Future Distributed: 12 months into the journey



Author: Will Needham Published on: September 11, 2020

It has been a fast 12 months since my first Future Distributed post, so I thought a ‘Review of the Year’ style post was warranted.

A lot has happened since September 2019, in the context of the world, but also my tiny part of it and the built environment sector in which Future Distributed operates. I’ve published 24 podcast episodes, 10 other articles, 1 interactive essay, met countless inspiring people who were generous with their time and patience (thank you!), built a new brand, a new website and lots of other cool stuff!

In this post, I’ll walk through these highs and lows in more detail. I’ll follow up this post with a Part 2 that will map out my strategy for next year and beyond.

The beginning

When I started Future Distributed 12 months ago, I stepped into a great unknown with only a loose plan. What I did have was a strong vision on what I thought I wanted to achieve with it and the values which would guide my journey.

I was confident in my vision to travel to where some of the best Built Environment innovators in the world were working, research their methods and communicate these stories widely, so that everyone could benefit.

So, I bought a recording microphone from Amazon and a one-way ticket to Copenhagen. “How hard could it be?” I asked myself. Turns out it’s pretty hard.

The Nordics (Sept. 2019)

What followed was three of the most intense weeks of my life. I raced around the Nordics researching and approaching some of the best people in the region. I picked the Nordic region due to its reputation. The built environment ‘brand image’ of the Nordic countries to people looking-in is strong, so I decided I wanted to find out more.

I spent three weeks meeting inspiring people doing great things in the region. I did my own research on the projects, policies and people that were doing things differently (or at least different to most of the rest of the world).

These weeks were really intense. As anyone who has been fortunate enough to do a stint of backpacking will attest, it’s tiring. Some days I would wake up at 5am to prepare questions for the day, race around Oslo interviewing three amazing people in one day, then head back to my hostel, pack up my stuff and prepare for an 8 hour overnight coach to Stockholm, where I would start my first interview the next day at 10am! In total, I recorded 22 episodes of the Future Distributed podcast in four weeks. In hindsight, this was not a great idea, however. I would recommend allotting more time to properly prepare for each interview to allow the conversations to reach deeper levels.

Whilst this was physically and mentally demanding, I felt alive! My passion kept me going through this period. I felt so lucky to be spending time with people I admired so much, learning from them, meeting and laughing with them, and getting the opportunity to share their stories with the rest of the world.

Luckily for me, the Nordic region is not short on people doing world-leading work in the Built Environment space. Their attitude to sustainable design and construction is far advanced of anything I’ve witnessed in other countries, to the point at which you could say it’s ingrained in their way of life.

What I mean by this is that in Nordic society, people generally care about good design. They understand the value of creativity and good design, especially in the built environment context.

Getting off the ground (Oct-Dec 2019)

After the Nordics, I ferried my way across the Baltic Sea from Helsinki to Tallinn. At this point, my plan was to spend time in lower cost-of-living Baltic countries editing all the podcast interviews and gathering momentum on FutureDistributed.org.

After winning a hackathon (our team went on to form a real company: Local Offset) and talking about the Estonian Digital Construction Cluster, I ventured south through Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, before finally settling in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, I was joined by a friend who also worked building her online business. Although we were working on different projects, it was a valuable time for me building my knowledge around marketing, social media, search-engine optimization, messaging, and discovering more clearly what I wanted Future Distributed to become.

How not to start a podcast

I learnt just how much effort it required to produce a good podcast. Especially, after I found I didn’t prioritize sound quality enough. Long story, short: if you start a podcast, you need one microphone for each speaker. Simple.

My naivety for the subject made me think that one-between-two would be sufficient. But it’s not. I learnt the hard way, after recording all 22 episodes in one batch. It was only when I sat down at the editing block, I realised my error. With reduced quality audio, it makes the editing so much more difficult.

I received valid feedback from people saying the content is really interesting, but they found it difficult to remain engaged due to the quality of the audio on some of the episodes. Which I completely agreed with. I frequently skip podcasts if it requires extra effort to just listen. Listening to podcasts is typically quite a passive activity. As soon as you make it more ‘active’, it becomes taxing on the listener, which is not a good user experience.

Another drawback of the ‘batch recording’ approach was that I did not get the opportunity to refine my own interviewing technique iteratively. It is a skill, interviewing people. One which I have great respect for. I think I improved over this first series, but it wasn’t until I sat down to edit the episodes, did I realise just how much I needed to improve on communication. There’s nothing like sitting for 4 hours and listening to yourself on repeat, removing all the ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’, to make you a better speaker.

Barcelona (Nov. 19 – Mar. 20)

In November, I attended and worked at the Smart City Expo and World Congress, covering the event, meeting hundreds of amazing people working in cities around the world. This was an awesome experience! I recorded an episode for the podcast live from the event with FIWARE, Nokia & Bettair. I found it fascinating to map how each city in attendance had progressed on its ‘smart city’ journey.

I also grew fond of Barcelona itself. The sprawling metropolis has a laid-back charm uncharacteristic for a city this size. They have a long history of city planning innovators and I loved learning more about their approach. I settled there for three months before COVID unfortunately took its grip on the city and I retreated back the UK.

Bad Monkeys (Dec.19 onwards)

Whilst I travelled through Oslo for the first time, I interviewed Håvard Vasshaug, one of the founders of the international network of BIM experts, the Bad Monkeys. Somehow, he liked what I was doing, and asked me to join their team. So I did.

In the first 6 months or so, I found it difficult to balance getting up to speed with a new role, whilst still keeping Future Distributed going. This is why I’ve perhaps not published as much content as I would have liked recently. But as time has passed, I am beginning to strike a better balance and believe both can coexist.

One of the core goals of Future Distributed is to provide genuinely impactful communication that helps real people, real projects with new ideas to improve the industry. I believe I can deliver this best by maintaining this live-link to real projects and real clients, which is one benefit of working with the Bad Monkeys. We are fortunate to hold positions on some of the largest and most technically complex built environment projects on the planet, which is inspiring in itself.

Mediums

As was the case I’m sure with many, the Coronavirus pandemic offered the opportunity to look hard in the mirror, both personally and for Future Distributed.

I started to ask myself some challenging questions:

  • Have your core values changed as a human and as a business in light of this pandemic? And what about the rapidly escalating climate crisis? Or increasing social unrest in cities around the world?
  • What does all this mean for Future Distributed?
  • What are the really deep structural problems we face in the built environment sector?
  • In what way can Future Distributed feasibly contribute to any of these?
  • If I could achieve one thing with Future Distributed over the next 5 / 10 / 20 years, what would it be?
  • What about in the short-term, what can be achieved?
  • How will Future Distributed survive financially?
  • Am I maximizing the leverage from my existing skills, experience, and network?

As you can see, light-hearted stuff. In my next post (next year’s Strategy), you will begin to see my current thinking on these tough questions.

New brand

After this re-alignment of the vision, I engaged a team of branding specialists to solidify this vision and translate it into memorable brand for Future Distributed which encapsulates the brand in its entirety.

I believe a strong brand identity is crucial for Future Distributed, so I invested in it. I wanted a common language, a consistent set of fonts, palettes, shapes and other visual elements that align with the mission of the company.

I learnt about the power of branding during my time at Mott MacDonald’s Smart Infrastructure startup. We hired a high-profile branding consultancy to design our go-to-market strategy, including all things branding and marketing. The result was remarkable really, not only did the company now have a professional appearance to go into the world with, it had a noticeable impact on the confidence of our own team.

So that’s what I wanted to achieve with Future Distributed. A consistent visual appearance for all digital assets I produce. I worked with Burn and Tailor for about 6 weeks to agree the brand direction. I will be writing a more detailed post about this process and the output in another post. You can begin to see elements of this new brand in play on my new website, but it’s not 100% realised yet. Let me know if you have any initial feedback!

New website

New website you say… why’s that?! Good question!

Towards the back end of 2019, I knew I wanted to create interactive data journalism pieces, inspired by the likes of NYTimes, The Pudding and the success of the Financial Times COVID data journalism.

I haven’t much of this used in built environment communication and I think it’s really cool. Not just cool, but very engaging. Perfectly suited to storytelling; a really interesting form of content. And aligns strongly with my skills, experience and interests.

So I wanted to try it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really possible on my old Wordpress site, so… I began to re-build the website from the ground up.

Turns out to be quite challenging! I spent the 12 months or so brushing up my HTML/ CSS/ Javascript skills, and what you see today on FutureDistributed.org is only really the ‘minimum viable product’. Crucially, I’ve built the foundation of a platform for interactive data journalism, which can be customized as much as my creativity allows.

This first interactive essay I produced using these new methods was a collaboration with Simona Cocco, an Architect working on Cooperative Housing in Munich – let me know what you think!

In terms of the content style, I see this article as ‘dipping the toe into the water’ of a very large ocean. An ocean I am keen to explore further in the next 12 months.

This article is also symbolic of the type of content I would love to produce more of in the coming months and years - close collaborations with passionate and inspiring built environment innovators. Amplifying their voices and ideas through engaging communication methods to inspire real change in the industry.

Summary

If you’ve got this far, I’m impressed. I wrote this article to map out the last 12 months of progress for my followers and also for myself to process it all. This was the first in a two-part post. Given all that I’ve learnt and reflected upon in this first article, in the next post, I will formalize the strategy for Future Distributed going forward. I’d love to hear your feedback about this article or Future Distributed in general over the past 12 months!

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