Written by Dan George 

Last week, Izzy and I stopped by FutureFest, Nesta’s flagship festival of ideas and innovation. It was a great day to spend out of the office, stuffed as it was with cool exhibitions – including a casino which allowed you to trade your data for a better chance at winning (I still lost) – alongside a schedule of heavy-hitting speakers such as Nicola Sturgeon, Evgeny Morozov and Amy Lamé.

But, looking at the programme, one session stood out. Experts don’t know the half of it seemed a strange title for a talk at a major get-together of leading thinkers on a whole range of issues pertaining to the future. So I couldn’t miss it.

And I wasn’t disappointed. The session made a powerful point: whether it’s drones or AI, critical decisions about the development of emerging technologies are made by a tiny group of, often all-too-similar, people.

Given the profound impact these technologies are set to have on all of our lives, is it any wonder that the public is growing increasingly wary of what they see as powerful and out-of-touch elites? It’s time for entrepreneurs, policymakers and all shades of innovators to start asking, and trying to give, the people what they want.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Engaging the public in comparatively boring, abstract or technical discussions is tough. And a Twitter poll just won’t cut it. Innovators have to be creative and bring the issue to life.

Take climate change, for instance. I doubt I’m alone in feeling a little bored of the subject. Yet, as Alice Bell at 10:10 Climate Action pointed out, we don’t talk about the issue as much as we think. And we certainly don’t discuss it as much as we should.

So instead of talking about climate change in isolation, 10:10 made it a community issue. By helping schools to crowdfund their own solar panels, the charity was able to start meaningful discussions about the environmental, economic and social benefits of embracing clean energy – to staggering effect.

The campaign raised over £700k to install 2,370 panels in 80 schools, saved 3,894 tons of carbon emissions and, ultimately, created 60,000 new, informed climate advocates of all ages up and down the country. Exceptional results by any measure.

And something I think we can all learn from. People may say they’ve had enough of experts. But there’s a way back in for those who spend the time and effort to meaningfully engaging with their publics, actually listening to their concerns and responding with sincere efforts to make a positive impact on them.

I suppose that’s the difference between ‘thought leadership’ and real leadership – accepting, as an expert, that you really don’t know the half of it.

Dan George is creative director at Aspectus Group.

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