March 29, 2012

Innovators in Shoreditch: Interview with Ben Beaumont-Thomas

I recently attended a really great event at The Book Club ran by a group called Future Human. They are innovators and creative types who come up with so many cool ideas and points of view on the latest trends. Ben Beaumont-Thomas is one of the guy’s behind the scenes at FH who is a journalist by trade for publications such as Wired and the Guardian, and did an awesome presentation which lead me to stalk him afterwards and demand an interview. Here it is….

E: At Future Human, you describe yourselves as a “theatre of innovation”. For the readers who aren’t familiar with the awesome things Future Human do, could you tell us what it’s all about?

B: Future Human is a monthly salon at The Book Club in Shoreditch, where we explore the ideas, innovations and people that are reshaping the way we live. We’ve covered a huge range of topics in the twenty events we’ve done so far, taking in pressing concerns across the creative industries, financial services, science and technology, the green economy and more – one month it’ll be looking at the responses to dwindling oil reserves, the next we’ll explore crowd sourced filmmaking, but it’ll always be looking at the actual projects and real significant changes that are going on, rather than vaguely postulating on where we’re all heading. As well as presentations and interactive games, we have a panel of special guests who debate the topic of the evening – the audience can ask questions throughout, and contribute via a big-screen Twitter feed. Our guests have included the likes of Grammy-winning music producer Paul Epworth, David Cameron’s innovation tsar Eric Van Der Kleij, Bafta-winning documentary filmmaker Amelia Hann, solar energy entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett, sex blogger Zoe Margolis, and Graham Linehan, the creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd. We want to break down the sometimes starchy atmosphere of traditional lectures, and instead create a vibrant, irreverent but constructive style of debate.

E: The ‘Gaming Normal’ event was very informative and so were the panellists. Although it was interesting to see how gaming can aid learning and play a role in the workplace, do you think it is making people less social?

B: I wouldn’t say so – the rise of mobile gaming alongside online gaming via traditional consoles and PCs, as well as explicitly communal consoles like the Wii, has meant that we think of videogames as being much more social than they once were. They create spaces for people to mass and be social in, and I don’t think that they’ll erode the natural human inclination towards sociability in the flesh as well; indeed, some games on smartphones are taking the traditional videogame and meshing it with our physical environment.

E: You guys post a Future Human podcast month, discussing things from storytelling, music and data journalism. Where do you find the inspiration behind these and how do you stay ahead of the trends?

B: The podcasts follow up on the events – inevitably there are areas of discussion we don’t get to go down during the event, so we use to podcast to revisit some of the issues in more detail. In terms of staying ahead of trends, it’s good to just keep an eye on the ideas being batted around somewhere like Shoreditch, which has a lot of innovative people working on often quite experimental projects. Read around areas you’re not used to, follow people on Twitter you don’t agree with – the best ideas come out of friction with something you’re not used to.

E: What upcoming Future Human events should we all be looking out for?

B: Our next event is on April 11, called Grok Design – we’ll be exploring the intermingled design intelligence that’s revolutionising business. ‘Grok’ is a word that’s used to describe an intimate understanding between separate parties. We’re exploring how it can be used as a lesson in design, borne off how Apple ‘groks’ its design process by having engineers work alongside strategy, marketing, branding, and product design teams throughout the process of developing the likes of the iPad, rather than have each team siloed away from one another. It’s a pretty radical way of approaching design, but could potentially transform everything from consumer electronics to financial services. We’ve got Deyan Sudjic of the Design Museum, James Moed of IDEO, and industrial designer Samuel Wilkinson on the panel, and designer Dominic Wilcox will be helping the audience come up with their own ‘grokked’ products live on the night.

Then on May 9, we have Destructive Innovation, which will look at how innovation in economics and technology can actually stifle growth, by replacing human-performed jobs with automated services, and therefore undermining our ability to create wealth and continue to innovate. The nature of new digital businesses like Facebook and Twitter means that they’re drawing down staggering amounts of cash, but employing relatively few people; we’re potentially seeing a drastic new kind of income inequality, and the impact of that on society and general happiness means that it’s a topic we really need to keep an eye on. But as ever, we’re optimistic that we can reconfigure innovation to carry on enfranchising people rather than stifling them – laments at something not being the way we want it to be don’t make for inspiring or interesting events!

E: What brands do you think are stealing the social media limelight when it comes to building innovative interactive campaigns?

B: I don’t work in advertising and don’t pay close attention to individual ad campaigns, but as a general rule I’d say it all depends on whether a brand is giving something people actually want through their campaign. One way is probably to make people laugh, or give them a story they care about – a difficult task when people are already wary of being sold to, and might find the whole endeavour inauthentic. People within the brand may well have drunk the company Kool-Aid and assume that everyone out there loves them and wants to interact with them – but most people don’t care, and will want something very tangible out of the bargain, be it entertainment, status, or monetary reward. Of course, if you have integrity and create brilliant and meaningful products, then people will want to interact with you, and there’s no faking that.

E: Do you have any advice for students or young workers in the industry who have ‘big ideas’ but don’t know how to put them into action?

B: Again, meet with people who don’t work in your particular industry, and expose yourself to new business models and new ways of working. Network at places like Future Human! Seriously, it’s a confluence of skills that can cause ideas to take off, and your cosy peer group might not be the best place for that Ask those who have made it for advice; research the investors who already have interest in your field. Many of our guests at Future Human have used crowdfunding to great effect – by tapping into a pool of interested parties and asking them for funding, you can put yourself in a financially advantageous position.

E: Many small office spaces stifle creativity. How would you best go about hosting a creative brainstorming session at Future Human?

B: I’m no expert in management theory, though I can call on some interesting research here done by one of our former panel guests, Caneel Joyce, who has explored the conditions for effecting creativity. She says that for a successful brainstorming session, you need to get everyone talking at once at the beginning – direction and tone can be shaped by one or two dominant speakers, and sent down a single route, when you really want all sorts of avenues to open up. Then find some common ground that everyone’s agreed on, and hone that; tell the group that they can come back to the problem later so they feel valued, but inevitably no-one will ask to go back. Joyce suggests limiting what people can then talk about – restricting the conversation to focus on one element before opening it back up again. Also, brainstorming is useless if no-one is prepared – brainstorm ideas alone, then fire them off others in a subsequent group meeting.

E: And finally, because I have to; what’s your favourite thing about Shoreditch?

B: It has to be the unique mix of creative companies alongside technology innovators – you’ve got people making beautiful art across all media, alongside the people who are going to bring that culture to the masses via new services. It’s that mix that really drives innovation in the area, and which hopefully won’t be stifled by potential Manhattanisation’ – rising rents and an overbearing City of London homogenising the area, and turning the melting pot into a neater, blander vessel. Fingers crossed for Shoreditch staying weird!


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