In my second year attending this phenomenal gathering of creatives, designers, writers, musicians and thinkers, I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t just match the former year’s glory—in many ways, this year surpassed 2018.

At a time when many of us are thinking about the future—about automation, artificial intelligence, the shifting workforce and changing political discourse—99U was a wonderful reminder that in creativity, there lies a future that cannot be replicated, automated, or algorithmically predicted. 

As always, creativity remains a beautifully uncontained beast, born of the human imagination.

While there were several presentations that struck a powerful cord, such as Kyle T Webster’s ode to the lost art of being bored, and Zach Lieberman’s curiously creative look at coded art, it was Michael Ventura’s exploration of empathy and Ashley C Ford’s alternate view of imagination that struck me most potently.

Michael Ventura shared how he had explored the key strength of his own agency, Sub Rosa, only to land on empathy. ‘It’s not about being nice’, he was quick to assert. Empathy, rather, is the key tool by which his agency seeks to be insightful. It’s how he looks into what is needed by his clients’ human audience. 

Through empathy, he was able to solve his clients’ problems by better understanding the pain points of their customers. This form of ‘walking in their client’s shoes’ and acting upon that which deterred or upset them was a simple idea, but one that’s often overlooked in favour of catchy slogans or cool, self-serving creativity.

Ashley C Ford also left you thinking long and hard about how we approach each and every day. In a powerful story that traced her own assumptions about a town’s judgments, and how a teacher let go of his assumptions to ask her what she was doing, she demonstrated the true power of being open to imagining something different.

Without a PowerPoint, or even a determined point, she left us all standing in applause as she reminded us that our preconceptions are the most dangerous obstacle to change. If we choose to ask questions, rather than take things as we believe them to be—if we allow ourselves to imagine that what we perceive might not be what is—we could possibly change the world.

As we grapple with some big challenges: from a natural environment that’s in crisis, to a workforce that’s threatened by the advancing technology we’ve created­—having empathy and a willingness to imagine something different, seem like powerful tools with which to handle what’s to come.

That’s the power of looking into the future through the lens of creativity. It feels optimistic, even when there’s much to fear. It brings the humanity—and its power for change—back to the forefront of what’s possible.

When people ask me what my absolute highlight of 99U was this year, it’s hard to precisely articulate. There’s an energy and a magic that happens when 1,000 creative minds from around the world congregate with openness, and it’s that energy that will not just power me through the year to come, but will make me yearn to return year after year.

(Of course, partying at MoMA is also pretty bloody cool… so there’s that, too!)

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