Finding your tribe

Neil Gibb’s The Participation Revolution presents a number of case studies that showcase how one’s frustrations with the present can often be the fuel of change. We met with Gibb to discuss how he remains optimistic in a turbulent world, and why he believes hybrid working to be an incredible opportunity for humanity.

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, once said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Few would disagree with the general sentiment.

But Neil Gibb’s The Participation Revolution offers a number of case studies exploring how one person’s frustrations with ‘the present’ can so often be the catalyst for change.

In his book The Participation Revolution, Gibb relates to the original story of Nick Woodman, the Founder of camera company GoPro. While on a surfing trip in Bali, Woodman wanted to capture the experience of riding a wave on film, to share with friends and other surfers.

Various local businesses were filming surfers from the shore, but Woodman felt they failed to capture the intense, exhilarating experience he and his fellow surfers enjoyed on their boards.

So, the Californian took matters into his own hands, literally. His first attempt included putting a camera in a plastic bag and strapping it to his hand; it was unsuccessful. But he persevered, experimenting and sharing results with fellow surfers in beachside bars until he honed a product that would work.

The GoPro camera’s incubation did not stem from an expertise in film or technology – Woodman had none. Instead, Gibb argues, Woodman was a participant: as a surfer he was uniquely placed to understand what his community needed, what could work and what would not. Furthermore, his product was participatory: it enabled the surfing community to participate more fully in the activities they were most passionate about.

In the 20-plus years since Woodman hit the waves in Bali, companies that understand, enable and support participation have thrived, from hugely successful niche brands like Rapha, the cycling specialist, to Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp. Gibb’s book is packed with examples of what it means to design products and services from the participant side of the fence.

Although the book was published in 2018, it makes for highly contemporary reading. Anyone in real estate or workplace experience design might read it today and be left wondering whether the failure of the pre-pandemic workplace to support employees was because it was missing a critical element of participatory design – designing with the consumer, not for the consumer.

But how, post-pandemic, do we participate in a hybrid future? Can the participation revolution survive remote working?

Gibb remains optimistic. He believes hybrid working is an “incredible opportunity for humanity. There are so many things it can improve: people’s lives, revitalising towns, less pollution. But it takes a lot of talking: people are trying to create a new environment very quickly. Jumping to the easiest solution isn’t a solution.”

Instead, he calls for more nuance. “It started as ‘how do we get people to work from home’. Now it’s about ‘how do we get people to work together’.” Working online, he feels, is currently very “transactional” – but it needn’t be, as demonstrated by the growing popularity of closed online communities, which embrace and reward participation.

“The Metaverse and all that is a smokescreen,” he argues. “Young people no longer want to be on open-access platforms. So yes, they’re on Facebook, but in specialist community pages only. Reddit, Slack and Discord communities are thriving.

“People are creating their own communities, with their own rules, and you have to be a participant to be a part of them.”

He points to two very different real-world businesses that he believes are channelling this sense of community to their benefit.

The first, Seed Talks, is a specialist events company launched in London in late 2021. Hosting talks across the UK under the motto “Plant an idea, watch it grow”, Seed Talks aims to connect speakers with audiences interested in science, psychedelics, wellness, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.

Whether the event is online or in person, attendees and speakers know they will be hearing from and meeting people with similar interests: this is not about generalists but specialists. Unsurprisingly, Founder William McLean has a Bsc in chemistry for drug discovery.

The other is Assembly Bradford, a flexible co-working space in the West Yorkshire city. Run by two men with backgrounds in design, they included a large design library in the building – simply because that was their passion – which attracted like-minded people, and a community was born. “People really want to be there and be part of it,” says Gibb.

“We are social animals,” he continues. “We have learned to group ourselves in tribes: we feel safe, are part of something and are committed to something. So, it’s vital to build relationships, cultures and teams. Because once these connections are made, it completely transforms the experience of online.”

As he concludes: “This is an opportunity to create work that works for people, for the environment and for business. This is such an exciting time.”

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