Having maintained a small-town, rural values-based architectural practice for almost 20 years, I was caught by surprise when I first heard of the Purpose conference back in 2016. Perhaps you get used to the loneliness of inhabiting the fringe, or maybe just comfortable with your own cynicism, that companies care more about money more than anything bigger, anything human or environmental. In 2016 I was too busy to attend at such short notice, and for that same reason, didn’t think much more about it.
In 2018, becoming aware of the third Purpose Conference, I was slightly more on the ball, but this time short of cash as well as time. The conference organisers Wildwon were generous enough to heavily discount a ticket for me... awesome. I’m writing this short review to thank them.
With themes on topics including humanity, the intersection of technology and people, adaptation, and how business could be a focus for change, this event reflects the same conversations and concerns we have in our office, around the dinner table and with people we care about. With the current blistering speed of change, who isn’t talking about this stuff? Purpose 2018 offered the opportunity to see what else was happening out there, and to share our own journeys and struggles. I’m never going to be able to do justice to the quantity of passionate, amazing and inspiring presentations, but here are a few of the experiences that have made an impression on me...
The spirit of infectious optimism that wove its way through the conference was elegantly kicked off by the legendary Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown” presentation. I had missed his whirlwind tour so far, so was pleasantly surprised to see the comprehensiveness of his teams detailed analysis of how to reverse some of the damage we have done to the atmosphere. Of the 100 detailed steps modelled by Paul and his team, slowing down population growth through family planning alongside empowering women in developing countries combine to have the greatest measurable effect on the world. Paul didn’t let industrialised societies (who, after all, have created most of this mess) off the hook either, and their plan, the only plan for reversing climate change, needs to be taken seriously.
Many more presentations followed, with something like 70 speakers, some very familiar and some less so. A strong theme, exemplified by Andy Marks from ABC’s War On Waste and Stuart Anderson, inventor of the Flowhive, was the power of a simple infectious idea once the public imagination is captured. Many creative ways of companies and campaigns have been able to achieve this were presented, with the take home message being to keep trying, and to expect more failure than success.
Trust was another pertinent theme, exploring the loss of trust, the things we need to make decisions about whom or which companies we trust, and the idea of a “trust pause”, thinking before we act, when we make choices about who or what to trust. But the image I can’t get out of my head is Rachel Botsman, author of Who can you Trust describing her grey haired and bespectacled, impeccably referenced nanny, dealing drugs and doing armed robberies using the family’s silver Volvo as a getaway car.
Of course there were things that could be improved upon. It was a fast-moving conference, and at times I wondered if the sheer number of speakers, plus the panel format made it all a bit too massive at the expense of depth. The in-vogue panel format is popular and engaging, but it inhibits second and third questions to deepen a topic, and is a reflection on our fast-paced, short attention-span world. Nevertheless, many presenters were able to demonstrate this depth, and show where people could look further to find out more.
The most worrying thing, on reflection, was a slide presented in the first minutes by Paul Hawken showing greenhouse gas levels, back through the ice ages, off into the distant past. When we add all the gases (not just carbon dioxide) humans have spewed up into the atmosphere, the slide showed that we are clearly on an unknown journey, yet the upbeat nature of the conference didn’t venture any closer to the harsh realities that this slide presented. All this action we are talking about will most likely have to happen in the face of a visceral, urgent and ultimately unknowable crisis, because our choices have already set that into motion.
The purpose 2018 venue “commune” was an interesting choice, skirting the line between cool and shabby, whilst avoiding the hypocrisy of other sustainability conferences, which are generally held in fancy (and totally unsustainable) air-conditioned hotels (inviting an orgy of consumption). This former Porters Paints factory, complete with its dusty sense of enduring weariness seemed like an appropriate place to discuss how we address the myriad problems of human impact on the earth... we need to re-purpose what we have. Fortunately the Sydney weather was relatively benign (only one presenter passed out) and the toilets held out for most of the conference without becoming too fruity. The food and drinks provided were high quality, fresh and healthful, supplied by values-driven businesses; tick.
Tools and the invasiveness of technology were a big conversation. Joost Schouten of Yanomo, Nestr.Io was able to quickly set up some simple and effective tools for distinguishing between culture spaces and decision-making spaces inside companies to allow for better management. But it was Dominic Price from Atlassian who nailed it with one of his many funny/serious quips “fools with tools”, underlining the fact that technology without ethics or purpose merely will allow us to do the things we do more effectively... like destroy the world faster.
Finally, we learned among many things that no effective campaign is missing “a call to action”, an invitation for the listener, reader, or the watcher to do something themselves. It’s a good place to leave you with a question or two about where we might go from here. Socially, environmentally, economically, and in terms of your impact on the world, “How would you describe the purpose of your business?” And more importantly, in the words of Jan Owen CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, “what sort of world are you going to create?”