The Inspire Conference: Themes, Takeaways and Why I Care

I was lucky enough to be at the inaugural Inspire Conference that took place in London earlier this week. Over two days, some of the most influential and inspiring experts in technology, entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity (many of whom spoke at TED many times,) took to the stage and attempted to inspire the audience.

And inspire they did.

In this post, I'll cover my experience in three parts: Main Themes, Takeaways and Why Do I Care.

MAIN THEMES

There were four main themes that stood out for me at this conference: Social Entrepreneurship, Innovation in Emerging Markets, Simplicity, and Gamification.

Social Entrepreneurship

The vast majority of the speakers advocated the use of innovation and tech talent to promote a better world. "Social Entrepreneurship" was definitely a strong theme here.

There was a dedicated panel on "the next generation of change in society," in which Shakil Khan of Spotify relayed a story of a little boy in Africa that when asked what can Khan do for or give him answered:

I want your empty water bottle so I can pick up runoff water from the street on my long walk to school. All the boys have bottles, but I don't.

The story's profound impact was palpable in the room. It succeeded in putting things into perspective and in giving the audience a sense of what social entrepreneurship could do.

Iris Lapinski of Apps for Good. There was also the great work done by Iris Lapinski of Apps for Good. The work her company does is absolutely inspiring. She made a plea to all the innovators in the audience to think about what their efforts bring to society and how they could do better.

Then there was Ushahihi. The African startup co-founded by Erik Hersman is truly "changing the world, one map at a time." The idea came out of a need to give voice to Kenyans during their elections and ended up getting used during the Haiti Relief effort, BP Oil Spil, the Arab Spring and the Libyan crisis.

Ushahidi's simplicity is astounding. It's a mashup: text messages + geolocation + Google Maps = Ushahidi. It's a platform that could be and has been used for anything. Someone in the audience tweeted that Ushahidi is perfect for neighborhood watches. I tweeted back, "great idea!" The power of the simple platform was undeniable.

My favorite talk on "social entrepreneurship" was by Ann Cotton of CamFed International. She talked about "building a governance model around values." She's not only a great storyteller, but her passion and conviction about giving an opportunity to those that are excluded from it by way of gender, race, nationality, color or socioeconomic status shone bright on stage.

She relayed a story about a Zimbabwean girl whose precocity, self-confidence and intellect were noted during a meeting with a CamFed board member, who asked the girl after being impressed by her wits, "what do you want to do when you grow up?" She answered back with humble confidence, "I want to be a lawyer." He assured her, "you will make an exceptional lawyer."

That girl would have been pregnant at 12 and fighting to survive had she not been in the care of CamFed.

Jolitics, a political networking site, is another example of smart people getting together to try to disrupt the world for the good of the world.

These are just some of the highlights that stressed the importance of use our talents to make the world a better place.

Innovation in Emerging Markets

Maybe the reason this stood out for me as a theme was the fact that we don't see much of it in the States. As I mentioned earlier, Ushahidi is an African innovation that has and continues to play a critical role in empowering people all over the world, including some in the Western world. Such innovation is another testament to the "increasing flatness of our world," a US Government spokeswoman said in a clip played on stage.

There was also talk about impressive Indian innovation in Cricket, Consumer Products and Space (yes, Space!) Putting the consumer first, Indian entrepreneurs are innovating ways to deliver products to people in ways that fit their lifestyles and needs. Selling cheap, just-in-time consumable goods was one of those ways to penetrate a market that traditionally wasn't consuming much.

Simplicity

Alex Ljung Simple is intuitive. Simple is easy, and Simple is the key to lasting innovation. This message was evident in Alex Ljung talk about SoundCloud and the power of the "REC" button. Also, Ushahidi was all about simplicity.

Jolitics' Michael Birch talked a bit about limiting users to 140 character to express their proposals on the site. That proven simplicity has worked well for Twitter and Birch is betting on it working for Jolitics.

Gamification

Using game theory in business is something that's been talked about often lately. Gabe Zichermann is a major advocate of Gamification and the man behind the Gamification Submit. He wasnt at the conference but you should check out one of his talks when you get a chance; he's a very effective speaker.

Back to the conference 🙂

Tom Chatfield, a TED veteran, spoke at the conference about "predicting the next innovation cycle via play and leisure." He made an excellent point that was later indirectly corroborated by Aza Raskin: people spend most of their time "playing" because an essential part of playing is having a feedback loop that in turn releases dopamine in their bodies and make them feel good about themselves.

The reason games are engaging is because of that feedback loop. People spend thousands of hours on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare because these experiences offer them a feedback loop that's satisfying. It's the unexpected "like" or "comment" you get on your status updates on Facebook. It's also the chance of someone mentioning you on Twitter or retweeting one of your tweets. It's the chance to unlock an unknown badge on foursquare and see your name on a leaderboard.

All these are examples of a reward system that effectively releases dopamine in the consumer's body. That effect makes people come back in search for that hit of dopamine again and again and again.

Raskin is attempting to find that feedback loop in the healthcare vertical in order to disrupt it.

TAKEAWAYS

There were countless takeaways at this conference, but a few stayed with me:

  • Transparency is key to all successful business ventures: this point has been talked about in Open Leadership by Charlene Li and Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. Transparency isn't only good for business and shows integrity. It's now expected by the consumer.
  • If you need to explain to the user how to use your product, you have done someone wrong: Simplicity is what made Twitter take off: 140 characters. That's it. A lasting innovation is a simple innovation.
  •  Value is subjective, relative and contextual: Rory Sutherland's talk about Behavioral Economics was a great eye opener for me. Every business should ask themselves this question: what's the value of my offering and why should anyone care.
  • We make up our attitudes to explain our actions: Another one of Rory's insights. You want to change someone's attitude toward your brand? Change the actions they make in the context of your brand.
  • Feedback Loop can make or break your business: keeping page load times low makes consumers happy. Increase page load times and no one visits your site in time. China has artificially slowed down certain sites like Facebook to make people hate to be on them and eventually abandon them. It's more effective than blocking the site all together in which case the consumer will want it even more and will find ways to get access to it.
  • Don't think outside the box. Find the right box and think within it: a great insight from Raskin about identifying the "right" problem before jumping into solving a problem that's in your head. When I asked him about his thoughts on Design Thinking, he said, "Design Thinking is stepping back and trying to identify the right problem." Once that problem is identified, figure out the constraints you need to operate within to resolve that problem. That's your box.
  • If you're not disrupting, you are iterating. If you're iterating, you will be disrupted: a profound takeaway that made me think hard about what we do everyday. Apple's first iPhone disrupted the mobile industry. All the iPhones that followed iterated on top of that first disruption. Will Apple be disrupted in the phone space? How many site redesigns, mobile apps, Facebook apps, and so on do we need to create to realize that we are only iterating and not disrupting. It's also important to remember that disruption doesn't have to be something so complicated. Ushahidi is a mashup service and it's very disruptive. Twitter is the same thing.
  • We need to fit technology into our lives, not the other way around: Oblong's g-speak disruptive innovation that was featured in Minority Report is a perfect example of that. We are tactile beings, therefore, pixels should be virtually tactile as well.
  • Empathy leads to Success: Rory Sutherland's observation that most of Al-Qaeda's masterminds hold an engineering degree was mind-blowing. Most engineers aren't empathetic, he reasons, which means that most engineers aren't capable of understanding how to release dopamine in the consumer. Behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists or just a smart empathetic people in your company can do that with ease and a smile.
  • Persistence is more important than passion: That's why most startups have at least two co-founders: the crazy idea guy/gal who's fired up about ideas all the time and the man/woman that keeps them focused, engaged and persistent. I know first hand how to be both. I get it.
  • The Future is in Disruption: Future business models are based on transparency, P2P, offline to online. The future isn't about iterating. It's about disrupting.
  • Data needs to be computable: Conrad Woldram's talk was by far one of the most impressive at the conference. He unveiled CDF (Computable Data Format) which I think will change information sharing and research.
  • Angry Bird and The Adjacent Possible: Peter Vesterbacka, founder of Angry Birds, developed games in Java for years but it wasn't until the iPhone came out that he got his break. Steven Johnson talks about that concept in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From." He calls it the Adjacent Possible. He uses YouTube as an example: if YouTube was created in 1999, it would have failed miserably. The reason it was a huge success in 2005 was because broadband connections were common, consumers expected to consume videos on the Internet and the fact that consumers had the ability to shoot and upload their own videos. All these factors are called, the "adjacent possible."

WHY DO I CARE

I have started to develop a passion for Open Government after hearing Tim O'Reilly's keynote at the Velocity Conference in 2009. Empowering the electorate is a field ripe for disruption. Jolitics and Ushahidi are admirable efforts, but more needs to be done. The taxpayer, the voter is in desperate need for some dopamine love! 

Social entrepreneurship doesn't have to be at odds with commercial entrepreneurship. I believe they can compliment each other, which in the end will only increase the dopamine levels for everyone involved.

Also the distinction between disruption and iteration, which Tim Wu talks about in his Master Switch book, made me think deeply about what I do everyday. Most companies don't articulate a grand goal or unwilling to take meaningful risks to achieve it. Therefore we end up iterating instead of really disrupting. How do you break out of that?

I was watching Jack Welch last night on CNN talking about the importance of a "grand vision." I think a grand vision that's well articulated and communicated passionately to everyone in the company can only be a disruptive vision.

Disruption isn't going to come from engineering or product people. Disruption will be brought on by thought leaders that are 1) empathetic and 2) are able to inspire others. Those thought leaders may happen to be engineers or product managers, but they could also be anyone in the company.

It's not about the technology. It's about the vision. And vision is what I care about. If you can't dream it, it won't happen.

Thank you all for inspiring me. I'll see you next year!

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