30 Aug Brexit, Beer and Blockchain
What I learned this year at TED Summit
It’s a Wednesday night around 7pm: there’s an architect, a record label founder and a science fiction writer sitting around a table. We’re in the midst of discussing how the architect got a 14-story high, external fuel tank from the space shuttle Endeavor, up from it’s resting place in New Orleans, across the country, through the streets of L.A., into the Science Center, when conversation shifts—we dive into how the record label founder to my right signed Nine Inch Nails to their first album deal. I’d heard it said multiple times that attending TED is an experience that walks the line between inspiration and insecurity. In this moment, sitting at this table, I’m very aware of both feelings.
For those not familiar with TED’s model, it’s a conference style gathering of brilliant people that’s been happening since 1984. TED finds individuals from across the globe, who are pushing the boundaries in their perspective field, and gives them a platform to present out what they’re working on. Each presenter provides their perspective on a given subject or showcases an incredible performance piece. In 2005, a handful of these talks were put online to test the appetite of a larger audience and since then over 2,000 talks have been posted, receiving well over a billion views.
This June, I had the opportunity to check out an experimental and new type of conference TED put together for the first time, TEDSummit. The conference was quite different from TED’s traditional model of full-day, back-to-back speaker sessions. The Summit model used the talks as stimulation, with only two speaking sessions per day (about 90 minutes each). The rest of the day was filled with free time, break out sessions and outdoor activities, all emphasizing conversation between attendees. The content remained as diverse and provocative as ever, so finding a heated debate to jump into or a deeply interesting conversation took little effort.
Below is a combination of moments and topics that have stayed with me. Each for different reasons and each felt worthy of spending the time to reflect on.
Three days before the conference started the UK voted to leave the EU, the Prime Minister resigned and Scotland announced it was considering resurfacing a referendum to leave the UK. With a strong presence of attendees from the UK and other countries within the EU, this quickly became one of the most commonly discussed topics throughout the conference. With my primary skill set of shutting up and listening highly honed, I learned a lot.
One of the standout talks of the Summit was Alex Betts’ talk on Brexit. Not only was it incredibly prepared (in two short days), but it was also delivered with a great deal of emotion and conviction. After getting home, I watched it again and while there are certainly differences between video and in-person viewing, the biggest difference I noticed was the conversation afterwards. The “after-party” for the video wasn’t on a conference lawn—it was in the comments section below the video. And the conversation happening in the comments section, whether right or wrong, was not at all the aligned with the opinions I heard at TED, really far from it.
Seeing those comments made me realize, for all the talk and training I do around diversity of thought and its importance, in this moment I had none of it. There wasn’t a single opinion I heard at TED that supported leave—certainly no talks were given around why leaving could make sense. And I walked away without a question in my mind of where I stood, without considering for a second there might be a reasonable counter argument.
This isn’t a new issue. In 2011 Eli Pariser talked about filter bubbles and the implications they have in our digital world. The Wall Street Journal created a really cool piece of content, a few months back showing two Facebook feeds side-by-side. The first feed being considered typical conservative content, while the other was considered liberal. What was interesting was both feeds were covering the same event but the contrast in headlines was eye opening.
As we look at global election cycles, a growing domestic divide and what feels like a more and more polarizing media landscape, I’m excited by the question of how we might approach creating space (both digital and physical) for conversations and initiatives focused on promoting a diversity of thoughts and viewpoints. I don’t know if this would be a fun project, but it feels like one that’s incredibly needed.
Learning point #1: Many things can be accomplished by a small number of people, political change is not one of them. As a society we need to become better at listening to those who disagree with us.
Roman Mars was such a standout talk from last year’s TED conference, not only because I love his podcast (99% invisible), but also for his ability to turn what could otherwise be an incredibly dense topic into something truly entertaining. In last year’s talk he addressed the history and best practices of making a great flag and when done well (like California, Chicago or Amsterdam) it can a tremendous point of pride and unity for the people it represents.
Now while I love that notion, my own personal connection to any city doesn’t begin with a flag (New York’s is actually awful). As someone who began his city living in Philly and then moved to Brooklyn, I’ve always viewed local breweries as a place of local pride and connection.
What won’t be a big surprise to anyone is that I am not alone in this. There’s a group of guys within the TEDx community that started a tradition, bonding over local beer, that’s been taking place for multiple years now—it’s known as the Beer Exchange.
The premise was simple: wherever you’re from (and 70+ countries were represented), your job was to show up with a 6-pack from your neighborhood brewery. As the night progresses, people take turns pulling their beers out of the fridge, pouring flight-sized portions to every waiting glass and sharing stories of feeling connected to their local community.
Antonio is one of those impossibly easy to like humans. Born in Rome, he has this contagious authenticity that makes you want to spill all your secrets in the first 15 minutes of meeting him. His career is this amazing journey from freelance journalism to working in government, then moving to Tokyo to take a job in fashion. Now, 20 years later, he’s running 2 Italian restaurants in Fukuoka, in the south of Japan.
While speaking with Antonio, his local stories all revolved around the idea of community, which seemed to mean so much to him as an outsider in an area that had come to fully accept him as a local. He spoke about initially opening his restaurant with the intent of serving all meals family style (a practice not done in the area) and the legitimate concerns that come from betting big on an idea that may not work. Then he spoke about the joy he felt after months of hesitation and low turn out, when people began to accept this odd social approach to eating. He invested all of his effort into an unlikely idea that’s come to be an amazing hub for connection, attracting those who are looking for a sense of community in an untraditional dining experience.
What I loved about this night is that it wasn’t about big ideas. It was a night about humans struggling to feel connected, loved and appreciated. It was a night that celebrated small personal victories in a way that largely disregarded who did what, and was much more defined by people sharing their full selves. These nights are rare (at least that’s been my experience) and this one I will remember for a long time.
Learning point #2: The test of a good conference experience is, long after who said what on the stage fades from memory, I’ll remember the people.
Maybe 6 months ago, I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. A lot had changed in his life (married, child) but he had also launched a new business. Based on the diversity of our clients, I like to think I can make sense of most businesses—in the basic sense of how they operate, whom they serve and how value flows. In this case, I was I was struggling. He had bought a small bank to be able to run certain transactions and gain permissions—there was something about removing third parties who were no longer needed to process transactions and there was an app store of sorts that connected users to upload transactions, documents, etc. to do business together through this thing called the blockchain.
Like most people, I was familiar with the blockchain the same way I’m familiar with neuroscience or river dance—I find it fascinating but can’t explain it.
This year’s conference included two talks on the blockchain, both attempting to explain this complex idea to the crowd and both falling short in delivering a repeatable definition. But like any idea that seems super malleable, it leaves a great deal of room for interpretation and inference. So interpret we did.
Cue back the science fiction writer, add in someone who does risk assessment for M&A and a designer who used to be in Cirque du Soleil, and we’re ripe for imagining ways in which the blockchain will end the world as we know it. This was by a landslide one of the funnest conversations I got into, sparring my already overworked analytical brain and restarting my fiction writing, Goonies loving, third-grade-monster-drawing brain.
Learning point #3: A serious topic doesn’t have to warrant a serious conversation. Play can be inserted anywhere.
At The Design Gym, we spend most of our days working with organizations to help them understand internally how their organization needs to evolve so they can compete in a world that’s moving faster and faster around them. When you’re in the business of figuring out “better,” there’s no way to ignore the “what’s not working.” So, we spend a great deal of time thinking about this idea of making insights huggable.
We think, how can we take something that’s broken and present it out to the organization (or have teams present out to their co-workers) in a way that doesn’t put people on the defensive, but instead rallies them with desire and purpose to solve that problem.
Through direct experiences and a bit of personal reflection this conference taught me a lot about what’s needed to create that “huggable” environment—an environment where people can learn from and listen to each other, even when the topics aren’t comfortable or when blame could easily be assigned.
Ultimately, that led me to my greatest takeaway: An interesting life and real contribution doesn’t come from agreement, but from a deeper understanding of those we don’t align with. Our job is to create environments where that understanding can happen.
Let’s work together to create those environments.