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In this episode of The Speaker Show, Maria Franzoni interviews Melissa Sterry.

Melissa Sterry is a transdisciplinary design scientist, complex systems theorist, bio futurist and serial founder whose research and practice explores how emerging and anticipated near-future science, technology and thinking may help humanity to build a brighter future in the face of challenges including climate change, resource shortages, biodiversity, and virgin habit loss.

She is known for creating projects that chart extraordinary conceptual, creative, and commercial potentialities.

Episode #235

Innovation against the odds

Maria Franzoni

00:00:17 – 00:00:22

Hello and welcome back to the Speakers Show with me your host, Maria Franzoni.

Maria Franzoni

00:00:22 – 00:01:25

Today we’re talking about innovation, sustainability, humanity, the future events and silos. The Speaker Show is brought to you by Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau for the world’s most successful organisations providing keynote speakers for events, conferences and summits. My guest today is a transdisciplinary design scientist, complex systems theorist, bio futurist and serial founder whose research and practise explores how emerging and anticipated near-future science, technology and thinking may help humanity to build a brighter future in the face of challenges including climate change, resource shortages and biodiversity and virgin habit loss. She is known for creating projects that chart extraordinary conceptual, creative and commercial potentialities. Her current activities include founder-director of Bio Futurism Consultancy by Oratorium, and bio-design and publishing projects, Bionic City and Panarchic Codex. Please welcome my guest, Dr Melissa Sterry.

Maria Franzoni

00:01:25 – 00:01:32

Melissa, thank you. Melissa, thank you so much for joining me. It’s a pleasure to have you here. How are you today?

Melissa Sterry

00:01:32 – 00:01:34

I’m very well. Thank you very much for having me.

Maria Franzoni

00:01:34 – 00:01:37

And you’re in France. What are you doing in France?

Melissa Sterry

00:01:37 – 00:01:43

I’m between France and the UK. I’m actually coming back to London very soon, but I’m over here at the moment.

Maria Franzoni

00:01:43 – 00:02:08

Fantastic. So you’re able to work on the hoof. That’s wonderful. Very impressive. We’ll talk a bit more about that later, actually. But before we do, let’s I really want to start with your area of expertise. You’ve been researching sustainability issues and solutions for many years. And this is a really difficult question to answer, and it’s probably what’s on everybody’s mind. But how far do you think we’ve come and how far do you think we need to go?

Melissa Sterry

00:02:08 – 00:03:03

In some ways, we’ve come a very long way in that, whereas if you revert to the early nineties, sustainability was still an issue that all too many companies weren’t dealing with, and those that were had generally relatively limited resources for sustainability. So the pioneers, as it were, were few and far between. Although even back then there was some really radical companies people are interface that were looking at sustainability is very deep level and doing smooth very intelligent and inspiring work. In some ways, we have advanced in that today, sustainability is more or less ubiquitous in terms of the narrative. In business, pretty much every company has a sustainability manager, if not the whole department. But in other ways, we have a huge way to go in that we still are nowhere near

Melissa Sterry

00:03:03 – 00:03:36

where we need to be in terms of building sustainable business models. And also the narrative has become a little stuck in that sustainability is also informed by science. And science is going through what we might think of as a golden age of Renaissance. And a lot of the new insights with insights are not yet absorbed into the mainstream sustainability narrative. So it’s a very complex picture, and you’ll find that from one company to another, the extent to which they are really addressing the issues varies very significantly.

Maria Franzoni

00:03:36 – 00:03:39

Okay. All right. So we’ve still got a way to go, then.

Maria Franzoni

00:03:39 – 00:03:45

Are we saying, but unfortunately okay. Shoes off. Just Yeah.

Maria Franzoni

00:03:45 – 00:03:52

Something else that you talk about. You talk about that, there’s a need to work beyond silos. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

Maria Franzoni

00:03:52 – 00:03:55

And how do we do that? Do you have any advice?

Melissa Sterry

00:03:55 – 00:04:40

Yes, we essentially in the oldie days, we didn’t effectively have disciplines, and it was very commonplace that thinkers and doers had not one job title, but they had a number and effectively they were having to work in a very holistic way. So you could think of somebody like Leonardo da Vinci or Alberti from the great figures of the Renaissance. You know, these individuals were not just architects and artists, you know, they had a whole folio of activities. But over time we’ve become a lot more siloed in that today, people tend to have a job title. They work in a department in a sector and so forth. And what that does is it can narrow your vision

Melissa Sterry

00:04:40 – 00:05:22

of the wider perspective, and particularly when you’ve got complex issues like sustainability that can be very problematic and that, you know, if you’re only seeing part of the problem and in a particular way, then you miss a lot of the issues and you tend to find a lot of unintended consequences, come forward from that. So it’s very important to step beyond silos if you’re looking to try and create robust solutions to complex problems. But actually, when we look to the leading edge of innovation, it’s almost always at the interface of disciplines that we find the breakthroughs, that we find innovation advancing at the greatest pace. And that’s for the very obvious reason that

Melissa Sterry

00:05:22 – 00:05:37

what it does is, it forces knowledge sharing. It forces those epiphany moments, and so it’s both in need, but it’s also if you like a very desirable way of working if you want to advanced innovation apace.

Maria Franzoni

00:05:37 – 00:05:45

Okay, so we don’t necessarily either-or need to overcome it because it’s sort of like it’s not an either or is it? It’s an and you sort of want both, don’t you?

Melissa Sterry

00:05:45 – 00:06:25

Yes, absolutely. And one of the things that’s really important. I mean, although I speak to transdisciplinary and other terms are very similar in terms of the meaning, cross-disciplinary, it interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary. It doesn’t matter what disciplinary title you give it. It’s essentially the same approaches. It’s inviting your wider peer group to the table. It’s going to other sectors and inviting them to the table. But another issue here it’s coming down to diversity, and it’s coming down to the fact that the more perspectives that you bring to any kind of problem, the more interesting and the more intelligent in effect the solutions will be.

Maria Franzoni

00:06:25 – 00:06:45

Yeah, that makes sense to me. I like that. Thank you. Thank you for explaining that. So, what’s interesting is that you’ve anticipated several major trends in the sustainability sector, including the threat of pandemics before. Obviously, we actually even went through the pandemic. And also the scale of disruption that they could cause.

Maria Franzoni

00:06:45 – 00:06:49

What are you worried about then and how, I was a bit scared, I’m gonna make notes.

Maria Franzoni

00:06:49 – 00:06:52

What are the issues that are on your mind?

Melissa Sterry

00:06:52 – 00:07:43

In all honesty, that the big issues that really concerned me now, I’m not so worried about environment. But that’s not because the environmental issues, the ramifications of climate change and biodiversity loss and so forth are immense. They are huge. The trajectories, even in the best-case scenarios, are really very challenging, shall we say. And at worst, they’re very scary. But as someone that has worked with these things for a long time, those are not the things that if you like it the level of my gut really worry me. The things that actually worry me more. The fact that one of the things that tends to happen in human societies, if we look back over deep time, is that when resources become short and when things become, you know, rather challenging, we can see fracturing. We can see divisions. We can see people

Melissa Sterry

00:07:43 – 00:08:29

becoming more fearful and more defensive in the way that they respond to problems. And arguably one of the big things that we’re seeing geopolitically around the world, where, as we have been moving to a state of relative convergence, wherein we were effectively trying to sing from the same policy hymn sheets and we had relatively similar ideas about the sort of things we wanted to do. Now we’re seeing some very deep fracturing, and that’s problematic at the level of society. And that’s what causes divisions that what you know, what sort of causes the, it’s not just left versus right. It’s the sort of the head butting of different ideologies.

Melissa Sterry

00:08:29 – 00:09:11

You know that those ideologies are not new. It’s not new that this person thinks in this particular way, and that person thinks in that particular way. It’s just that when you’re not in those stressful conditions, it doesn’t that, their differences don’t express themselves as acutely. But we’re seeing that now, and I’m really quite worried by the level of the escalation. I’m worried by these divisions because at the level of society we’re starting to see a very, very big gap in terms of the haves and the have nots. And we’re seeing that both locally and we’re seeing that globally. We’re seeing extremes in respect of the way that people are responding to the plight of others and actually the level of business. It’s incredibly challenging because whereas,

Melissa Sterry

00:09:11 – 00:10:02

you know, 20 years ago, for example, when we thought about sustainability challenges, although we recognise that policy would be a challenge, it wasn’t perceived certainly by myself in my piece as as much of a challenge as we now see, because we’re not just dealing with the challenge of addressing the environmental issues in and of themselves. But we’re dealing with the ideological issues and how they express themselves in policy, and when you’re working in business and especially again, and those fast growth areas coming up against some very different sort of national policies in terms of how business is structured in terms of the sort of boxes that you have to check and so forth, it all makes things very, very complicated. And so that really worries me. Because, of course, that level of,

Melissa Sterry

00:10:02 – 00:10:25

difficulty, for want of a better word, makes it all the harder to not just developed but to implement the kind of solutions that we need and we need very quickly if we are realistically to mitigate the challenge of, among other things, climate change, biodiversity loss, virgin habitat loss, etcetera.

Maria Franzoni

00:10:25 – 00:10:47

I’m worried about it now. Thank you for that. It really is. You know, I’ve never experienced it? Yeah. You’ve shown a lens on it. Really. And yeah, I get it. I get it. It is a problem. I imagine that it’s one of the challenges that you face in your work that you come face to face with on a regular basis. Is that right?

Melissa Sterry

00:10:47 – 00:10:49

In some ways, although, I mean,

Melissa Sterry

00:10:49 – 00:10:55

I’m in a fortunate position, but usually when people bring me in, usually when a company or a government organisation an

Melissa Sterry

00:10:55 – 00:11:12

NGO bring me to the table, it’s because they’re looking for someone that is used to addressing these very, very complex challenges and that is aware of really all the best that we have to throw at this. All the best that we have in science, in new technology, in new thinking, in looking at

Melissa Sterry

00:11:12 – 00:11:55

it through another lens, and also a little a difference, if you like in the way that I tend to work to a number of my peers, is I’m not just focused on the future, but my research goes very deep into the past. And I also have a network not just sort of fellow futurist, but of historians and other people to my concern, because I think less history has a lot of lessons to teach us, and often it’s historians that can help us really spot our blind spots and find a way forward. So, yeah, in some ways, I’m in a more sort of privileged position. I think I’d probably be despairing at present if my work was very, very policy focus because I don’t really have the patience for that.

Melissa Sterry

00:11:55 – 00:12:10

And I really feel that you know, we have to hold the positives. We have to really look to human ingenuity and stay positive because otherwise, you know, we simply can’t make the progress that we really need to.

Maria Franzoni

00:12:10 – 00:12:22

Thank you. Thank you for that. Yes, let’s stay positive. So talking about some of the challenges there, what about some of the challenges that you’ve faced along your career journey? I imagine you’ve had a few that you’ve had to overcome

Melissa Sterry

00:12:22 – 00:12:26

A lot. My career has actually been

Melissa Sterry

00:12:26 – 00:13:05

pretty in some ways pretty messy and that although my interest in my areas of research have remained very consistent, and the fact that I’ve faced a lot them, a lot of dead ends in the sense that you know, I was flying high until I graduate from my bachelor’s and then I am, my sponsor was actually although I was doing a design degree, was an engineering company basically said, you know, we will sponsor you to do the premier masters in your field, but only that masters and I was shortlisted to 21 but not 16, and I had a huge student debt and I had a massive bank overdraft, and

Melissa Sterry

00:13:05 – 00:13:33

I looked at my options and I thought, there’s no way I can afford to do a master’s, which within my area would have been the fast track to do what I wanted to do. And then I looked at you know whether or not I could go in training industry and all the areas that I wanted to train and we’re taking free interns. Which, of course, I couldn’t afford because I was laden with debt. And so I took quite an unconventional route. I thought, well, I will set up my own business. I know about the production, the design, the marketing.

Melissa Sterry

00:13:33 – 00:13:49

I have no idea at all about the business side, business admin, finance. I don’t know anyone in that area because, of course, I haven’t been training in that area. Haven’t been working in that area, but I’ll give it a go, and, I took on a

Melissa Sterry

00:13:49 – 00:14:37

an economics degree. I started studying and finance and investing course, and I sort of spent really two years trying to figure out business. And then I went into a commercial area for a while and I didn’t enjoy it. But the lessons that I learned from that the fact that I couldn’t go the way I wanted to go and I had to go a very different direction that, in many ways was more valuable because it made me much more aware of the wider issues involved in the business of design effectively and the business of creativity. And I think more empathetic and understanding. And so a lot of the projects I’ve actually done since has been to help graduates and help up and comings. And I do feel a particular sympathy and some

Melissa Sterry

00:14:37 – 00:14:57

interest in the work of they that have a lot of potentials, but they don’t have the funding or they don’t have the access. So it’s very much shaped my career in those in many, many other ways. But, yeah, I’m in a sort of odd way, thankful that things didn’t go to the plan A.

Maria Franzoni

00:14:57 – 00:15:27

Actually, in a way, because you’ve had that you’ve had to understand business. You can understand a lot of the audiences that you end up speaking to because you’re bringing them, obviously your expertise. But you also have an empathy for where they’re at and what they’re trying to do that they still, they don’t want to stop the business in order to be sustainable. They want to be able to do the two together. And so tell me a little bit, actually, about sort of topics that people are bringing you in to talk about when they invite you to speak.

Melissa Sterry

00:15:27 – 00:16:09

There are a few things that have been very consistent this past, well, it would now be what, 15 or so watches. Sustainable innovation is a very hot topic. That’s if you like the number one tick box. So looking at how their business can address sustainability but in a very creative way, looking at the potential for new markets, new models, new products and really sort of stressing that the fact that you know, although, yes, this is addressing a problem, it’s actually also harnessing these emergent areas. Another area that I tend to talk about is rapid innovation and the fact that

Melissa Sterry

00:16:09 – 00:16:49

innovation is not, in effect, that the progress of innovation is not steady in the sense that what tends to happen is in the very early stage of innovation. When you’ve got a brand new idea and it’s not yet even it’s not a market. It’s not even, an activity that really has a name. It’s just something that you’re experimenting with. There tends to be a few years in which, although you’re very excited about it and your, you know, your colleagues are very excited about it. More generally, people really don’t have a clue what you’re on about, and they don’t really see the potential. And that reminds me back in my early twenties and my late teens, a number of my peers were,

Melissa Sterry

00:16:49 – 00:16:57

setting up new media companies were setting up digital companies. And I used to sort of, you know, as a then a little rookie I would go and I would assist on projects. And

Melissa Sterry

00:16:57 – 00:17:32

these guys had already worked out the future of the Internet. But they were, you know, operating at a time when people thought they were absolutely nuts to be suggesting things like online shops. You know, this was something they were literally, you know, you’ve lost the plot. You don’t know what you’re talking about. And there will be that period but then after that, you tend to find this much more rapid adoption period. So things get quite, you know, quick in the development pace, and then, after about sort of 7 to 10 years, it starts to mainstream. And as you go through those different phases the sort of the day,

Melissa Sterry

00:17:32 – 00:18:14

the challenges both internally within and of the business, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a startup that could be an internal entrepreneurship division of a company. You know they will face very different challenges, and you also tend to find that the people that work tend to work in these different phases are not necessarily aware of all the other phases and that that’s when you get sort of teams falling out. You know, you get direct us falling out because one will understand well if we’re going to scale this to the next level, we need to do this, this and this. But if that, if their peers haven’t actually taken it to that next level, they might feel very frustrated. They might feel well, why would, why should we do that? So I think it is, it’s very useful to have

Melissa Sterry

00:18:14 – 00:18:41

been through that process to have worked and created startups and hit those walls because you can relate to the problems that people are facing and when I go into businesses, that is my aim. I’m aiming to solve their problems. I’m aiming to help them do what they want to do and do it easier than they might otherwise have done it. And then when I’ve done that, if I achieve that, it’s job done and I move on.

Maria Franzoni

00:18:41 – 00:18:56

Fantastic. So you’re saving them time. You’re saving them the problems you’re giving them the road map of how to do it. And when you do go into speak, who are the audiences that you end up speaking to? What sort of levels and what sort of departments is it mixed? What’s the best audience for you?

Melissa Sterry

00:18:56 – 00:19:41

It can be very mixed. I mean, I tend to be speaking to executives. It tends to be something like a global gathering of the executives or of the teams. Very occasionally it’s the whole company. That’s actually been something that, since we, you know, started to come out of the pandemic has been happening a lot. The number of the gigs I’ve done in that period have been the very first collective events that the companies have had since before spring 2020 and those events have been very much about getting the company back on track and actually communicating their modifications to their plans and integrating all of the learning throughout this very challenging period. So, that’s a very sort of, if you like hot topic. But,

Melissa Sterry

00:19:41 – 00:20:24

you know, I’ve talked to sort of, many, many and diverse audiences. Sometimes I’ve been out giving public talks at public festivals, and there could be, you know, from children all the way up to pensioners in terms of age given talks around the world. I found that just as you know, bands often say that the audience in X country is very different, the audience in Y country I found that, and it can, in the first instance, be a little bit disconcerting. Particularly, I remember some of the audiences that I went to the very conservative and that don’t tend to give you much feedback. I was a little bit freaked out. I thought, Oh, no, my talk is tanking and it was only afterwards that I realised. Actually, it’s a bit of a different culture, and so it’s not in their nature to

Melissa Sterry

00:20:24 – 00:20:58

be as engaging. And then the flip side you have other audiences that are very engaging. And so I tend to shapeshift how I present quite a lot. I don’t stick to a formula. I look at the brief. I look at who have we got in the room? What is the client want back from this? And I’m comfortable with all of them, really. You know, I don’t have any particular preference for me. You know, it’s actually interesting to be delivering talks and to be working with some very different communities. It keeps it all interesting.

Maria Franzoni

00:20:58 – 00:21:35

Okay. So, anybody who’s looking for sustainable innovation and rapid innovation, help in their organisations, you’re happy to talk to them, which is fantastic. Coming back to this sort of like not getting a reaction. Of course, virtual events, it’s very you don’t often get a reaction right, or people will mute themselves. So even if they’re laughing and enjoying the content or they’re saying yes and they’re agreeing, you have no idea it’s very two dimensional. So, we’ve seen the potential virtual events, but you’ve said, you’ve been quoted to say that they won’t replace physical events. Why do you think that is? And What do you think the future of events might be?

Melissa Sterry

00:21:35 – 00:22:11

I think the future of events is going to be a lot more diverse, and I think it needs to be. I was feeling that prior to the pandemic, the sector has become a bit bloated. There are a lot of conferences. There are a lot of events that really weren’t very creative. They were getting quite boring. You can tell when an event is losing its edge because it won’t necessarily have the audience that it needs. You know, the numbers won’t necessarily be there. And, you know, as a speaker, you can obviously read the room. It’s obviously part of your job to do that. And I felt that they needed to be a big shakeup and particularly given that we had all these new

Melissa Sterry

00:22:11 – 00:22:45

means have actually shapeshifting how we produce an event. So as I see it, you know, we’re going to be looking at different, several different kinds. So yes, on the one hand, there will be wholly digital events. Some of those events will be what we have seen of late, so they will be literally sit on Zoom or MS teams, a platform where literally, it’s all on a screen and you are essentially just looking and hearing is that that’s a whole engagement process. Then, of course, we’ve got the next media coming in

Melissa Sterry

00:22:45 – 00:23:16

and so we’ve got the potential. Let’s say I’ll give you an example. I haven’t seen this in events yet, but when throughout the pandemic, we were critiquing the masters and postgraduate projects of students around the world. So as jurors, you know, every master and PhD course and so forth there will be a jury process. We were integrating things like VR headsets, and so that although we couldn’t be physically in the room and actually see the tactile models, we could enter in the 3D realms through our headset.

Melissa Sterry

00:23:16 – 00:24:03

So, I very much see things like that coming in, in certain kinds of events. Obviously, the expense of doing that is higher, so that’s more the sort of thing I would see, the likes of, let’s say it’s that executive gathering from around the world where you’ve got a relatively small audience, but the nature of what you’re doing is really quite technical, it’s involved. And that kind of technology can help you to understand and experience certain information in a much more dynamic way. Then at the other end of the extreme, I think that just as before the pandemic, we had events where there was absolutely no digital element. Or, you know, I guess what was fairly common back then was things like you might be doing. So a panel chairing session and simultaneously,

Melissa Sterry

00:24:03 – 00:24:38

taking questions from the audience and from Twitter or something like that. But to all intents and purposes, they were physical events. I think those will come back in with a vengeance because I think people have really missed human contact. One of the things I realised when I was actually if you like forced to wholly deliver talks online was the fact that it is really valuable to be in the room and to see and to read and to even just sort of sense what’s going on with the room because it enables you to either delve into something more deeply

Melissa Sterry

00:24:38 – 00:25:11

or to fasten the pace or to engage the room or, you know, you can sort of be more adaptable when you’ve got that much more information coming to you. You know, and not just one way, but in a number of ways. So I think that would be diversity. I think there needs to be diversity and creativity. And I think people will have to think a lot more carefully when they’re organising an event as to what it is they’re really trying to achieve. Another shift, I’ve noticed as well, I mean, one of the things I try and encourage a client to do

Melissa Sterry

00:25:11 – 00:25:48

is really not just to be a talk where I’m stood on the stage, because I think now if you’re really going to harness the potential and if you’re going to really encourage people to explore new ideas that they have to be involved in the process, so you know it’s not. It’s almost like a game show. You know, you need to have that interaction. So things that encourage that interaction, things that actually enable you to have some engagement with your audience before the event. So, you know, in advance what kind of questions does the audience have and that actually, one of the things I always say in a talk is you know, we haven’t got time to cover everything.

Melissa Sterry

00:25:48 – 00:26:26

There is never time to cover everything. But if you want to follow up, then ping me. Let’s if we can. I mean, some talks are on NDA, so it’s all very confidential. But if it’s not, if it’s a public talk, then bounce a question over Twitter or Instagram or whatever the platform of choice is. So I think it’s getting more creative. But I think for us, the people that work in this industry, that’s much more interesting. I think there are a lot of really good ideas out there, and the only thing that really limits us at the moment is obviously its access and availability of technology. So one of the things I noticed in the

Melissa Sterry

00:26:26 – 00:26:53

pandemic when my computer, like a lot of other people’s, was getting very, very heavy, use my battery. No matter what I did, no matter what cooling devices, my battery would start to heat up. And that was because, of course, the processing power in an online event is very high, so we are a little limited at the moment by our tech but of course, that will change with time. So I think it’s a really exciting time. It’s an exciting time for events.

Maria Franzoni

00:26:53 – 00:27:27

I love your positivity. I think you’re right. I think you’re right when you said I love the term you used bloated that there was the market was bloated with a lot of events that were pretty dull. I’m glad that you’re seeing that there’s going to be a need for more innovation in events as well as well as in business, right? And that’s great. And I think you’re absolutely right. There is definitely we’re seeing in the market these people wanting to get together and to meet up again. Virtual is not going away for sure. But as you say, we do need better tech. That’s been fascinating. Thank you so much. I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself.

Melissa Sterry

00:27:27 – 00:27:34

It’s been brilliant. Your questions were great. And it’s a pleasure to meet you virtually. Hopefully in the real world soon.

Maria Franzoni

00:27:34 – 00:28:11

Yes, with a nice glass of something cold. Okay. Anyway, thank you for joining me. And thank you everybody for listening to the speaker show. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a rating on Apple podcasts and you can keep up with future episodes on the Speakers Associates website, which is speakers associates dot com, or your favourite podcast app. And if you would like to invite Melissa to come and speak at your next event or conference, please contact Speakers Associates in plenty of time to book her so that you won’t be disappointed. And I will see you all next week. Thank you. And bye-bye for now.

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Maria Franzoni is an established and recognised speaking industry expert and one of the most experienced speaker bookers in Europe.

As well as working with speakers, Maria also hosts live shows and podcasts. She currently hosts The Speaker Show podcast for Speakers Associates.

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