Last Friday I was fortunate enough to attend the PSFK Conference 2017 in downtown Manhattan for a full day of speakers from all industries and professions giving presentations about ‘innovation with purpose.’ Rather than go through a list of the speakers, because you likely don’t know who most of them are, I’ve assembled the most interesting topics and subjects below. 

New Ways To Work

It wouldn’t be a PSFK conference without a big focus on how to work smarter and better than your clients and competitors. Jan Chipchase started the morning with a talk about his unique consulting firm that travels around the world to embed freelance strategists with local thinkers in unusual locations. Their ‘extreme research’ is for brands looking for insights into communities at the edge of the grid, where they set up live/work spaces with an emphasis on unstructured time and rituals, to allow a ‘flow’ state where everyone just works together harmoniously. Their unique methodology of allowing the time and space for good work to emerge certainly delivers quality results, better than the traditional work environment of offices, deadlines, emails and meetings.

Another speaker emphasized that ‘Good is the new Cool,’ which anyone who has done a Praytell Passion Project knows is absolutely true. Starting with the generally accepted belief that marketers and marketing are considered and consider themselves useless and meaningless, Bobby Jones helped us understand that today’s youth consider themselves, not government or brands, responsible for improving the world. So brands aren’t really doing anything helpful by releasing a yearly CSR PDF (as if anyone were fooled by that anyway) unless they also give young people tools to actualize what they consider their civic duty as citizens. He dangled before the audience a tantalizing slide, titled ‘How To Make Money & Do Good By Harnessing The Power Of Cool’ which you can see below (apologies for potato quality):

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Similarly, Aria Finger of spoke about how she helps brands do social good and boost their bottom line with youth marketing. Through a series of case studies, she identified a few key elements of successful social good youth campaigns; Be honest and apologetic if you mess up, insert a sense of urgency or limited time, make any messaging as 1:1 as possible, and ‘Fight For the User.’ This last point is important, as we all spend a lot of time thinking about what we want young people, fans and consumers to do, while we should focus on what they want.

A kind of meta approach to ways to work came from a cannabis industry guy, Derek McCarty, whose mission is to recontextualize cannabis and effectively alter the ‘truth’ around it. This is perhaps the highest, biggest, most audacious goal of any marketer; to change nation-wide beliefs about something traditionally taboo, so you can sell it. He started with an epistemological discussion about the nature of truth, and made some good points. What we as a culture have considered good or not good for you has changed radically over the past several decades, and continues to do so today. So he wants to create a ‘new truth’ around cannabis that is healthy, welcoming and inviting, to combat the very strong propaganda from the 30’s that still sticks in people’s minds. They approached this problem using product design, by making their product look, feel and be used exactly like any modern medication. That means creating a scientific, highly controlled experience focused on molecules rather than strains, relying on the technical (but still accessible) language of medicine instead of the common language used around cannabis. They seem to have done a pretty good job of reshaping truth though design.

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New Ways To Create

A big part of PSFK in general is being inspirational and helping creativity. There were a couple speakers from whom we can pull some ideas from when ideating and brainstorming, such as Morgan Spurlock, also know as the guy who barfed in Super Size Me. I thought he would be a nice match for any future social good documentaries we at Praytell might make, as he is launching a new studio called HOWL specifically for that purpose. While he did go over the basic brand storytelling stuff like ‘stand out and be helpful’ and ‘sell me an interesting story, not a product’, he also said ‘own your derivative space’. What that means is if you make something successful, you should be the one taking advantage of derivations, fast followings and next steps from it. The example he gave of ‘owning derivative impact’ was after he learned that Super Size Me was popular in schools and widely admired by students, he didn’t wait to make an educational edit of the movie specifically for teachers to show in class.

Another presentation made a very interesting connection between concept cars and food. Mike Lee, a food product designer, wondered why the car industry has whole teams and budgets for imagining concept cars and scenarios that will never come true, but the food industry doesn’t. Where are the dreamers and better tomorrows in food? Naturally he took it upon himself to do this with ‘Future Market’, a concept grocery store to look at the future of food and inspire ideas and innovation in the industry. His primary methodology is ‘amplifying weak signals’ to create a fully fleshed out concept product to explore its impact and disruption. For example, a ‘weak signal’ he worked with was those microbiome testing kits you can get to see what’s up your gut bacteria; he amplified that to come up with a machine pill that measures your microbiome daily, which transmits the information to a yogurt company that creates custom cultures made specifically for you. That would be a huge disruption to the yogurt and health industries.

There are two formats of talks at the conference. The keynotes, which are 20-30 minutes, and updates, that run around 5 minutes. One update was from Rohit Bhargava, a trendwatcher and marketing professor whose book is on my desk if you’d like to take a look. He reminded us to be discontent, and remain discontent, in order to stay innovative and ahead of consumers. A great way to do this is to get outside of your bubble, the famous Facebook bubble of 2016 election fame, by just going to a magazine store anywhere and buying a magazine that is clearly not targeted to you. Read it, and see how people with radically different interests and beliefs think and what they care about. A simple tip to shake things up.

Inspirational Tech and Products

One of the best parts of the PSFK Conference is all the cool new shit you get to learn about. It’s amazing to see the kinds of things that seem boring on paper but really come to life when presented by the people who love it (kind of like a 20 page New Yorker piece about cement or cabinets or something). Christina Agapakis of Ginkgo Bioworks is one such person. She is building a platform to design biology for other industries, like brewed spider silk for shoes or vat-grown leather for coats. Imagining biology as a tech platform that you can design and innovate on top of allows for not only immediately practical biotech, but helps frame the way you think about people culture; like what would happen if we could see the microbiome of bacteria that lives on our skin? How would culture and rituals change? How would our identities change? Is our microbiome already our wearable tech?  Would you eat cheese made from bacteria growing on your feet? (It’s the same species that makes stinky cheese and stinky feet). How does thinking about poop as technology change how and what we eat? How can we domesticate microbes for energy production and to replace home appliances?

While we were still pondering these strange questions Agapakis had considered, Clare Jones of what3words took the stage and said she wants to ‘change the way the world is addressed.’ That is, mailing addresses. Sounds fairly dull at first, a startup about snail mail and physical addresses and maps. But what3words has covered the entire globe with 57 trillion 3 meter by 3 meter squares and gave each a unique 3 word address. This has made it incredibly easy for anyone, anywhere, to say where they are. This might not seem like a big deal in North America or Europe, but addresses and maps are easy to get wrong in areas with similar street names. You often don’t know if you’ve gotten it wrong in a map app or GPS until you’ve ended up in the wrong place (Church St vs Church Ave, for example). And it’s even more frustrating in the 75% of the world where addresses or accurate maps just don’t exist. 4 billion people don’t have an address.

Built from the ground up for GPS voice control, what3words was made to revolutionize maps, directions and addresses in a human-friendly way. Now that the whole world is mapped, their API plays nice with nearly any other kind of device or system so people can simply say “undershirts.memo.resizing” and everyone will know that you’re in the middle of the Libyan desert. Most remarkably, Mongolia and 6 other nations have now adopted what3words as their official addressing system, so all their citizens who have lived their whole lives without addresses or regular mail have started receiving parcels and letters for the first time.


A Day To Remember

There’s only so much content from a 7-hour conference that you can recap. There were many emotional, moving stories shared on stage such as Coss Marte’s story of how he started ConBody, Ji Lee’s account of how Instagram brought his grumpy grandpa close to the family, and Scott Bedbury’s call to action for marketers to fight for truth and transparency. We also got an update from the creator of the Drone Racing League, which has exploded in the past year from nothing to a national TV viewership in the millions, outpacing broadcast e-sports.

The purpose of this conference isn’t to get specific insights or takeaways that will help you immediately with a certain client or problem. It’s not a results-driven business conference that shares workflow optimizations, business tricks or methodologies. That would be incredibly boring. What it does provide is inspiration, fresh thinking and innovation in a large dose, to help people like you or I who are ‘stuck’ in the day to day of doing our jobs to get out of our boxes and think in new ways. Hopefully some of the ideas above have sparked a thought that you can apply to your life or work.

Please let me know if you have any questions or would like additional details about any of the speakers or topics.