L – R: Future of the Future festival organisers Simon Velvin, Dean Poole, and Ben Corban. (Photo: Sonya Nagels).
L – R: Future of the Future festival organisers Simon Velvin, Dean Poole, and Ben Corban. (Photo: Sonya Nagels).

FutureJuly 3, 2019

The secret plot to rewire the brain of New Zealand business

L – R: Future of the Future festival organisers Simon Velvin, Dean Poole, and Ben Corban. (Photo: Sonya Nagels).
L – R: Future of the Future festival organisers Simon Velvin, Dean Poole, and Ben Corban. (Photo: Sonya Nagels).

Next month some of the most high-powered people from the most important companies in the world are coming to Auckland to speak to local business leaders. Charles Anderson spoke to the organisers of the Future of the Future conference about why and how they pulled it off.

On August 15 the future is coming to New Zealand. For one intense day, some of the world’s biggest names in innovation, tech, creativity, and design are in Auckland to show New Zealand’s business leaders how to embrace the future. The all-star line-up is unheard of for a conference in this little country at the end of the world. Some of the guests hold high-powered roles with companies whose revenues are nearly as big as New Zealand’s GDP. The organisers built it because no one else was going to. 

The idea for such an ambitious conference started out of frustration that New Zealand wasn’t ambitious enough. Simon Velvin and Dean Poole were having a conversation about starting a conversation. They wanted to talk about the role of creativity in business in New Zealand. In the past, that word “creativity” had a dirty connotation in the corporate world. It seemed too esoteric, too fluffy, not grounded in real, getting down to business, business.  

However, in the present, they had seen it become one of the key skills craved by chief executives the world over. All problems came to be seen as ones that required creative solutions dreamt up by those that thrived amid uncertainty. But in the future? Well, who knows? That conversation needed a name.

“Everyone was talking about ‘the future of food’, ‘the future of travel’,” says Velvin. “So, Dean just said, “let’s call it the ‘Future of the Future’.” 

For the next two months The Spinoff, in partnership with the Future of the Future, will be exploring the ideas and meeting the people that will have a lasting effect on our world. Keep an eye on The Spinoff Future to learn more about what the next ten, 50 and 100 years might look like. 

With Velvin’s 17 years working on his conference/”creative festival”, Semi Permanent, and with Poole’s experience in starting design studio, Alt Group, over 20 years ago, they knew that no one really had a clue about what that future held.

“We know that there are people at the executive level who are literally Googling ‘the future of banking’,” said Poole. 

But what if those executives didn’t need to Google it. What if you could bring Google to them to have a one-on-one conversation, relatively speaking.

And so, three years ago, the first Future of the Future was born. This year the festival has been amplified to new levels. Presented in partnership with Spark Lab, there are now five events throughout the year; the showpiece is a full day event at the Aotea Centre with a speaker list curated by Velvin.

Simon Velvin has run the Semi Permanent festival for 17 years (Photo: Sonya Nagels).

The agenda, if there is one, is simply a healthier and more dynamic economy. The Future of the Future is about developing New Zealand’s creative business landscape by exposing it to some of the most exciting people working at the most influential companies in the world.

Because they saw it happening elsewhere. They’ve travelled all over the world, soaking up bold conferences and inspirational speakers with something to say. But most people who need such an experience, don’t have the time, money or inclination to head overseas and hear those at the forefront of the merging of creativity, design and business. 

“We are bringing it here, instead,” says Velvin. 

Over the years he has built relationships with some of the world’s most recognisable companies. The Future of the Future is bringing speakers that no one else can get. These are people who usually have multiple zeros on their speaker’s fee. Instead, they’ve been seduced by New Zealand’s beauty, and Velvin’s charm, reputation and famous perseverance. The result is a world-class lineup. 

“We are really interested in diversity around the board table,” he says. “That’s not just gender or race, we want to see diversity in thinking.”

That means this time they are bringing Ana Arriola – named one of the most influential LGBTQ+ people in tech with 25 years of experience for companies as Facebook, Samsung, Monohm, Sony & PlayStation, Apple and now the general manager, partner design director at Microsoft.

They are bringing Charles Adler, co-founder and former head of design at Kickstarter, described by Forbes as one of the “Top 12 Most Disruptive Figures in Business”.  

They are bringing Copenhagen-based creative entrepreneur Carla Cammilla Hjort, who is founder and director of Space10, an IKEA-supported future think tank and living lab dedicated to detecting the major societal challenges that will impact people at a global scale.

There’s Bruce Mau, co-founder of Massive Change Network, a Chicago-based practice that provides design-based thinking to transform the way its clients work – it’s “not about the world of design but about the design of the world”. 

And yes, and they are bringing Google – in the form of Ivy Ross, the company’s vice president of hardware design, where her role (as she describes it) is “to figure out what it feels like to hold Google in your hand”.

The Future of the Future is about creating a conference that starts a conversation about the intersection of commerce and creativity. It’s about putting entire teams, departments or whole companies in front of some of the most desirable, inspiring talent in the world in an environment that will change the way they approach the way they think about how they work.  

“Good conversations and dialogue happen when there is a structure of informality and ideas come out of that,” says Poole. “If you go to people that are top in their game, you are going to learn something.”

The Alt Group holds an almost mythic status in New Zealand’s design industry. Founders Poole and Ben Corban were, once upon a time, art school graduates who brought a certain aesthetic and human-centred thinking into how they approached problem-solving. 

When they started, that idea, known as “design thinking”, wasn’t really a thing. Twenty-four years on, Alt Group, with their self-assured approach, is considered one of the best design studios in the world. They believe in their work, and the power of design to change the world. 

Everything they do is with intention. With that in mind, they began collaborating with Velvin, himself a design man, turned conference curator. They say the collaboration was required because of the “seismic shift” that has occurred in how businesses interact with their customers – all through design. 

“What once took years, now takes months,” Poole says. “If you look at that as an opportunity for New Zealand businesses, how do you compete? And where do you compete? Ideas can spring up and merge incredibly quickly.”

The Alt Group office inside a converted warehouse in Ponsonby, Auckland (Photo: Sonya Nagels).

What’s required, Poole says, is something to help people train up their antennae so they can see those opportunities and act on them. So, together, they are amplifying the efforts to take design thinking to a genre-bending conference that will help evolve New Zealand’s business landscape into one that embraces change.

“Ambiguity is the material that you have to work with,” says Poole. “What’s interesting about people that have a creative mindset is that they are comfortable being uncomfortable, they are highly adaptive and can pivot.”

Poole believes there are already thousands of such people in New Zealand. The Future of the Future is about expanding that conversation. That’s why they’re bringing together some of the world’s leading creative, technical and social visionaries from the world’s most disruptive companies.

“All we are doing is increasing people’s awareness and bandwidth about what is possible,” he says. 

“We have the qualities in New Zealand to do great things, but how fast we are achieving those things is questionable. New Zealanders are loaded up with creativity. We are incredibly optimistic people, very brave people and have a very adaptive and diverse culture. We could be a hotbed for new business models and new opportunities.” 

This content was created in paid partnership with the Future of the Future festival. Learn more about our partnerships here

The Future of the Future is a high-speed, high-impact business briefing series from leaders of some of the world’s most disruptive companies presented with Spark Lab. Get your tickets to the August 15 event here.
Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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