22nd EBN Annual Congress – Derry London Derry – May 2013

Ah ha I’m posting when inspired rather than reflective – Yay!

I’m a reasonably regular conference goer.  As a rule you come away having met few interesting new folk, listened to a couple of interesting seminars or sessions and attended a boozy gala dinner.  Business incubation/support/innovation conferences tend to follow a well-established format and can be quite mundane, asking the same questions, exploring each other’s programs and best practice or acquainting ourselves with new funding streams.

However, the folks at NORBIC (Northern Ireland Business & Innovation Centre) and EBN (European Business & innovation Centre Network) have managed to pull off a rarity in conferences – something inspiring, something provocative enough to cause debate and make us all think, think honestly and deeply. AND they presented their City of Culture astonishingly well. I have rarely enjoyed a “work” event as much.

The theme ‘Just say YES’ to innovation, collaboration, inspiration and education was itself inspired by the video that won Derry London Derry its City of Culture status.  You can (and should) watch it  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAdeXkZZLiU&feature=share&list=FLbDPj2lANf0OPWnF8i6rddg

The showcasing of local creative and artistic talent can be a dangerous thing but this event managed to expose us to music, dance and images that re-enforced the point being made in, dare I say, quite a beautiful and moving way.  The language of the speakers included words such as creativity, honesty, authenticity, value, vibrancy and, admittedly, quite a few expletives … well from the Brits anyway!  Sir Tim Smit’s final word was “hope” something that resonated with me as I have it tattooed on my left wrist.  This was not the language of most business conferences.

I’d really like to know who thought of and secured the speakers.  At first glance an exciting but also very eclectic bunch: Steve Wozniak co-founder of Apple, Sir Tim Smit KBE co-founder of the Eden Project, Ben Southworth Deputy CEO of Tech City and Dr Richard Florida author (amongst other things) of the controversial “Rise of the Creative Class”.

Headline speaker Steve Wozniak (whom I met J ) kicked off with a techy, futuristic talk that boiled down to a tale of his deep desire to make a difference.  To create a better world.  Not to design a load of pretty and cool tech products that made a fortune but to constantly innovate, to constantly do things that other people thought was impossible.

His comments on education and academic intellect verses thinking, working things out and “doing” were thought provoking and somewhat reminiscent of Sir Ken Robinson.  He is a lovely, humorous, terribly clever guy (odd that … not) who wants to see “centres were people are given enough supplies & tools to be able to work and develop their products” and believes that these are vital to continued innovation.  See most of the highlights of his talk and his technology wish list at Alan in Belfast’s blog http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/the-woz-in-derry-curiosity-social.html

Sir Tim Smit KBE co-founder of the Eden Project came next.  If I confess that his was the most entertaining session, would you hate me?  Whilst it was something of an honour to listen to and meet Steve Wozniak, Sir Tim challenged, amused and entertained in an entirely different way.  The man is a natural raconteur.  Lines like “Some open mines should be closed for repair” and “I believe in lying, the telling of future truths” elicited laughs with almost all of us jotting down some points from his “Monkey Business” manual, the Eden Project HR rules and governance which included saying hello to everyone every morning and learning to play the drums.

The Tinkerbell Theory was priceless.  Get three people believing in something and it will come true.  Perhaps this is a great reason to stop reading the tabloid.  Perhaps when we read that we’re about to hit a “triple-dip recession” it only happens because we all believe it will – our herd mentality was further explored and probed by Ben Southworth much to the dismay of many!

For me one of the outputs from Sir Tim’s session will be less meetings.  I may even only have them with those I don’t know after his comments regarding the “magic that is made by meeting the people you didn’t know you needed to meet”.  By those serendipitous collisions that sometimes change lives.  I’m also going to implement his “you can have 5 minutes now or an hour in 4 weeks time” rule.  How wonderful it would be for us all? How productive,to reduce the length of time we spend in meetings which could often be distilled down to “I need this….  You can help by….”? Seriously, how much more time would you have in your day?

Again though, the session boiled down to being honourable.  Doing things because they are the right thing to do. Changing lives for the better.  Whilst the theme may have been social enterprise, it was really more of if we want the world to be a better place, we have to get up and change it ourselves, find the impetus to do so.  Embrace local buying, embrace your community, do things for others.

When fund raising for the project Sir Tim was asked what his exit strategy was and his response was “death”.  How many of us have this as our first question when performing needs analysis for our clients?  Since NZ and the earthquakes I’ve actually been more inclined to ask people what they hope to achieve and I prefer to work with those who have a more complex answer than “money”.  There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with starting up a business to earn lots of money but there is infinitely more value when starting one up because you are passionate about making a difference.

Ben Southworth Deputy CEO of Tech City got what is ordinarily the worst session of the day.  That one straight after lunch where most delegates have entered the auditorium with either colleagues or some interesting person they met over lunch and continue to chat.  It’s usually hard to get an audience to listen during this session which may have been why Ben was so very provocative though, in all honesty, I hope that he’s just as opinionated and bullish in “real life” it would be a huge disappointment to find that it was all simply to keep us awake.

Interestingly, although Sir Tim told us that “Meetings are death” and to “Kill negative people. They’re alien spawn & they want to kill your dreams” it was Ben’s comments that angered some.  Not only were we told that we (and by we I mean the whole human species not just us in the audience) were stupid but that “We have changed the world and yet all we do is post pictures of cats on Facebook”.  I think many got lost in the rhetoric and missed the point which was simply – look how bloody good we are at stuff, look at how we can build and create things and yet look at how much time we waste on the unimportant.  His comments about Facebook were taken badly but honestly why?  Why, because we had all been caught out.  How many of us has the cutest picture that we can find of ourselves as our profile picture?  I have.  How many of us spend time “like”ing all manner of crap.  I agree with him despite debating his session with the lovely Mr Ian Underdown and Mr Tom Strodtbeck – we can all be guilty of “herd mentality” surely that’s why we almost “tipple-dipped” – because the Daily Mail told us we would.  Actually I still blame the Daily Mail and its “the nation is going to hell in a handcart” attitude for my ill-fated emigration to New Zealand! LOL!

I loved Ben but maybe that’s because I’m currently reading Alain de Bottom’s “Religion for Atheists” which takes the position that we’re flawed and inclined to be lazy, gluttonous and greedy etc (amongst other such vices) hence the need for all that religion offers with regard to creating an utopian community, the virtues of tolerance, forgiveness, charity etc but without God and the supernatural.  Like the speakers at EBN there are some priceless lines but its not exactly easy-reading!  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Religion-Atheists-non-believers-guide-religion/dp/0241964059

Ben challenged us to have more meaningful conversations, to learn to code, to innovate ourselves in order to be able to innovate our businesses.  While striding across the stage looking like a cross between a Rockabilly and an Amish fellow with his perfect quaff and natural-look big beard, he appealed to us to engage, to commit to action rather than “sit and tweet the apocalypse” with regard to the challenges we are facing here in the UK and across the globe.

The final session of the day was Dr Richard Florida professor, editor, writer – generally very intelligent guy who preferred the use of words such as “holy moly” rather than the expletives used by the Brits.

Theories on the “Creative Class” and his honesty with regard to the realisation that all of his earlier work had been flawed was refreshing.  His ideas for the necessary ingredients of an innovative place being talent, tolerance and technology were eloquently delivered and I think we were all somewhat amused at his slight attack on his critics.  The Creative Class, those who create for a living (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_class) are, he states critical to the economy and its recovery.  After WWII they made up c5% of the US workforce but now almost 30%. Creatives are those that drive change, that drive innovation and do these things because of passion, the love of it (whatever “it” is) and the benefit of it to others.  Again the same theme that echoes the other speakers and the other book I’m reading which I’d also recommend, Chris Guillebeau’s “$100 Start-up” http://www.amazon.co.uk/100-Startup-Fire-Your-Better/dp/023076651X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1370119168&sr=1-1&keywords=%24100+start+up

The sessions ended with a fabulous rendition of Snow Patrol’s “Just say Yes” by a local choir and the day by an excellent Gala dinner complete with all manner of local musicians, local whiskey and lots of dancing.  All in all a fabulous day and one that NORBIC and EBN should be proud of.

Talks from the 22nd EBN Annual Congress – Derry London Derry – May 2013 can be found at: