Learning to unlearn in an Exponential World

WPP Stream
5 min readJan 8, 2018


By: Mic Mann, Mann Made

For someone like me — who has a film-making and script-writing background and has been working in the eventing industry for over 12 years — I’ve learned that every event, just like every story, has to be conceptualised according to a three-act structure, with a beginning middle and end. That’s the way I was taught at The AFDA Film School and by Rob McKee, author of Story, which is every screenwriters’ bible. And it’s also what makes for successful advertising.

Narrative structure is the essence of every story and allows the story teller to take the audience on an emotional journey — one that creates a cathartic release and may hopefully result in some sort of greater impact. And audiences have learned to expect this narrative structure as it signals triggers within them.

What I loved about attending my first two-and-a-half-day WPP Stream Africa unconference is that everything I’ve known about eventing was thrown out the window. I had to unlearn everything I had grown to expect of conferences. It was like being in an experimental film by Jean-Luc Godard, yet everything flowed seamlessly, even though I was unsure of what to expect next. There was excitement in the uncertainty of not knowing what would follow.

Stream makes use of the power of the crowd. Those who are invited to attend do not do so merely as delegates, instead they are predominantly participants and presenters too. Everyone is encouraged to spontaneously offer up topics of conversation and content for this unconference. Stream is defined by participation, as what you put in is what you’ll get out. It’s all about collaboration and open, honest discussions.

The Ignite Talks on the opening day get things going. They allow these captains of industry from multinational brands, agencies and tech start-ups to talk about their passions. I attended Ignite Talks about everything from Howard Sackstein’s travels to Jurgita Stasiukaityte’s insights on adventure. But my highlight was the robotics exhibition by Dale Immerman of Mojo Dojo. I found these workshops a brilliant intro into the world of robots, especially as robotics is going to be a trillion-dollar industry in the next few years.

When I attended the Singularity University Executive Programme in December 2015 at the NASA Ames Research Center, the first thing they taught us was to say goodbye to linear thinking and say hello to exponential thinking. This very much made me think of the Stream way of doing things. Singularity University teaches you that the world is no longer local and linear, instead it’s global and exponential — something that happens in China may affect us in South Africa.

Today, as the co-organiser of the Singularity University South Africa Summit my aim is to embrace an exponential mindset in everything I do. From a very young age and throughout university we’re taught to think in a linear 1–10 type of way. We have to unlearn the ways we’ve been socialised and taught at school if we want to find true solutions to the world’s greatest challenges — if we want to innovate and disrupt our industries — if we want to positively impact the lives of a billion people, which is Singularity University’s Massive Transformational Purpose.

An exponential mindset equips you to look beyond the solutions in front of you and to start looking to the periphery for unique approaches to age-old problems. It helps to get you out of your comfort zone because too often we take the easiest, linear route with the least resistance. It’s all about being open to new ways of doing and seeing things. And using technology to disrupt an industry’s status quo to create new solutions. It’s about challenging yourself to try something new, especially as disruption is becoming the new norm.

In South Africa, we desperately need to unlearn the ways in which we have been bullied into feeling inadequate in comparison to the rest of the world — that we are not good enough. I understand that it takes time to get over, but as Africans we need to stop seeing ourselves through the lenses of the West. We need to let go of cultural and socio-economic imperialism and learn how to do things in a new way — and be proud of it! Gone are the days of Africa being perceived as dragging her feet. We just have to look to the Elon Musks, Mark Shuttleworths, Vinny Linghams and Bethlehem Alemus of the continent for inspiration.

By getting over this ingrained inferiority complex we can help to future-proof Africa for the exponential age. Let’s partner with our neighbours across the continent. We have the talent, we just need to change the way we think. Instead of seeing our shortcomings as problems, we should see them as an opportunity to leapfrog into the future — just as we did with Africa’s high adoption rate of smartphones due to a lack of infrastructure for landlines.

In business you have to, as former pro ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky says, “Skate to the puk,” by predicting where it’s going. This will help you build your business for the future because if you’re trying to create a product for today, it’ll be outdated by the time it launches.

We need to think for the future.

The inaugural Singularity University South Africa Summit saw African tech start-up founders take to the stage to talk about how they are already using the power of crowd sourcing, crowd funding and the sharing economy, and how they are embracing exponential technologies to move forward.

Just as WPP Stream is allowing brands and agencies to re-imagine the advertising industry and where it’s headed, so Singularity University is helping entrepreneurs and policy-makers rethink the possibilities the future holds by unlearning our self-imposed limitations. Let 2018 be a year in which we unlearn that our shortcomings — as a business, country or continent — need to limit us, let’s rather see the potential that lies in them to drive change and disruption.

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Mic Mann is a futurist, speaker and strategist on exponential technologies. In August 2017 he was the co-organiser of the inaugural SingularityU South Africa Summit. He runs the Singularity Global Impact Competition in Johannesburg and is part of the management team co-running local chapters initiatives. SingularityU is based at the NASA Ames Research Center and is training a new generation of leaders to embrace exponential technologies.

As co-founder of Mann Made, an award-winning experiential brand agency, he has a deep understanding of working with start-ups and Fortune 500 companies. He is passionate about entrepreneurship and has 17 years of experience in the media, marketing and eventing industries. And he still manages to make time to be involved in the local start-up and maker communities.



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