09/28/2012 09:29 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2012

The Stream Series 2012: Release 0.9 : A Swim in the Stream

Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to underlings, obedience, discipline -- without these things nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates. And yet -- without the magnanimity of disorder, the happy abandon, the entrepreneurship venturing into the unknown and incalculable, without the risk and the gamble, the creative imagination rushing in where angels fear to tread -- without this, life is a mockery and a disgrace. ~ E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

Welcome to the Stream Series. A six part blog series that seeks to capture some of the best thinking from the WPP Stream unconference. Over the next six days, we'll release one blog each day from six different Stream attendees, drawn from a pool of brands, start-ups, media companies, technology companies and venture capitalists. Stream doesn't set out to impose anything. That's not what it's for. It's there to investigate and celebrate disorder -- and see what happens. These articles reflect just some of the ideas discussed in Greece. Yesterday we heard from David Shing (AOL). Today is the turn of investor Esther Dyson for her reflections.


Two days ago I took my morning swim in the Mediterranean. Except for the rocking boat casting a long shadow as the sun rose, I could have seen the same scene a hundred thousand years ago, when Neanderthals roamed the region. What will it look like a hundred thousand years from now?

I was in Greece for some future-gazing at Stream, a conference organized by marketing and communications group WPP (I'm on its board) for its own digital staff as well as a few lucky clients and digital startups - about 400 people in all. This was actually an un-conference, where attendees self-organize, proposing and leading sessions without "help" from the putative conference organizers. We didn't quite see 100 millennia ahead, but I was delighted to hear this crowd of one-percenters thinking hard about the needs (and not just the consumption habits) of the 99 percent.

There were numerous sessions on such topics as monetizing mobile and monetizing social, but also sessions about fixing government services and improving healthcare outcomes through more effective communications. I proposed and co-led a session on education and how to fund it, which got a standing-room-only crowd (albeit in a small room of about 30 people). To my delight, people did not come to talk about vocational training for ad-agency employees nor about corporate responsibility; they were concerned about the global need for education and how people could be persuaded to think long-term and regard education as an investment. How much can online curricula help? What's the role and responsibility of government? And what to do when government does not perform?

Later on, I heard Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy talk about behavioral economics... how people respond to cues other than pricing. It was a stunning overview - including the insight that brands (and brand spending) foster trust through the implicit message that a company is investing in its brand because it intends to be around for a long time, and also that the brand will do the right thing because doing the wrong thing would destroy the value of that investment.

Rory's talk addressed how people are influenced and manipulated. But that wasn't all. Unlike a placebo that works primarily through deception, many manipulations can be open: for example, the placement of items in a store, the use of smaller plates that encourage people to eat less, or the location of elevators vs. stairs.

What's interesting is that the people there, mostly digital brand marketers in one way or another, were also parents, people struggling to eat healthy, children of aging parents - in short, members of society. They're interested in selling more stuff, but they are also increasingly interested in living in a world they can be proud of. They want their customers to survive, but they also want their children to prosper.

Part of the change is due to the data revolution; it's much easier to see the impact of almost any choice or message or activity... not just on sales, but on health, on education levels and on many other aspects of people's lives. If you have an impact on the world, why not have an impact for the better? This possibility is especially compelling at a time when governments seem helpless to solve so many of society's problems.

Then I came back to New York and happened to listen to a TED talk by journalist Leslie T. Chang entitled "The voices of China's workers." It was not what you might expect: exploited workers toiling in misery, downtrodden wage slaves. Instead, she talked about young, articulate people who made a knowing choice to take low wages and hard conditions for a chance at a better future. At the end, Chris Anderson asks Chang what she would tell Apple if she had the chance. She responds promptly: "What impressed me about the workers is how much they're self-motivated, self-driven, resourceful... and what they want most is education... At night, at the weekends, they'll take an English class; they'll take a computer class... I met people who had moved to the city 10 years ago and are now basically urban middle class people."

The vehicle, once again, is education. With their meager salaries, these workers are opting to invest in themselves. Imagine what loyalty corporations could earn by investing in educating their workers. Yes, many would leave for better jobs... and one day they might even be able to afford their former employers' products.