For the fourth consecutive year, thousands of attendees convened in New York City at the Fast Company Innovation Festival for five days. The goal of the #FCFestival is to spark creativity, conversation and innovation.
Following are highlights from this year’s event.
Brands That Take a Stand
Moderator Lydia Dishman, a Fast Company contributing writer, kicked off the session with some relevant statistics. For example, Edelman recently released a report that showed 51% of people believe brands have more power to solve social issues than the government.
Panelists included Maxell Zorick, Social Impact Director, MTV, as well as executives from Creative Alliance, which is a group of marketing, entertainment and tech leaders who are using their skills and powers for good causes: Jason Harris, CEO and President of Mekanism, and cofounder, Creative Alliance; Zeppa Kreager, director, Creative Alliance; Britta Von Schoeler, president, Broadway Video Enterprises, and co-chair Creative Alliance.
After introductions, Dishman asked the panelists “Why do you feel it’s important for brands to take a stand on social issues?”
Zorick made several relevant points “At MTV, we start with our audience and what they expect from us. Our audience in 2018 has incredible anxiety and feel our system is corrupt. Looking for moral leadership and a moral compass. Looking at entities to see where we stand. Audiences are demanding that brands stand for something that is true to the mission and purpose behind the company. Brands need to stand for more than products, services, profit. By 2020, half the workforce will be millennials, 75% would take a pay cut to work for a mission-driven company.”
Von Schoeler noted, “Brands control the world economy much more so than the governments.”
The conversation transitioned to how brands choose a cause and join the conversation around popular causes. Harris noted that “brands should focus on something that is the soul of the brand and real to the brand. Pretty narrowcast. Brands that jump from issue to issue to join the conversation, those campaigns usually don’t work out.”
Kreager added an important consideration. “We’re hyper-aware that we live in a bubble in New York, DC, LA. We need to talk with real people.”
Diversity is also important, as MTV’s Zorick pointed out. “We need a diverse team doing the work. No matter how good you think your work is, there are people that your work won’t resonate with.”
The next topic was the importance of social causes to employees. As Von Schoeler pointed out, 65% of Gen Z won’t work for a company without a strong social initiative. “It helps them be passionate throughout the day, even if what they’re working on is mundane.”
Zorick added that “Tesla and new companies have a mission of sustainability right in the heart of their company. MTV heart of the culture is escapism to activism. Part of the job. Part of the mission of the organization.”
When asked how brands can stay ahead of issues and be proactive instead of reactive, Harris responded, “Brands have to not worry about being reactive and the day-to-day of culture. Focus on what is important to them and the values they stand for. Be proactive based on those values versus jumping from issue to issue.”
Good to Go: Mobilizing Brand Loyalists as Environmental Activists
The moderator kicked off the panel by asking: “What does it mean to be a brand that is trying to do good in the world?” This started a discussion between John Goodwin, brand creative director, Patagonia and Chris Eichenseer, founder and creative director, Someoddpilot. The two recently partnered on Patagonia Action Works, which is set up similar to a dating site with the goal of connecting activists to volunteers. One key point of the panel is that brands today need to be user-obsessed. Brands should look at an audience as their friends and try to engage like real people.
The panelists also focused on the importance of brand character, which is deeper and messier than personality. Character comes from a brand having values.
Patagonia uses values as a way that the brand can inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. In 2016, Patagonia decided to donate 100% of Black Friday revenue to grassroots environmental organizations—and 70% of its Black Friday sales ended up coming from new customers. These new customers were driven by shared values with Patagonia so they rallied around the core values.
When Big Brands Go Startup
Featuring Julia Steyn, Vice President Urban Mobility, Maven and General Motors, and Andrew Morse, Executive Vice President, Great Big Story/CNN, discussed the creation and impact of their startups within larger organizations. Maven is a car-sharing serviced within General Motors. Great Big Story is a media startup within CNN.
Julia Steyn, Vice President Urban Mobility, Maven and General Motors, explained how GM faced two challenges that led to the creation of Maven. First, it realized that tech is evolving, and cars will drive differently in the future. Second, the world today is very different and consumers want different relationships with assets. People want to eliminate waste, which has led to the growth of the sharing economy.
Andrew Morse, Executive Vice President, Great Big Story (GBS)/CNN shared how startup GBS was developed to create the next iteration of CNN. The audience was also looking for something separate from CNN news that focused on global storytelling, surprise and wonder. To be successful and reach the audience the right way, it had to be separate from the CNN brand.
So GBS launched as an independent company with its own culture and office. Startups tend to get siloed inside of big companies, which creates riffs between the employees. There needed to be a determined effort to build something special by focusing on brand and something team can be passionate about. Morse recommends building a cocoon around the startup so it can grow separately. Great Big Story brought in constituents from all over the organization so everyone could feel proud of it.
The panelists were how being part of a large organization helped position the startups for success. Morse explained that GBS is a “startup with a head start. It’s a separate company but can lean on the mothership (legal, HR, brainpower). When you’re in a big organization, you also need to educate the organization about what you do. Spend time with people to let them be a co-creator of what you’re trying to accomplish.”
The session ended with a discussion on how industries are evolving. Steyn remarked that “every industry will have to evolve. Every company needs to innovate and have some version of a startup.”
Morse added: “Right now, if you’re standing still you’re going to die. We’re living through a period of unprecedented disruption to how we live, work and share. Every industry is being disrupted. If you’re standing still, you’re nuts. Just look at Amazon and the industries it’s in. There are entire industries that if they don’t think about how to innovate will be wiped out.”
What Are the Ethical Boundaries for AI? Presented by Intel
This panel focused on the state of artificial intelligence, which is making leaps and bounds as we continue to add more data that can be analyzed.
While our understanding of AI is still in its infancy, one trend today is focusing on the different ways to use AI for socially beneficial experiences.
Jacob Metcalf, Data and Society AI Ethics Researcher, pointed out how we’re “at an interesting articulation point when it comes to AI. We’re past the convincing stage because AI is now on the front page. We’re now at the point of using AI as innovation for solutions. Tech is new but the problems are old. Those two are now meeting and articulating.”
Parsa Mirhaji , MD, PhD, Director, Center for Health Data Innovation at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, added that “AI brings old problems but also opens doors for new opportunities. AI is improving healthcare as we know it but there is the possibility of unintended consequences.”
When evaluating how organizations use AI, Metcalf made an important point, “There is no such thing as an ethical or unethical algorithm. The question to ask is ‘Are the institutions that build and deploy the algorithms fair, accountable and transparent?’”
Other panelists in this session were Jackie Snow, Fast Company contributing writer; Anna Bethke, Head of AI for Social Good, Intel; David Hoffman, Director of Security Policy and Global Privacy Officer at Intel; Naveen Sundar Govindarajulu, RPI Computer Scientist; and Heather Patterson, Senior Research Scientist, Intel Labs.