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Intern Review: Names Not Numbers Conference

In this blog piece Creative Access intern Dean Webster reviews the Names Not Number conference.

When I was offered the opportunity to attend the Names Not Numbers conference, I was curious about what the conference would be like and what it had to offer. The website said the three day event would cover a wide range of topics from ‘business and values to human rights, culture and technology’ – a plethora of topics for just three days. Billed as a ‘private ideas conference’, it was the first conference I had been invited too, and I was curious to hear from the ‘key thinkers’ that had been attending Names Not Numbers since its inception in 2005 by the world’s first Professor in Networking – Julia Hobsbawm.

What I discovered on day one at the elegant Waddestone Manor, was a small, intimate group of intellects from the UK and the US, who were keen to share the knowledge and experience they had accumulated in academia and the professional world. Sitting down to lunch with everyone brought back feelings similar to the first day of school. I was, however, overwhelmed by friendliness that the other delegates exuberated. They were not just keen to share, but also keen to listen.

After lunch, we went on a walk around the National Trust ground which ended at a futuristic looking building called the Windmill – the setting for the afternoon’s sessions. After a beautiful musical performance from Ayanna Witter-Johnson, we hit the ground running with a session on the Middle East from Newsnight’s Diplomatic Editor – Mark Urban, and former US diplomat – James Rubin. It was fascinating to hear about the crisis in Syria, the changing energy geo-politics and the issue of nuclear weapons from the perspective of the former Chief Spokesman for the State Department. After that 30 minute discussion, we moved onto a panel about the sustainability of food – a topic I had not given much thought to until this session revealed how it affects the environment. After a session about the value of art, we moved to the conference’s main venue – Mansfield College at the University of Oxford, for dinner in the Chapel Hall.

The second day started with a breakfast session on Diversity. As a Creative Access alumni, I was pleased that the topic had been given the time and space for open discussion amongst the panel and the attendees. After an hour of talking about the need for diversity in business and the ‘unconscious biases’ held by ‘posh white men’ in power that prevent women, BAME and LGBT talent reaching their full potential, it was disheartening to come away with more statistics and anecdotes showcasing the lack of diversity than a solution. We discussed quotas as a way to put people in change but, despite American companies having processes and systems – we all acknowledged that change comes culturally when everyone sees diversity as their responsibility.

With breakfast done and the brain engaged, the morning continued with ‘Personal Perspectives’ from people who had unique knowledge, experience and insight on a range of topics to share. Lisa Dwan spoke passionately about her experience learning and performing the works of Samuel Beckett; Professor Ted Gibson from MIT spoke about his research on Language, its ambiguity and varying syntax; then Investigative Journalist and Historian – Misha Glenny, spoke about his research into a Drug Baron that ran the infamous favela of Rocinha. The baron, named Antonio, was responsible for bringing down levels of violence in the formerly lawless favela by outlawing guns on the streets and creating the favela’s own police force. He ended with a passionate plea to end the war on drugs, as the people who truly suffer are the tens of thousands of people who die in Latin America each year.

The conference continued with a talk from legendary management specialist Charles Handy who introduced us to his new theory, the ‘Second Curve’ – a principle that can be applied to business and personal life, where you ‘reframe the problem’. Essentially, when you are in the height of your success (the first curve), get ready change.

Before lunch, The Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera spoke about ‘why men should talk about feminism’ and a panel discussed leadership and the difference between leadership and management. There was then an eye-opening discussion titled ‘The Business of Human Rights’, where a panel examined the role businesses play when operating in territories with little regard for human rights.

After a creative lunch breakout session, where I talked creativity whilst making a Tatty Devine necklace with one of the founders of the jewellery brand, the conference moved to the Oxford Martin School for an afternoon of sessions. These ranged from Design and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Asset Management and Sustaining the Planet. We learned that humans will not be replaced by AI robots, but work in symbiosis; sustainability requires a long-term and global approach; and capitalism works when company heads are held accountable.

It was then onto a fascinating conversation between the Principal of St Martin’s College, the Archbishop of Westminster and the CEO of Vodafone Group – Vittorio Colao. The Archbishop echoed the Pope’s call for ‘inclusive capitalism’ and Colao talked about Vodafone’s corporate social responsibility. It was gripping to listen to the heavyweights of business and religion converse, but my attention peaked when Colao talked about zero hours contracts and low pay – explained as a business trend that he is not responsible for but mitigated for the sake of his employees.

The third day was the conference’s last. There was sadness as the brief exchange of ideas and the event that brought us varied group of attendees was coming to an end, but the end also provided an opportunity to absorb and share the abundance of information. The final morning started with a brilliant panel discussion on Generation Z which, for full disclosure, I sat on. It was followed by an insightful talk about the power of smell from a perfumer before a heated, but atypically well informed political discussion on Europe.

With the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU a year away and the refugee crisis dividing the Union – it was interesting to hear a bilateral, educated conversation between political commentators than divisive, mass media rhetoric.

After three days at the conference, I gained knowledge in all the areas mentioned above and have pages upon pages of notes. I also got to meet and network with some of the cleverest people I have ever met. What I gained the most, however, was inspiration. The Names Not Numbers conference inspired me to continue learning and the conference and its attendees introduced me to a culturally richer world and a new way of thinking. The conference is called ‘Names Not Numbers’ as, unlike other conferences, the focus is not on the number of people who attend but the people who are invited and what they can contribute. After three days at this wonderful conference, I have been inspired to be a name and not a number.