Left to My Own Devices: Thoughts on the Do Lectures

I recently traveled to Wales for the Do Lectures Startup event, a global gathering of bright minds from across the spectrum of business, arts, sports, and more.   It’s an event that is difficult to categorize, from the people, to the presenters, to the overall experience.

To call it a conference is a misnomer—conferences usually take place in large municipal hubs, at fancy hotels, and are full of people who come from the same industry or profession.  To the contrary, the Do Lectures events are out in the country, under a tent, where people from all backgrounds gather to learn what it takes to be Doers, with a bias towards action versus simply having ideas. Doctors, designers, programmers, surfers, chefs, world travelers—the whole spectrum—they were all there.  That diversity made the experience so rich, because we all came with something unique to contribute. 

This diversity sparked something unforeseen, giving the gathering a whole new life, as opposed to a normal conference—something that really couldn’t be planned. There was no segregation between speakers and attendees.  We were all just there to share ideas, have conversation, learn, and most importantly, do. 

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The impetus of the group behind the Do Lectures as an organization is more doing, less thinking. So for this particular event, they tasked the speakers and attendees with joining small teams that would hack away at solving real problems.  From getting more local manufacturing back Wales to getting kids outside to play and educating people on sustainability, teams were hooked from the beginning  and hopeful of tackling these problems with a group of like-minded, but differently-abled people. Mentors from various backgrounds made themselves available to help the teams from remote locations via Skype, and each of our groups leveraged their advice and guidance to shape our solutions.  After 72 hours of brainstorming, each of the teams made their pitches on solving these large-scale problems.  The only thing we didn’t have time for was second-guessing our work; there was only enough time to learn the scope and nuances of the problem, quickly build our solution, and then iterate our pitch to the rest of the gathering.

Spread throughout the weekend were 20 talks from leaders and doers from many walks of life.  Just as the conference itself was rich with diversity, so, too were the talks.  I particularly enjoyed presentations from Zack Klein, co-founder of internet video portal Vimeo, and Scott Davis of CNWD, a Welsh food business.  

A recurring theme throughout the talks, no matter the walk of life from which the perspective emanated, was the notion that startups are “all about the people,” another way of expressing their purpose as solving real-world problems for real people, as opposed to ideas for ideas’ sake.  This foundational concept resurfaced over and over again, and, refreshingly, this was at the expense of discussion about bottom lines, exit strategies, and funding.  

To illustrate the point in sharp relief, Owen Rogers of IDEO spoke about a project where his world-renowned design firm was given the task of redesigning the emergency care experience in hospitals.   In order to gain a true perspective of the patient experience, design researchers placed video cameras next to patients, giving stakeholders a true patient’s-eye view of what it was really like to be a patient in their hospital. The result was a video clip of the hospital ceiling. Needless to say, the board of directors was convinced that something needed to change.

Several talks focused on branding, positioning the concept of branding as expressing the “humanness of companies and how brands connect people.  This may seem fairly obvious, but I was reminded throughout the Do Lectures how easily it’s forgotten. After all, the products, experiences, and businesses we are building, are for people. Somehow this can get muddled and for me, as a designer, the obsession with the physical product itself can overshadow the real, quite profound reason that it was created in the first place—to right a wrong. 

In the end, the Do Lectures provided a refreshing getaway, with the opportunity to be around so many people from so many walks of life, coming together with the common purpose of making life a little bit better for the rest of the world.