The definition of ‘progressive business’ is constantly evolving. In the showdown between start-up culture and big business, it occupies the space in between – asking how we can restore equitability, humanity and social justice at a time of accelerated technological change. The organisations to survive this new era will be the ones that bring these values deeply into their culture, and learn to innovate by empowering their employees, suppliers and customers.
There are few better examples of the progressive business ‘scene’ than Brighton’s annual Meaning conference, which excels in bringing tech start-ups, social enterprises, and public services into conversation. Over the last few years that I’ve attended the conference, it has never failed to impress with its ability to anticipate the most important trends for a post-growth future. In the run up to this year’s event, I’ve been talking to its speakers about the conference highlights – and reflecting on the most important pressure points for change in 2017.
Freelancer co-operatives: building the tools we need to take on the gig economy
The UK freelancer co-operative movement has been gathering pace for some time, and 2017 has brought the most interesting developments yet. A new trade union partnership between the IndyCube co-op and the Community union was announced in August and aims to reach 100,000 members over the next five years, with backing from the Labour and Co-operative party. Meanwhile, the year-old CoTech network has grown rapidly, bringing visibility to the work of 28 smaller co-ops with trade unions, charities and political campaigns (including Jeremy Corbyn’s).
For the individual freelancer, such structures can transform the future of work; granting both freedom and security through collaboration. But this lifestyle becomes meaningful through the way that freelancer co-ops use their increasing autonomy to pave the way for others. We’re now witnessing a formalisation of these networks and as they proliferate, the challenge will be to expand beyond the world of digital freelancing; in terms of growing into product building communities as well as interfacing with trade unions and the wider gig economy.
The global co-operative Enspiral is now seven years old and has been busy building the tools for just this kind of movement. Their collaboration software Loomio could not exist were it not for their involvement in 2011’s Occupy protests, and product development has continued along these lines; creating vital tools for community building such as collective budgeting. Long-term Enspiral member Kate Beecroft is at the centre of these innovations and brings some unmissable lessons about participatory democracy to Meaning this year; incorporating political activism, social responsibility, and how to live the borderless freelancer dream.
Ethereum: the second generation of blockchain
There are few innovations as much discussed as blockchain right now – or as little understood. The story of Bitcoin is now legendary; and since it has made the jump from underworld currency to Silicon Valley priority, governments are recognising that they need to get in on the act. This noticeably delayed interface with mainstream discussion and government policy is due as much to the heavy weight cryptography involved, as the political/cultural aspects of its libertarian roots.
At the forefront of its second generation, Ethereum, is Vinay Gupta – who represents in many ways, the adult in the room. His work on smart contracts begins the work of applying blockchain to the supply chain – quite literally building the bridge between the physical and digital for global commerce. This means bringing blockchain into contact with AI, robotics – and most of all – regulatory frameworks; the key to Vinay’s new thesis The Internet of Agreements.
There are several reasons you’ll be hearing a lot more about Vinay Gupta. The depth and clarity of his commentary on blockchain is certainly one of them. He’s also a realist; in his own terms a “global resilience guru”, “merchant of doom”, and “humanitarian turned technocrat”. Vinay’s innate disobedience to any one political philosophy allows him to navigate the blockchain space with an awareness of the need to work with governments; and do the essential work of making this unpredictable new technology resistant to monopolies, and threats from sabotage.
Innovation from the fringes – proving the progressive business case
The best possible outcome for overused tropes like ‘agility’ and ‘disruption’ is that, when the clichés fall away, they may finally set the scene to re-engage us with our creativity. Big business may seize onto the buzzwords but few are able to create the conditions for this within their own structures, restricted as they are by hierarchy and the continuous drive for profit. Research into the millennial generation shows that consumers feel the same way – with brand loyalty increasingly inspired by authenticity and originality.
For those of us already converted to the importance of progressive values, it is time to draw confidence from the fact that major corporations now look to our grass roots communities for guidance. Meaning’s Guest Director, Mark Stevenson, believes strongly that the businesses to prevail will be those that bring these values into the very fabric of their organisation. His logic in curating the conference lineup this year reflects that behind his books and projects – he is a master compiler of innovations that not only represent the triumph of the underdog, but actually prove that they can do things better.
Another great inspiration in this area is the writer Kyra Maya Phillips, whose 2015 publication ‘The Misfit Economy’ is the product of four years’ research into ‘deviant entrepreneurship’; including pirates, gangsters, hackers and activists. Her approach to her work is more than just a recognition of the creativity that can blossom when resources are limited; she is also a great believer in mindfulness, and the importance of empathy in learning from cultures and circumstances vastly different to our own.
Every speaker on the Meaning line-up this year represents a story of creativity and prevailing against limitations. But what defines the conference is its readiness to take this theme deeper; which it looks set to achieve this year with its first ever day-long creative experiment. Beginning with a public dialogue between economist Kate Raworth and theatre-maker Zoë Svendssen, the whole community will be invited to apply a creative response to their own business dilemmas throughout the day. The fusion between arts and economics is part of Zoë’s long-running project on ‘the imagining of future scenarios’, due to premiere at the Barbican next year.
Ethos Magazine is media partner for this year’s Meaning conference. For more details and tickets click here; http://brighton.meaningconference.co.uk/