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Meaning Conference 2016: Empathy is the answer

In a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, it can be difficult to see the way forward. But a focused group of entrepreneurs, artists and activists have been trying to do just that, and met at the Meaning Conference 2016 to share their solutions to the problems facing today’s society.

Perhaps the biggest theme of the day was empathy. Speakers from across the art, technology and political worlds agreed on one thing - taking time to understand another person’s point of view is vital to progress.

In a powerful speech, peace activist Jo Berry told of how she learned to understand the reasons and motivations that lead former IRA member Patrick Macgee to bomb the Grand Hotel - a tragedy that killed her father. In a remarkably candid speech she explained how, through speaking and listening to Patrick, she was able, on some level, to form a friendship with her father’s murderer.

She said:When I really listened to Patrick I learned that if I had lived his life then I may have made the same choices.”

She continued “As long as there are people hurting in this world, I believe it falls on all of us. The answer is empathy. There is no greater privilege than being able to hear what other people are going through. Empathy to me is about action.”

Echoing this sentiment, artist and museum curator Clare Patey explained the role emotion has to play in modern day society.

She said: “I believe passionately about the transformative power of the arts and the power of storytelling.

“And I think, in a post Brexit, Trump world, with all the problems we are facing that empathy is a very powerful and important tool - not just in global challenges but in personal ones.”

To put her words into action, Clare brought her travelling shoe shop - A Mile In My Shoes - with her for audience members to experience. But, unlike most shoe shops, Clare’s offered the opportunity to truly walk in someone else’s shoes. An array of pre-worn shoes in a variety of sizes were available to borrow, and alongside them a pair of headphones on which to listen to the stories of their original wearers - taxi drivers, sex workers and refugees.

Juliet Davenport, founder and CEO of Good Energy, went some way to explain how these principles of empathy, and meaningful listening are put into practice in her business.

She said: “Listening to what people say is powerful. It is where all the best ideas come from. It is all about the customer. We wanted to create a blueprint for a new energy economy.”

Juliet explained how her business was first funded by customers who understood her and her team’s founding principles - to fix the broken energy industry and tackle climate change for good.

“When you try to break a model you find every single step really hard. What was really interesting was, by listening to the call centre, we heard what they [the customers] wanted was what we wanted, and our first funding was essentially crowdfunding. The customers gave us the first money we had.”

Juliet also took the opportunity to announce the launch of the company’s peer-to-peer renewable energy trading platform, Selectricity, which matches businesses with local power generators.

“We are bucking a trend. This is about people deciding where to buy their power but then they start to think about what they are using energy for, and what happens is they start to change their usage and things change.”

On the subject of business, Paul Green Jr, of The Morning Star tomato processing company, had a pertinent question to ask: What is the purpose of an organisation?

At first this may seem an easy query to resolve. Paul suggested that a business was a tool to coordinate activities towards a specific purpose.

But, with this agreed, he asked the audience what that purpose was. Paul went on to explain that he and his company believe that the function of a business is to satisfy the people it employs.

He said: “I think an organisation is a social tool. The purpose of an organisation is all about improving people’s lives.”

And, like Juliet, he believed for the best businesses, working towards a shared goal, or “view of perfection” was vital.

“The heart of the issues is for the founders to create an environment where people who join can fulfill what they want to fulfill.”

Paul closed by asking the audience if their businesses were simply organisations that employed people to get a job done, or asked them “what do you want to do and how can we help you do that?”

Nurturing and improving people’s lives was a principle key to ex-banker, blogger and musician Frances Coppola’s outlook. Frances is an advocate of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) - a set amount of money given to all citizens to cover their basic human needs like shelter, food and warmth.

She was keen to emphasise that UBI is not a welfare, but a work issue.

She said: “We have a crisis of work. We are in what we could call a second or third industrial revolution and we are seeing the same changes that we saw back then, and we are seeing the social consequences.”

Frances put the welfare problems we are having down to a lack of what she called “traditional jobs’ that give people a comfortable lifestyle, and blamed zero hour contracts and the rise of self employment for the increasing burden of living that is being placed on regular, hardworking citizens around the world.

She believes that the introduction of a UBI would solve “the difficulty of managing an uncertain income with certain outgoings.”

“I think that there is another way. We can create a basic income that will relieve people of that stress and give them a means to live irrespective of their circumstances and whether they work or not.

“If everyone is entitled to a basic income, then we have removed that basic stress that destroys happiness, destroys health and impacts productivity.

Meaning compere and journalist Paul Mason closed the conference by urging the audience to act on their values instead of ignoring them.

He said: “Everybody else is fighting for their values, we have to fight for ours. Shit just got real for us all. We are a talented and educated generation, why should we go into internal exile? We can’t let this happen again.”

The overwhelming message of the day was that people and the planet matter, and by adopting empathetic, caring approaches to everyday life and work, then we can go some way to solving the issues that face 21st century society.


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