Meaning 2016: Timely Inspiration

Meaning Conference has been going since 2012, but this year, the event seemed to slot perfectly into so many conversations happening across the world, globalised as we are. Curated and co-directed by economist, journalist and author Paul Mason, the day-long forum provided timely and fertile grounds for discussing some of the most pressing issues of the moment.

The lineup was diverse and the topics wide-ranging. We heard stories from people working towards doing better business in all sorts of ways, and people who have taken extraordinary steps to highlight our shared humanity.

Though the conference was not specifically envisioned as an antidote to our troubled times, its topics are inextricably linked to wider issues. Discussing business, politics, economics and society separately is no longer an option. Meaning is unique in that it keeps the big picture in focus, zooming in on points and tying them together into a clear narrative, that, in turn, helps forge new understandings and pathways.

In his 2015 book PostCapitalism, Mason outlines in detail his vision for a more socially just and sustainable global economy. Offering us the abridged version, he opened proceedings by explaining that neoliberalism, the current dominant economic system, is broken. Not so long ago, that would have been a radical claim. But earlier this year even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) admitted it.

Mason explained that the outcome of the US presidential elections can be seen as “a three-dimensional revolt against the impacts of neoliberalism.” Wages are stagnating, productivity is rising, and debt is driving consumption. Banks supply money as a response to sluggish growth, and this increased supply causes its value to drop.

At the same time, digitisation and automation have scaled efficiency to unprecedented heights. And since capitalism is founded on an economy of scarcity, this new abundance is changing the game. The capitalist response is to create monopolies, which is why we’re seeing this “smash and grab” mentality across so many sectors, not least online.

The standard economic response is not working. Politicians are promising a return to the past, to create more jobs, and, in many cases, demonising marginalised groups who often undertake the low-paid work that’s been contrived as a solution. It’s clearly unsustainable and unrealistic — and the consequences are politically problematic, to say the least.

So what can we do? According to Mason, “Promising high value jobs is not enough. We need to start regulating the system to encourage innovation.” Systemic change is required, and the transformation towards abundance will be necessarily long. But, as Mason pointed out, “If you don’t transition, people will start to vote against globalisation.”

We can, and should, defend globalisation under an adapted system. The solutions lie in collaborative economy, open source, a universal basic income, cheap basic goods and an attack on so-called “rent-seeking.

In this scenario, the non-market is as important as the market and the state. Indeed, we’re already seeing aspects of this transition in the way that work and leisure are merging, along with other formerly compartmentalised aspects of life.

That’s the theory. To find out how it might work in practice, we heard from companies and individuals already embodying these values, leading the way along this long road to a more equal, just, and people-focused system.

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First up was Juliet Davenport of Good Energy. A physicist by training, Davenport spent time tangled in the bureaucratic web of carbon taxing before becoming frustrated and deciding to branch out on her own. Her company, Good Energy, delivers 100 percent renewable energy to households and businesses across the UK by working with a vast network of small-scale providers.

Juliet Davenport

Having worked in the domestic energy sector and listened to so many reasons why such a system wouldn’t work, I found this story surprising and inspiring. I also have an inkling about the kind of barriers Davenport had to overcome to get her company to where it is today.

“The energy economy is forcing us in a certain direction, and it’s difficult to change,” she explained. Renewable energy poses a particular threat because you can’t charge for it the way you can fossil fuels. Davenport met with much resistance to her idea initially; so how did she finally unlock the marketplace?

“We listened to our customers’ needs and concerns,” said Davenport. At the same time, after going around in circles talking to “big energy” decision-makers, Good Energy finally secured funding from the Department of the Environment. “Once we got the government to take notice, others began to get onboard.”

By listening to stakeholders, Good Energy opened up a valuable communication channel that in turn helped convince their customers to invest. “When you go to the banks, they want to give you more money than you need, so they can charge more interest,” explained Davenport. “But when you have customers giving you £1000 each, you have much more flexibility and freedom.”

The company’s next step is launching Selectricity, a groundbreaking technology created in collaboration with another of the event’s speakers, James Johnson of Open Utility. The peer-to-peer system lets businesses choose their renewable energy source directly. The plan is to role this out to individuals in the near future: a move that’s surely going to further disrupt the old guard.

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As if to cement some of these lessons, Clare Patey’s subsequent talk continued the theme of “radical listening.” The Museum of Empathy, of which Patey is the director, is a travelling exhibition that records local people telling stories of their life. Those people then donate a pair of shoes, which visitors are fitted with and invited to walk around in, whilst listening to the audio of their owners’ story.

Clare Patey

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is one of the most well-known definitions of empathy, so it makes sense that the Museum would start out as a shoe shop. “It’s an alternative to the high street,” explained Patey. “A human experience, rather than a consumption experience.”

“Empathy is a powerful tool for both personal and global transformation,” she said. In one example, the project shared stories of NHS staff and a local health authority. Not only did this result in increased understanding between workers and management, but also among those with different healthcare roles, such as surgeons and receptionists, who work together daily but lacked insight into each others’ lives.

“When we surround ourselves with people like us, we don’t challenge ourselves,” Patey noted. Many would argue that this problem has only been exacerbated by the echo chambers created by social media.

The creative, immersive experience has travelled the world, and Patey has more ideas for the concept in the works, including a library, a travel agency and a hair salon. Personally I can’t wait to see more from the Museum of Empathy, and how it might transform relationships, especially within traditional corporate hierarchies.

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Before the coffee break, the audience was asked to silently reflect on the question, What does the next 10 years look like for me? Here’s what I jotted down: Fear, upheaval, effort to communicate ideas, challenges, travel, good fortune, appreciation, gratitude, anxiety and a new puppy.

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Frances Coppola is a writer and thought leader on finance and economics. Putting forward a logical and concise argument in favour of a universal basic income (UBI), she pointed out that the concept is about work rather than welfare.

The disappearance of traditional jobs has led to an erosion of comfortable lifestyles. The gig economy, characterised by zero-hours contracts and instability, means that many people can’t commit to pensions, for example. Not to mention more immediate overheads like rent, food and bills.

“The disparity between uncertain income and certain outgoings causes huge stress,” Coppola explained. “There’s no going back to the old models of work, so instead we need to work with the way things are heading.”

In this way, the UBI can be seen as an anchor that removes the existential threat caused by the fluidity of our times. It offers the chance for people to live irrespective of circumstances, and fosters choice and creativity.

We’re going through a crisis of values. “A universal basic income can helps us discover the values of people and society. We used to value stuff…” said Coppola, “but now we’re moving to an economy of interaction, creativity and empathy.”

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Everyone I spoke to about Jo Berry’s talk said the same thing: as she started speaking, they put their phone or notebook away, and just started listening. Really listening. Because her story is incredible. Patrick Magee planted the bomb in Brighton’s Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party Conference of 1982. Berry’s father was one of the four people killed in the explosion.

Jo Berry

Today, Berry considers Magee a friend, after a years-long journey of reconciliation with the man who killed her father. There’s so much to say about this story, yet I find my secondhand words don’t do it justice. Suffice to say, the crux is not forgiveness but empathy — that word again.

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I’d heard a lot about the Meaning lunch, which seems to have evolved into its own separate institution over the past four years. I wasn’t disappointed. The food was fantastic, of course, but it was the chat that was really memorable. Huge communal tables were scattered with “conversation menus”, with questions such as:

When was the last time you challenged authority? How did it feel?
Is it ever okay to concede that you can’t change a bad situation?
How many identities do you have, and what are they for?

The big question on my lips remains, What genius wrote all those questions? I snapped some photos and will be borrowing some the next time I need a conversation starter.

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Alongside the main speakers ran a series of smaller sessions, including a Fireside chat with sustainable food company COOK on becoming a B Corp, a conflict resolution workshop with Jo Berry, and a Q&A with self-management pioneer Paul Green Jr. of Morning Star.

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Towards the end of the day, a panel discussion offered the opportunity to pull some of the day’s themes together and address the question of what effective leadership looks like in the 21st century. Moderated by Paul Mason and featuring Faiza Shaheen of Class think tank, Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley, Blaire Palmer of That People Thing, and Paul Green Jr., the session posited that the current model of leadership is outdated. Mason began by noting that a leadership trend today is to manufacture crises in order to then produce solutions that secure a position at the top.

Palmer provided some fascinating insight into her work as a consultant for CEOs and leaders of large corporations. “We see people who have done leadership programmes, have an MBA, but it’s not working. People don’t like or trust them,” she said. “They are good people who have dedicated their lives to their business, and it’s all gone wrong.”

Thinking back to past bosses, I suddenly had a new perspective on a few difficult work situations. According to Palmer, one of the causes is a mismatch between product and impact. At one point, a business owner probably wanted to make a positive mark in the world, but as we become more aware of the environmental and social effects of many manufactured items, this good intention is overshadowed. Growth gets in the way of true meaning.

While some participants argued for a move towards “followership”, others placed continued import on empathy as a key leadership skill. Perhaps the most important point to take from the discussion — and indeed the day as a whole — was the idea of leading by example.

In his summing up, Mason reinforced this idea. “At work we are all globalists,” he said. Quoting German philosopher Hannah Arendt writing in the 1930s, Mason warned against the perils of “internal exile.” In the face of worrisome and objectionable events, business as usual can be a tempting coping mechanism.

But businesses can be political — and in future, it will be business rather than politics that ushers in change. Whether you’re at the top of a traditional hierarchy, starting out as an entrepreneur, or anything in between, taking a moral stance and making sure your values permeate to all aspects of life, including work, is surely one of the most powerful ways to lead.

Happily all the Meaning 2016 talks are available to watch via the YouTube channel. Enjoy.