Craig at Purpose 2018

Working for purpose is so hot right now

Craig Ambrose

Craig Ambrose

Crafter of code, and idealistic change-maker.

A combination of cutting edge tech, rigorous ethics, and vibrant feminism was on show at Australia’s conference on Purpose driven business.

I attended Purpose 2018 in Sydney,  a truly world-class conference that combined top international speakers, a set of cohesive and prescient themes, and expressive and lovingly crafted physical surrounds.

Purpose driven business is important because we spend so much of our time working for a living. If you have goals or ethics that you only pursue after hours, it’s hard to get anything done and can drain energy that you need for family, leisure, and self-care. If we can bring our vision for creating a better world into our daily livelihood and business, then we can work on what we’re passionate about with the majority of our efforts and have a much greater influence on society.

Businesses which have a social or environmental impact goal that’s as important to them as making profit are often called “Social Enterprises”, but these were just one focus of Purpose conf., which also drew people from the non profit sector, and from the arms of large corporations interested in philanthropy and social impact.

So what were all these groups talking about? Let’s dive into the major themes.

The Ethics of Exponential Tech

There are certain parts of the technology sector that seem to hold the promise of accelerating humanity into a very different future at a rate of change that will increase exponentially. Technologies that network humans together, such as social networking, tend to deliver change proportional to the square of the people involved in the network. Similarly, AI and deep learning hold the promise of growing in complexity and ability exponentially over time.

Ethics is always important in technology, but exponential tech can easily sweep us all along with it unless we stop to plan out the future we want. We aren’t powerless though. As the landscape changes, we can consciously change our ethics to match, as Dr Matthew Beard from The Ethics Center outlined.

Likewise, there was a strong current of critical thinking around the platforms with which we digitally engage. Max Stossel from the Center for Human Technology and the Time Well Spent campaign hit straight to the heart of it with his spoken word performances about how our digital platforms psychologically manipulate us.

This Panda is Dancing — Max Stossel

No exponential curve is more frightening than the hockey stick graph of CO2 in the atmosphere, and in any talk of purposeful work, climate change is often the elephant in the room that it seems too hard to address.

That’s why it was a huge privilege to hear the keynote speech delivered by Paul Hawken as he explained Project Drawdown.

If it’s clear that changing our light bulbs isn’t going to avert climate catastrophe, then is there anything that will? Paul’s research team is spread across many of the world’s most renowned institutions. They’ve crunched the numbers on every current known solution to climate change and the answer is a resounding yes, not only is it possible to slow down carbon emissions but it’s actually within our grasp to draw the excess carbon back out of the atmosphere and reduce atmospheric CO2 back to safe levels. I’ve picked up a copy of his book to pass around the office at Cogent, and it outlines each strategy with rigorous and conservative science, making it the world’s only comprehensive plan to reverse global warming.


Project Drawdown is the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. We gathered a qualified and diverse group of researchers from around the world to identify, research, and model the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change. What was uncovered is a path forward that can roll back global warming within thirty years.

Mental Health & Human Well-being

The Cogent team were part of the build of, a platform to support mental health outcomes, so it was great to see such a huge focus on the mental health space. Breakout workshops at the conference included mental health practices ranging from large institutional workplace health changes to small scale indigenous practices for talking and listening.

On the main stage, we heard from Dr Fiona Kerr about the neuroscience of our interactions with technology. Far from being a technology alarmist, Dr Kerr provided advice for us as technology creators to understand how to design technology to enhance the human experience, rather than to starve important human needs like touch, and eye contact.

When considering workplace well-being, particularly in the tech industry, it’s impossible to ignore the massive gender divide when it comes to participation. There are other major disenfranchised groups to consider too, but it was wonderful to see how much the strong feminist tone of this conference elevated it in many areas, and how the needs of women intersected with all our needs for healthier and more flexible workplaces, and for more equitable economies and platforms.

The panel discussion entitled “A Female Future” was one of the most lively and interesting throughout the event, with speakers from film, finance, law and tech illustrating shared challenges throughout. For example, we’ve heard a lot about the pay gap between genders, but I hadn’t stopped to consider how much this is magnified when it comes to the amount of superannuation women have when they retire.

Systems Change & the New Economy

In a future of platforms, crypto-currencies, automation and gig work, how do we navigate towards a bright future? We heard stories from lots of great purposeful businesses, all doing their bit, such as Malcolm Rands of Ecostore, and the wonderful grassroots inventing and crowdfunding story of Flow Hive.

For me though, no one captured the dramatic changes in our economic system like Rachel Botsman in her talk on trust. From our elections, to our media, to our successful businesses, we live in a very different world of trust to the one our parents knew, with trust not being directed at large stable institutions but instead being applied to networks and platforms.

Rather than stumble around trying to explain it here, I really recommend anyone building tech platforms, or working in blockchain, or fintech, or government, or media, to just go read her book right now.

Who Can You Trust?

Who Can You Trust? has 186 ratings and 34 reviews. Tomas said: A surprisingly solid and most importantly very current take on where the trust in technolo…

Bringing it Home

While these themes are just one particular lens for viewing the current problems and opportunities in the world, and I can think of plenty of issues they fail to cover, they provided a wonderful framework for interlacing discussions. Most talks were arguably related to all three of the above themes in some way.

There are many great speakers who I’ve failed to cover here, which is really just a glimpse of what stood out for me. I’ve got lots to think about, and hopefully bring into my work in some way. I’m lucky that I work for a business that’s values driven, but I know there’s more that we can all do. If you have a purposeful business that has a digital component, come talk to us at Cogent.

If you want to meet more people in the space, there are social enterprise meetups in most Australian cities, such as this one in Melbourne; there are programs to support you on your journey, such as those run by the Center for Sustainability Leadership, and there are a host of other good conferences to check out both locally and abroad. I can recommend Festival for the Future and New Frontiers in New Zealand, OuiShare in Paris and around the world, and the Social Enterprise World Forum which was in Christchurch last year.

Photo of me by the fabulous Digital Storytellers —

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