8 Things We Learnt at Link Festival 2015

Reflections on an incredible two days where 450 of Australia's current and emerging leaders came together to work on applying design and technology to social change.



At Link Festival we heard Google it. We heard IBM said it. We heard Good Design Australia say it. The audience got it.

In his wrap post after Link Festival, one of our attendees wrote: "I think companies are spending too much time trying to incrementally make their dull solutions better, when they really should be focusing on the big problems - and which of these could be the biggest disruptor to their core offering."

There were some stunning examples of this spoken about - from Interface FLOR's Net-Works project which takes ghost nets out of the ocean and uses the nylon in their carpets to close the loop on their manufacturing process. To Google X projects such as the Loon Project to put give one billion people access to free wifi.

We got involved in this event because we believe in the world of design and technology that improves people’s lives and brings us closer to the natural world. Not just because it’s nice and feel-good but because this change - where we see individuals and whole industries starting to solve real problems, not first world problems - must happen and will happen - and at Link Festival we are sure we met the people who are going to do it.

2. conference food can be vegetarian AND healthy And delicious

Lentil As Anything catered Link Festival. AND IT WAS AMAZING.

Lunch was spectacularly yummy - think curries and rice, salads and crispy noodles. The chai was always bubbling away in the background at all times, and the fresh fruit and snacks were absolutely delicious. We were so glad that people could share conversation over delicious meals and cups of tea throughout the event. Lentil as Anything were one of many social enterprises who were suppliers to the event including Flashpoint Labs providing photography services and Digital Storytellers capturing video.

Check out #lentilasanything on twitter and instagram.



One of my favourite sessions was 'All About the Journey' which featured Simon Griffiths, founder of two social enterprises: Who Gives a Crap and Shebeen; Kaj Lofgren from The School of Life Melbourne, Shivani Gupta from The Passionate People Institute and Sally Dominguez, designer and Engineers Without Borders ambassador.

Early in the discussion, both Simon and Kaj shared stories of quite serious mistakes and failures in their businesses - and how they turned these into opportunities to engage their communities more closely, and to learn lessons deeply. In Simon's case, it was his first order of 250,000 rolls of toilet paper (enough to fill 2 apartments) which arrived with no perforation. What did he do? He turned to his community of customers, explained what happened, and asked for forgiveness on the first order with a promise to improve the next one. He brought them in on the challenges of manufacturing the product and they supported him through it!


Thanks for the odd choice of free mug! #linkfest2015

A photo posted by Paul Krix (@paulkrix) on

It's a Link Festival tradition for Engineers Without Borders volunteers to scour op shops for mugs in the lead up to the event. This has three benefits:

1. We use ZERO paper or plastic in the serving of tea, coffee and delicious Lentil As Anything chai at the event.
2. There is an awesome moment where everyone is asked to pull their mug out of their bag and compare with their neighbour. It also acts as a conversation starter throughout the two days.
3. We can give a unique gift to your attendees (or re-use them the following year if they choose to leave their mug behind).

Hi there! Thanks for a great Link Festival. Came away with lots of new connections and new ideas. Of all the conferences and workshops I’ve been to so far this has been the one of highest value in terms of connections (which is saying something, as last year I also did an amazing workshop with CFAR, but this rated high in terms of diversity and people getting things done!)
— Louise Valmoria, attendee
The event was one of the best we’ve ever attended - a rare combination of serious professionalism mixed with passion and purpose. Not sure what magic sauce you used to pull that it off but it was world-class in every respect.
— Angus Hervey, Future Crunch

5. Honest conversations are the best kind

Link Festival hosted a fireside chat between Dumbo Feather and Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO, David Ritter.  In a discussion of storytelling and the idea of the narrative arc, David gave a frank account of how he ended up as the CEO of Greenpeace, challenging the ideas that things always come to be through a nice story or in a linear fashion. It was also refreshing to hear David's views on how it is equally good to just join an organisation and support them if they are already doing good work as opposed to starting something new. This ran the risk of being an unpopular view, in a room full of entrepreneurs bucking the bureaucracy, but challenging what the audience wanted to hear was exactly the kind of honesty that made his talk so great.



"Unicorn" is a term being used to describe people who are multi-discplinary or have multiple sets of skills which usually reside in more than one person - eg. an artist-engineer, or designer-programmer. We had many of these at Link Festival: in the audience, in speaker Leah Heiss who is an artist and nano-technologist who produces 'biosensing' jewellery, in the engineers we met who were also spoken word poets, in economics students who also consider themselves creatives. We're seeing more and more people who don't fit into a traditional corporate HR or job description division of skills, talents and labour. In fact, perhaps the unicorn isn't so rare anymore as 21st century human beings are encouraged to nurture all parts of themselves and their skills at work and in life.

Our MC Sally Dominguez summed up Link Festival beautifully when she described Ron Allum - a designer, engineer and crew members on James Cameron's DeepSea Challenge - as a 'narwhal' - commonly referred to as 'the unicorn of the sea'. It's also a fitting description for Tim Jarvis AM - who built multi-discplinary team of 'unicorns' and took them to the South Pole in a barely-sea-worth boat. And a fitting description for many of the unicorns we met at Link who are multi-disciplinary but also operating in extreme conditions in far-flung corners of the world and at the edges of innovation. So - move over unicorns - here come the the narwhals!



Link Festival wouldn't have happened without the incredible army of volunteers who came to it from Engineers Without Borders, but also from many different walks of life. There were corporate refugees who had escaped for the day, uni students, start-up founders who were too strapped for cash to afford a ticket, die-hard Engineers Without Borders supporters. Anyone who wanted to come to Link and be a little more involved in the behind-the-scenes action than the average punter was welcome. We couldn't have done it without them so keep volunteering for the organisations and causes you love - only good can come of it.


Great to end the ideas fest with an old mate uber-explorer Tim Jarvis #inspiration #timjarvis #linkfest2015

A photo posted by SallyDominguez (@sallydeminx) on

We heard from some seriously incredible people - and the most impressive of these were people who had gone far outside the norm and a long distance from their comfort zones.

Take Tim Jarvis, showing enormous calm under pressure when after four years of planning a documentary film, had his Discovery Channel film crew abandoned his Shackleton Epic expedition within 8 hours of it starting. He was left with Go Pros to film it himself, saying: " erm ok, it'll be a bit Blair Witch but we'll do the best we can".

Everyone at Link stepped out of their comfort zones - whether they got busy with pizza boxes and sharpies during Ben Crothers' great session on "Bringing out Your Inner Design Thinker" or had relatively deep conversations with strangers at "Mentoring for Meaningful Careers"

Danny Almagor of Small Giants put it beautifully at the event when he said: "that which aligns with what you care about - do more of. That which doesn't align with what you care about.. stop". This is absolutely a philosophy to live by, but sometimes it's easier said than done. And it takes bravery.

That said, if there's anything that will give you courage and help you live your values and your purpose and be more effective in what you want to achieve - it will be the people who share the journey with you - and we hope you met some of them at Link Festival.

Now.. over to you.