The Electric List is your advance warning system for new talent and bold thinking in the chaotic, colliding worlds of fashion, art and culture.
This carefully curated list features original content and in-depth interviews with change agents creating a revolutionary new vision of the world and the way we live now.
Every month we will present unpretentious and fearless individuals whose values and philosophies coincide with those of CMPLT UNKNWN
and whose efforts, as epic or modest as they may be, are shaping a better future. The Electric List is your free hook-up to intelligence and coolness today and tomorrow.
Words and photos by Nusrat Durrani
The Electric List’s very first featured guest is Ella Kieran, the electric and wildly popular Director of Stream, the WPP "Un-conference" series, and a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers network. With the innovative Stream series, she has created a unique creative intersection of art, tech and media where its leading-edge thinkers share and shape the future. Ella is also co-founder of Girls In Tech London, part of a global network aimed at giving women in technology a platform. She was a judge for Virgin Media Business' 2014 quest to find "Three New Things" that will help change the way we live and work.
She was featured in GQ and Editorial Intelligence's 100 Most Connected Women 2014- a list that included Her Majesty The Queen and Cara Delvingne. Described in the Huffington Post as an "omnipresent superwoman”, Ella is an accelerator of change and a master curator of what’s next in media and technology. Ella sat down with us in CMPLT UNKNWN’s New York studio on a snowy afternoon which soon turned sunny because of her radiance and warmth.
Who is Ella Kieran?
I was raised in rural England, the youngest child with one older sister. We spend most of our time in the outdoors and around animals and nature. My greatest enjoyment is still the country and the ocean. More recently I’ve worked internationally for the communications holding company, WPP, leading Stream; the technology and creativity focused “Unconference”.
Wired UK describes you as an “impeccable disorder nurturer”, what do you think they meant?
As Director of Stream, it’s my job to bring together a unique group of brands, start-ups, media companies and agencies for three-days discussion on the future of our industries. The format is free form. Everyone who is invited is expected to contribute; whether that’s a discussion on the latest trends, screening unreleased films or demonstrating the latest technology (there’s usually a fleet of drones). Out of this slightly chaotic format we believe that we can give space to wider conversations, bigger ideas and deeper connection than the traditional networking done at executive meetings.
You and your team have made the annual Stream Unconference a must-attend event for techies, media folk and disruptors - Tell us why it’s so special?
What makes Stream so special is the combination of people in a format that allows them to be themselves and remove their commercial/professional head for long enough to think about problems bigger than their own. When you assemble the smartest lateral thinkers and problem solvers in a single space and ask them to apply their talents to look at problems they’ve not thought of before or never needed to consider the results can be both awesome, inspiring and game changing - it’s that opportunity to charter the unknown and solve problems as well as connect deeply with new people of shared interests that you might not every hear of at a typical conference that I’m passionate about.
How do you come up with its unfailingly eclectic and electric programming?
I don’t. That’s the beauty of it! I chiefly facilitate others ability to invent their own opportunities at Stream. I believe my role is to identify and bring together the most interesting cross section of societies current problem solvers, thinkers, tinkers, makers and sayers to figure things out. The format from there is creating the room to think, experiments, misbehave (a little!), ask questions, solve problems and create together. It’s simply amazing when you give smart people the environment to have fun and think creatively about new problems - most of them are dying to do it already, we just make the space and time for it.
How have your experiences influenced what you do?
Meeting great minds, being inspired by their stories and learning how they solve problems or interpret the world around them has been fascinating for me. On a more personal note I recently moved to New York from London which was something I had never anticipated doing in life. Challenging and heart wrenching, yet I’ve learned so much about myself and my ability to adapt and build a life in an equally amazing city in a very different way. I hope to harness all of these in the future to do something very modest but hopefully still with lots of heart and impact.
What do you think are some of the big forces shaping the media industry?
It depends on how you define media. For the purpose of this I interpret that as two parts - one the more traditionally published/broadcast channels and separately the evolution of new media channels, communication mechanisms and consumption paradigms. I think the last decade has seen a staggering change in media, in particular our consumption of it and the prevailing successes within those industries. Whether you look at Buzzfeed, Vice or Refinery29, you can’t deny that there’s been a complete shift in what constitutes a publishing power house - arguably they’re not about ‘publishing’ anymore they’re simply about content creation and on the demand lead consumer side - consumption in a way that we’ve never seen before.
Fundamentally technology but more specifically mobile has directly impacted the type of media we consume and the context with which we consume it. It’s shorter with less depth (some would say less quality) and highly disposable. Volume and frequency of content win right now which is something that traditional publishers have struggled with. Aside from mobile as a technology affecting the consumption mechanism of media, I think that the greatest change is consumer/human side - we simply don’t value published content in the way we used to as we are now able to self-create with a facility we simply didn’t have only a decade ago. This disposability has placed a low value on published content and media that sustains it - in the view of a young Snapchat user, the content they absorb from their friends or a ‘celebrity’ in that channel is as valuable as that created at great cost by a brand or publisher. That commoditization of content quality and value will continue - I’m unsure where it leads but I think it spells great challenge for brands in traditional media models and potentially great opportunity if they adapt sufficiently rapidly.
What does sustainability mean to you and what are some of the things all of us can do towards a more sustainable future?
Sustainability is such a complex thought as there truly are varying degrees of sustainability, CSR and ‘social good’ we can all undertake. At a very basic level, sustainability for me personally is about living in a way that minimizes my impact and does so through reuse as much as possible. What I find interesting about the idea of “reuse” is that it covers not just material but also services, ideas and - truly sustainable living is to minimize unnecessary waste - I think of this broadly, whether it’s ideas, systems, material goods or product. Sustainable living should be about the repurposing of all ‘product’, physical or intangible to maximize its effectiveness and lifetime value to society.
As it relates to sustainable futures - this always leads to the cliché’s of recycling, green thinking and eco-ism. I’m more interested in the aggregate effect of each and every person doing a small part to sustain our future. I think rather than individuals with grand gestures of sustainability, it’s when we all do small amounts, in our own way that we’ll see a true change in our future - that requires new thinking and optimization of how we use everything we create. This is where the innovators of WPP Stream would have a field day reinventing uses for almost everything that we currently use once without consideration for it’s future value. Last, sustainability is about good, being good custodians of a world with limited resources. I would love to find a way to tell the story of the materials involved in our everyday products; so that in the same way you take care not to smash your phone, you take care to recycle it.
What about the CMPLT UNKNWN brand resonates with you?
I think it was Anthony Bourdain that said cooking was an oral tradition and so easily lost. I think this is true of more that just cooking. Whether it’s architecture or design (how often have you pushed a door that says pull?) we have to find a way to share the best of what we’ve done before and build on it. To me, that’s what CMPTL UNKNWN is about. It’s about finding artisans with a craft honed over hundreds of years, and applying their skill to style, and clothing of the future. What Afshan and her team are doing is literally weaving stories into the future. Better yet; it provides a new livelihood for these talents, a new beauty for others to enjoy and creates value. Anything that can do this is about sustainability in a way that’s more than just eco-ism it’s about repurposing of ideas, talent, process, systems and network - how incredibly powerful!
Who are the people you admire most and why?
My father. He’s a thoughtful, gentle person who has imposed himself little on others despite tremendous heart and option of his own. He’s built a world in which I could learn the value of beautiful craft and ideas, without ever forgetting the natural things. That he would be embarrassed by me mentioning him here speaks volumes. Second, Mark Read. My former boss at WPP at now CEO of data driven creative powerhouse agency Wunderman. He’s sharp, responsive, aware of macro global issues and still diligent enough about the details to answer emails on the minutiae. He tends to be the smartest person in room, but has a sense of humour with it.
What music, art, movies, and designers are you loving right now?
I have fallen in love with Issey Miyake’s clothing. Almost entirely for the use of recycled plastics in his high fashion womenswear - that and aesthetically the origami influence on function design. The results are wrinkle proof dresses that can fold up like origami yet look like something from a Kubrikian fantasy!
I recently saw Gaspar Noe’s new movie Love and was blown away. As with any Noe movie, the subject matter is pretty bold and visceral - in this case, bluntly it’s all about sex, as was his previous Enter the Void. They’re powerful if divisive pieces of cinema with a unique perspective on the human condition. I may not love them but they have had a real effect on me.