 in Brighton recently.

Tom Nixon introducing the day. Image via Meaning Conference Flickr courtesy Creative Commons

Tom Nixon introducing the day. Image via Meaning Conference Flickr courtesy Creative Commons

It is incredibly difficult today to organise a conference that has valuable content, an inspiring message and good speakers – much more difficult than you’d imagine.

This is a long overdue post on November’s Meaning Conference 2013, organised for the second time by the Nixon McInnes team in Brighton, which is rapidly gaining a great reputation (in my opinion) as a place for 21st century business thinkers to familiarise themselves with and discuss the important work issues of our time.

Swedish politician Rick Falkvinge from the Pirate Party spoke about how his party achieved incredible scale and impact at a fraction of the cost of political campaigns by their competitors: 50,000 Euros compared to 6 million. It boiled down to the 4 key principles of their ultimate goal: it needed to be tangible (people needed to know what it was), incredible (so that they’d be inspired by it), inclusive (so that people felt involved) and epic (so that they felt that they were part of something big). An interesting fact he mentioned was that they went by a rule of thumb when it came to doing something: if 3 people thought something was a bad idea then they wouldn’t do it. In 5 years, in which time 50,000 people have become part of the Pirate Party movement, they have never seen that rule abused once. Last but not least, he mentioned how people always gravitate to fun so whatever you do should have an element of fun in it if you want to foster participation. Rick has written a book called ‘Swarmwise’ this year (sub-titled ‘Tactical ways to change the world’, so you know it is a call to action!) which he is providing as a free download on his site. Or you could buy the book off Amazon.

Anne-Marie Huby, the co-founder of Just Giving, spoke about the trials of creating a business with a purpose. As she said, creating a business that is both commercial and compassionate is not an additive process; you can’t decide after launching that you want to be ‘good’. It needs to be part of the company’s DNA from the beginning. She gave a valuable piece of advice which I personally believe more companies should adopt: think long-term about the business because you stand to create a business of greater value if you do. For example, Just Giving saw a 7% rise in costs because of the decision they took to absorb VAT as they didn’t feel it was right to pass it on to their customers, but it is something they stand by. Anne-Marie also officially announced Yimby by Just Giving, a new crowdfunding platform for social good projects which launches this week. Her management tips included allowing good things to go ahead by getting out of the way when smart people come up with decent ideas.

Mikel Lezamiz introduced me to the largest co-operative in the world, Mondragon, based in the Basque country of Spain. Devolution of powers is key to the success of the operation, which employs over 80,000 people in 239 companies.

Honor Harger, the Artistic Director of Lighthouse, spoke about a post-PRISM world, where ‘new ways of doing business exist at the confluence of art and technology’. She referenced the work of, amongst others, Julian Oliver, whose Men in Grey project is as unnerving as it is theoretically possible, James Bridle’s work on drones, Timo Arnall, Einar Sneve Martinussen, and Jørn Knutsen’s Immaterials project and Tobias Revell’s New Mumbai design fiction work. A full list of references she used during her talk is here.

James Watt, the co-founder of craft beer Brewdog, spoke about creating a challenger brand in a world of ‘beige’ beers (pun intended!). They wanted to bring the brand as close to their audience as possible, and in a first for the industry offered shares to their fans through the Equity for Punks programme – the second round is open till January 2014, with the first having been oversubscribed. They decided to invest in social media over more traditional advertising channels, but most interesting was his narration of how they came to – soon – be the first beer with their own travel show on TV, so to speak. It is a classic case of branded content – but the brand itself is only really mentioned in the title ‘Brew Dogs’ (which is *technically* just a pun on the brand!); the goal of the show being to introduce Americans to the concept of craft beer. The first season, consisting of 7 episodes, ran on the Esquire Network in the US and was so successful that it’s now been commissioned for a second season.

David Birch, TED speaker, author, digital money expert is a Director of Consult Hyperion, an IT management consultancy that specialises in online transactions. He was a last-minute replacement for another speaker but was absolutely brilliant as he spoke about how we are getting to a stage, where money is concerned, ‘when the transactional costs of using social capital become less than using intermediaries’, thereby rendering financial intermediaries unnecessary. Technically, for example, energy and electricity companies are able to message us with our bill and we are able to pay with our mobiles – there’s no need for a physical bank at all. They know who we are and that’s all they need. He made a rather amusing comment, about how ‘most of the cash currently in circulation is used for criminal purposes’ – and there’s more than an element of truth in that! Worth watching his TEDxSussex talk from last year:

Dr. Sue Black, Senior Research Associate at UCL, gave an incredibly personal talk that took us through her life and how and why she came to be such an advocate for technology and change. She is the founder of the BCSWomen network and an avid supporter of women in technology. She campaigned for 3 years to save Bletchley Park from being closed and ultimately succeeded in 2011. She has also launched the #techmums campaign to give more mothers the opportunity to take part in the digital revolution by providing them free training, led by an insight that we have a generation of children who are growing up as proper digital natives but when they go home, many a time they are not able to build on that knowledge because their parents don’t understand technology.

Umair Haque, economist, author and director of Havas Media Labs spoke to the audience via Skype about creating organisations of meaning in a world where the economics of business is very skewed: the average person earns $7000 a year in the developing world when in the US it is $70,000: how do we ensure that business encourages a sentiment of eudemonia (the Greek word for a well-lived life) instead of encouraging selfish billionaires? He closed with a rousing call to ‘raise the level of our ambitions as a society’.

Lee Bryant co-founded and then sold his agency Headshift to the Dachis Group in 2012 and is now working on his new agency Post-Shift. His talk is already up online so I encourage you to read his words as he said them; in short he spoke about the kinds of companies that are already building businesses of the 21st century, mainly startups. He referenced a lot of my favourite thinkers and research (Clayton Christensen, the Cowboy Ventures ‘unicorns’ research), leading to the point that with tools like agile and scrum and open ways of working, they are already leading the charge to change the way business works.

And finally, in her second appearance of the day (she came on during the first half of the day to encourage us to think about our purpose at work and in life), Mary Alice Arthur asked us to discuss what stories we’d like to be remembered by and what stories we wanted to tell.

Here’s a summary of the key themes of the day from the organisers:

Meaning2013 round-up from NixonMcInnes

Immense day and amazing job by the organising team in pulling it together. Here’s to more businesses positively shaping the world we live in.


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