Embrace The Unexpected

Fast Company‘s Robert Safian shares what we learned at the Fast Company Innovation Festival.

“We came all the way from Bangkok for this, and was it worth it? Hell yeah!!” So wrote Katherine Amatavivadhana, one of 3,000 attendees at our inaugural Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City. “It was a visit to a future world that is already here,” another attendee from Bosnia expressed in a blog post. “During five days, at a hundred different events, you could hear about innovation from the business innovators themselves, from Hollywood stars, who are increasingly becoming business people, and from entrepreneurs, who are increasingly becoming media stars.”


We set out to bring Fast Company’s pages to life—nearly two dozen of our cover subjects joined us, including Nike CEO Mark Parker and Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts—and in the process something magical happened: By juxtaposing perspectives and industries, talents and ideas, we unlocked a swarm of insights and inspiration. Participants connected in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Who knew that Facebook VP of global marketing Carolyn Everson was a superfan of Rent the Runway and would turn giddy at meeting its CEO, Jennifer Hyman? Or that Saint Laurent North America president Brant Cryder would be dumbstruck at meeting GE vice chair Beth Comstock? Or that ad agency 72andSunny would invite attendees to brainstorm for a real client? Or that science guy Bill Nye would bring down the house when he shed his bow tie and put it on DJ Steve Aoki?

“Lessons of Leadership,” highlights a selection of memorable exchanges from the festival—with terrific portraits thanks to a team led by photo director Sarah Filippi—yet it only approximates the energy and dizzying array of activities on display. (Dumpling tour? Fashion show? Policy hackathon? Yes, yes, and yes.) We’d initially planned that the festival would be a onetime occurrence, but the enthusiasm of speakers and attendees was so robust, we felt compelled not only to recap the gathering for our full readership but to commit to reprising the event in 2016. We hope you’ll join us.

Sometimes “the future that is already here” can seem a very grim place: climate change, economic inequality, intolerance. Our culture can exercise its most extreme instincts. But there is another strain of cultural change afoot around the globe, from Bangkok to Bosnia, a more inclusive, optimistic set of values. The battle between opposing worldviews is real, and sometimes dangerous. (Max Chafkin’s feature, “Can Airbnb Unite the World?” explores some of these conflicts, epitomized in part by the terrorist attacks in Paris in November.) Yet undervaluing the power of positive change can be as foolhardy as underestimating the threat of extremism.

What leadership is really about is choice: What kind of world do we want to embrace? And what can each of us contribute to making that world a reality? Nike’s Mark Parker talks about the need to “edit and amplify” as business leaders—that there is so much change, and so many possible tactics and strategies, that we need to focus in on what really matters. We believe that events like the Fast Company Innovation Festival—and articles like those we publish each month in the magazine and each day online—help encourage that focus and act as an accelerator for a richer future for everyone. What’s certain is that without these possibilities, we’ll never stave off the darkness. There’s no better antidote to fear than community. And the community of Fast Company has its part to play.

About the author

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian oversaw Fast Company’s print, digital and live-events content, as well as its brand management and business operations.