Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Social Technologist

I’ve  known Christian Payne on twitter for a few years as @Documentally, the grandson of @granumentally and the father of @minimentally . We finally got to meet at the Do Lectures. Over  beers in the barn, I realised I had a lot to learn from him. This man wields social media like a freakin light saber. Never seen anything like it. Christian started off as a photojournalist and has never looked back, from vlogging for the British Council in Pakistan, to working alongside Reuters with  political leaders, to documenting the plight of Iraqi refugees for the UN. Using every medium out there, he describes himself as “eclectically equipped”. This Do Lectures storify is a great illustration of the richness of his storytelling.

THE LESSON: I feel I should answer these questions twice. Once for those who have kids and to whom I’ll not sound like a cliche and once again for those that don’t. I thought after watching my first child born it would be hard for me to be amazed at anything else. I was wrong. Last week I witnessed the birth of my second child and it was as if I my eyes had been temporarily taken out and scrubbed clean. Any filters I had been growing over the last couple of years had once again been removed and my appreciation of things was once again set to “Wow!” The biggest lesson I learned in this last year was that you never need to cease to be amazed at the world around you and this amazement reflects in everything you do.

THE BURNING QUESTION: I’m a Social Technologist. That’s a pretentious title I’ve settled on in order to package my skill set. Mobile media making, blogging, talking, teaching, are all things I do to earn a crust. For me to survive as a freelancer, to keep innovating, I’m armed with all kinds of questions. I ask one question more than any other. What’s the next big thing? This burning question has stayed the same ever since I decided to diversify as a photographer. The only fluctuation is in the translation of the word ‘big”.  Big used to mean most popular or most adopted means of communicating effectively. It might still mean that, but more importantly, values like ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ are being added to the mix. I share, advise and educate in all forms of social technology and as a result am responsible for the message I propagate. When I look for the next big thing, I’m also aware that people in my field can easily become advocates of the things they share.

THE INSPIRATION: Apart from the birth of my little girl, the most inspiring thing I have seen this year was the virus like wonder that emanated from the Do Lectures. I go to hundreds of conferences but none came close to that spontaneous gathering in West Wales. You will see a number of articles online trying to fathom what it is that makes the Do Lectures so special as a meeting of minds, a sharing of ideas and a call to action. It’s quite simply the people. The journey they have been on and the journey they undertook to get to that place, at that time.

Inspiring people inspiring people. Who then headed out on their separate paths to do the same.


The design storyteller

Leonora Oppenheim- where to start? She’s one of them with many strings to her bow. One of which is Creative Data, which is all about experiential storytelling. Twang. Another one of which is Elio Studio, a design communications practice. Twang. And then there’s her journalism for Treehugger and Coolhunting. Twang. Twang. Twang. I’ve worked alongside Leonora and love the craft of her storytelling and the way she approaches journalism as design.

THE LESSON: Listening to my instinct without trying to rationalise it. I have a tendency to over analyse questions in both my professional and personal life. Something I’m working on is listening to what kind of feeling I’m getting from a situation. What is my instinct telling me? In the past I have often overridden a sense of unease because I couldn’t translate that feeling clearly in my mind. Now I realise I don’t need to intellectually understand why I do or don’t want to do something. Our instinctive reaction is inherent knowledge, so rather than ignoring it and getting myself into trouble, I’m listening. Basically I’m learning to say no, which is a pretty vital skill if you want to stay sane and healthy.

THE BURNING QUESTION: Scale. How much is enough? There are loud voices in the field of sustainability who are rightly concerned about the speed of change we’re achieving. We need to move faster, they say, to avoid global catastrophe. There is a current obsession with digital because of its ability to scale, but with Creative Data. I am swimming against the tide. Our physical and spatial exhibitions are designed to work at a local level reaching hundreds of people at a time, not millions. I’m pursuing this route in the belief that we need to work with communities to help people emotionally engage with the issues and understand how climate change will directly affect their own lives. My question is: how can Creative Data projects have a large-scale impact while still working on deeper personal engagement in future landscapes? How can the physical and digital work together in this context? Tom Uglow, head of Google Creative Labs EMEA, recently said that the future of digital is physical, which boosted my confidence and made me smile.

THE INSPIRATION: There are so many extraordinarily exciting projects happening out there, I am inspired daily. But with respect to my “burning question” I think a brilliant realisation of local creativity with global reach is the work of French street artist JR. Addressing the theme of identity he uses large-scale photography of local people on an architectural scale in their communities. He works guerilla style, without permissions or corporate sponsorship. It’s fast, radical and provocative spatial intervention which creates powerful emotional reactions and a sense of pride in place.  He won the TED prize this year for his Inside Out  project, which scales up his personal work, allowing anyone in the world to transform their own identity into a community artwork by sending them enormous posters of their own portraits. The quote below is from his TED talk and resonates very clearly with me about the purpose of Creative Data.

“Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world and create an energy. Actually the fact that art cannot change things, makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions and then enables you to change the world. What we see changes who we are. When we act together the whole thing is much more than the sum of the parts.”

The innovation jedi

Tom Farrand is a force of nature. He’s one of the incredible Pipeline Project team who are changing the way the communications industries change the world. I first came across Tom at one of his  Good For Nothing social innovation weekends, but it was on the long train journey west to The Do Lectures that we really got to chat. He was buzzing with his 50/50 project that has taken off like wildfire- 50 projects in 50 days to stop famine in Africa. Also on the conversational table: iron man contests, tarantulas and er, shower gel…

THE LESSON: It’s hard to pick out just one thing as I feel that I learnt more last year than I did in the previous 15 years of my working life. That’s mainly down to us hatching our own social mission called Good for Nothing a year ago and seeing where the energy and community that’s building around it, takes us.  A couple of things stand out – the first is that ‘by doing interesting things, interesting things happen to you’. We’ve deliberately tackled as many different challenges as possible in the shortest space of time and opened everything up to the community on the way. From a 4 hr gig with 50 D&AD students, to creating 50/50, a big global challenge to raise awareness and money for famine aid, to getting purposeful companies doing Good for Nothing, we’ve had a go at lots of stuff. The more we’ve put ourselves out there and tried things, the more new opportunities have opened up. The second big thing we’ve learnt is that ‘a demanding common task builds community’ –  by creating these focused social innovation challenges, and bringing together diverse people to solve them collaboratively, there’s a growing community of like-minded people on a similar mission who are starting to share their skills, time and experience to help each other. This new purposeful energy feels exciting and we hope it could lead to even more good stuff happening over time…

THE QUESTION: The big question that we’re asking ourselves is how to accelerate the pace of change towards a more sustainable way of living in the face of seemingly impossible resource constraints. We’re asking ourselves whether the way in which we work can change for the better to enable this – human energy, collaboration and experimentation, feel like a part of the answer. This is something we’re keen to build on, getting more diverse stakeholders working across siloes to solve the bigger issues in creative ways – with collaboration between business, government, 3rd sector and citizens. Our other burning question is how to build Jedi and rave influences into our new web platform in a meaningful way…..

THE INSPIRATION: The thing I’ve been most inspired by in the last year has been the Masters paper in Sustainability and Responsibility that fellow Jedi Dan Burgess has just finished at Ashridge Business School. It plots his story from being stuck in advertising feeling like there’s nowhere to go, to meeting and starting to work with us, to upping sticks with his young family to live in a treehouse in Costa Rica for a year, to changing the way he lives, works, sees and interacts with the world. The paper is based on the process of action learning which has become central to how we now work as a team. And on route he’s uncovered many amazing bits of wisdom in his reading about how we can be more connected to nature, live more creatively and consciously and learn from natural systems to make collaboration work. There’s an amazing book in the making right there….

The Marketoonist

Tom Fishburne left a dream job to follow his lifelong dream of being a cartoonist. A Harvard Business School grad, it didn’t take him long to realise that the cartooning industry was broken, with thousands of cartoonists clamouring for a tiny number of commissions. Take the New Yorker; apparently to even have your work considered you need to submit one cartoon a day, for a year. Then your submission will be one of 1000 that get considered every week, only 18 are chosen. In response, Tom developed the Marketoonist, a thriving business that develops cartoon-based marketing campaigns. Now he’s on a mission to reform the entire industry, by both developing new markets for cartoons, and by developing tech platforms (cartoon banks) that will enable cartoonists to license their back catalogue.

Tom taught me how to doodle and has seriously transformed my note-taking, but that’s another story. He literally put down his paints to chat on a freezing afternoon.

THE LESSON: The power of the tribe. I spent 10 years building my community. Anyone can build a tribe, even if you don’t think you have a reason for it.

THE QUESTION: Why do so many things launch that are mediocre? How do we close the gap between aims and reality? Why, so often, does the dream becomes watered down into the equivalent of apple sauce?

THE INSPIRATION: The Republic of Tea

The Pictureteller

Laura Brunow Miner is the founding editor of Pictory, an online photojournalism magazine that publishes big photographs grouped into stories. Anyone can submit one large, captioned image to each of Pictory’s editorial themes, from the moving, to the epic, to the stomach churning. In addition to her dayjob Laura also builds creative communities.  Inspired by Foo camp, the annual American hacker event hosted by publisher O’Reilly Media, she has established Phoot camp, an annual creative retreat for photographers, and Eat Retreat for leaders in the Food Community.

I met her at the 2011 Do Lectures where we talked, clutching cups of tea on a blustery Welsh afternoon. I loved her focus on catalysing creative communities, her philosophy of the more you give the less you feel you need to take & always asking “what can I bring to this situation?”

THE LESSON: impulse control. Like many designers, I’ve always had a tendency towards obsessiveness, but getting a puppy last winter has helped change that. When you watch your teenage dog fixate on something she’s not supposed to (creepily stalking another puppy or staring down the cats) and just pray that she’ll let it go, it teaches you a lot about your own behavior. It’s helped me move on really quickly from inevitable issues like personal conflicts, getting overly attached to plans, professional disappointments, etc. I’ve realized, “I don’t need to win, I just need to keep moving.”

THE QUESTION: “How do I find peace in a system that’s so broken? Or are we even supposed to?”I’m feeling especially unsettled lately by the amounts of consumption and pollution around us. It’s a tough issue everywhere, but especially for communities that don’t have the resources for things like city-wide composting, or even recycling. It feels daunting, but I think a personal step I can take is to focus on buying things second-hand or from small, trustworthy producers — even though it requires breaking my cycle of cheap clothing addiction!

THE INSPIRATION: I’ve gotten a lot out of Creative Mornings, the lecture series for creative professionals started by Tina Roth Eisenberg, and my favorite one is from super talented photographer and storyteller Andrew Zuckerman. In his talk, He shares stories of talking his way into getting to interview folks like Nelson Mandela, and how anyone can be a good interviewer if you’re genuinely curious about the other person.

The Queen of Campaigning

Rebecca Tarbotton is one of America’s most lethal environmental campaigners. She’s the Executive Director of San Francisco based RAN. The Wall Street Journal calls them the “most savvy environmental agitators in the business”. Treehugger calls them “a pack of jackals”, writing that “its campaigners jump on a target’s back and won’t get off until it submits”.  Whenever we’re in the same city at the same time, Becky and I set the world to rights over cocktails.

THE LESSON: This was my first full year as Executive Director of RAN, and for a good 6 months of the year, I felt as if I never ever had enough information to make good decisions. My predecessor and friend Mike Brune (who now runs the Sierra Club) said to me just as I was taking on the mantle of ED: “Everyone is now going to think you are smarter and funnier than you were before you were ED. Always remember, that you’re not”. I thought he was a little crazy at the time, but it’s been a huge lesson to realize that just by virtue of my position suddenly my opinion matters more (and apparently my jokes are way funnier too!). This was paralyzing for a while, until I realized that people don’t want to tap my expertise, but my thinking and my experience. I call it instinct, others call it strategy or analysis – whatever term you use, it’s not about knowing all the facts all the time, it’s about knowing what questions to ask.

THE QUESTION(S): This is pretty nerdy and in the weeds, but my big question right now is ‘how do we pivot from running great corporate campaigns that truly do affect the way corporations do business to tackling some of the deep systemic flaws in our economic system…without losing any of the sharpness that makes our campaigns so effective?’. RAN is great (I mean really really good) at running corporate campaigns that both pressure and inspire corporations to voluntarily address the environmental and human rights impacts of their business model. For example, we’ve convinced most of the big US banks to phase out financing Mountaintop Removal Mining, we’ve successfully gotten old growth timber off the shelves of the major home improvement stores and have won commitments from most of the major US publishers to demand paper that doesn’t destroy Indonesia’s natural forests. These are big wins, and they all address very real and urgent problems that need to be dealt with immediately. But how do we ensure that all these victories add up to more than the sum of their parts? How do we parlay them into systemic changes that not only fight the fires but also transform the system so that the fires aren’t an inevitability, part of the system design, but only an occasional occurrence (how’s that for a tortured metaphor?).

Another one: how to achieve scale without increasing size? The problems we’re facing (environmental, social) are enormous, but I rebel against the notion that we need to be bigger to be effective change agents. That said, we do need reach and impact and for that we certainly need to be of a scale equal to or bigger than our opponents. if the goal is to have a large scale and if that can be achieved through networks, how do we overcome the silo’s of organizational self-interest to collaborate effectively?

THE INSPIRATION: We gave Naomi Klein (author/activist) an award this year at our annual fundraising event. In her acceptance speech talking about the Occupy movement she said: “We are more popular than we ever imagined”…and she’s right.  The question is, what does it look like to start behaving that way?

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