Digital is dynamic and developing: Insights from #TDC17

Thinking Digital has been described as “arguably the UK’s most important conference,” so you know I leapt at the chance to attend the 2017 show in my native Newcastle. Following the scent of pasty*, I headed northwards…

I’m going to get to the meat and potatoes as quick as possible, but thanks must go to Herb Kim and his team for the job they pulled off. To pull a full-day conference together to the standard I enjoyed today is a mammoth job, but to make it a two-dayer is nothing short of incredible.

Pivoting for Personal Development

Day one for me consisted of a workshop down by the Toon’s gorgeous Quayside. Now bear with me, it was called ‘Pivoting for Personal Development,’ and if you share my intolerance for inspirational jargon I probably know what you’re thinking, but I got bags out of this afternoon.

Positive psychology coach Mike Cockburn of Sogno took us through techniques aimed at developing your situation like a basketball player would pivot before passing a ball. He took liberal inspiration from Jenny Blake’s book, itself called Pivot, which teaches that the only move which matters is your next one, so you’d best make it a good move.

Now, I’m no basketball player, but as I understand it, it breaks down a little like this:

  • Plant: Find your comfort zone, establish a firm base.

  • Scan: Take stock of your surroundings, look for opportunity.

  • Pilot: Test the waters, make sure the path is clear.

  • Launch: Chuck the blummin’ ball!

By doing this continually with any area of your life, so the theory goes, you’re developing a natural rhythm for entering a state of flow. Mike used the example of a tightrope walker, someone who is in their element doing something outrageous. But even something like that can be learned, and you too can end up in a state of perfect flow up there on the tightrope.

We also delved into the narrative concept of hero’s journey, how you can take this elemental storytelling technique, something that resonates deeply with the human psyche, and learn career lessons.

How many times have you seen a great job opportunity and talked yourself out of going for it? Well according to Joseph Campbell, you have something in common with the eternal literary hero. They often refuse the call to adventure at first. Think Bilbo Baggins at the start of the Hobbit.

Often, however, crossing the threshold of adventure gets thrust upon the hero, maybe in the form of a redundancy, or maybe a senior member of staff leaving forces one to step up into bigger shoes. From there, it’s onwards over the Abyss, through death and rebirth, which could involve finally plucking up the courage to start your own business.

Finally, the Hero returns home with new wisdom and treasure, and a new adventure can begin. If you spot a theme linking this with ‘pivoting,’ it’s about things being cyclical. By focusing on repeatable development techniques, you don’t just take one lurch forward, you build habits which can be applied all over again to your new situation.

Then I went to my mam’s and she cooked stew.

Day two: Digital boogaloo

A stacked card beckoned on Wednesday, which could easily turn this humble bit of reportage into a whitepaper, but what was great was the way in which each speaker had been clearly selected to show off a whole different facet of the digital landscape.

Because of this, even people with no grounding in a speaker’s particular field could at least come away with some juicy high-level takeaway. Some talks had clear business applications, others felt like jaunts into a whole other realm of human experience. I even learned how to land on Mars, courtesy of Dr Anita Sengupta, an actual real-life rocket scientist!

There was a double-whammy of magic on display. Adrian Westaway talked us through applying the esoteric secrets he picked up as a member of the Magic Circle to design. In short, turn the mundane into the amazing by singling out pain points in your user journey and devoting time to developing a cunning solution just for that point.

Richard Wiseman, meanwhile, went a step further by opening his talk with an actual magic show of his own, which was cool. Cooler still were his ideas on the preconceptions we bring with us to any kind of communication. It’s a very human trait, intuitive on some level, but it’s not always negative. We can smell authenticity, and we like that smell!

So, what comes after digital?

As you might expect from a digital conference, there was a relentless sense of futurism driving the conversation. Tom Scott talked about how being able to ‘block’ people in real life might actually play out. Dr Justin Sanchez clued us in on the current realities of neural interfacing, controlling robots with our minds, that stuff we dreamed about over Phillip K. Dick novels.

On that same note, one of the highlights of my day came from Sophie Bostock, whose beautifully polished talk on app-driven aids for mental health problems clearly came from a place of deep inspiration.

Her insomnia-busting app, Sleepio, has the potential to redefine the way we access services like cognitive behavioural therapy. It’s being taken so seriously that it faces the same kind of clinical trials we’d normally reserve for psychology or medicine. If I had to pick one innovation from the day which had the potential to be in people’s hands and changing lives the quickest, this would be it.

I’d be seriously slacking if I didn’t also give credit to the showmanship of the whole event. Chris Turner spat us some freestyle rap bars, and while I’d obviously spin him in a battle, I couldn’t fault his way of linking it with the flexibility and flow that help you stay innovative.

We also had some artwork form Di Mainstone, creator of the human harp (I’ll have two of what she’s having, please), and an utterly sock-knocking performance from Imogen Heap, who played an entire number using nothing but a pair of wifi-enabled fingerless gloves. This is the future I want to see for presentations and pitches!

Were you at Thinking Digital 2017? Want to share some of your own insights? Do feel free to leave a comment, the boss loves it when I bring in that organic engagement.

*And knowledge. I followed the scent of pasty and knowledge.