Submitted by Claire W on Tue, 08/04/2015

Did you know that the world today creates as much data in 10 minutes as in all of human history up until the year 2003? That is a lot of information. Amongst all this noise, how do environmental messages stand a chance of being heard? Or better, to have an impact and instigate change?

This interesting fact – and many others – I learned at the recent European Communications Summit in Brussels, a yearly conference organised by the European Association of Communications Directors (EACD) attracting over 700 communication professionals from around the world. The EACD had invited me to speak on the new IUCN Water infographic ‘Going with the Flow’, recently published in The Economist, along with a blog post on valuing water infrastructure services. ‘Infographics: how to speak ecology to economists’ was the title of my presentation, and I later realised this fitted perfectly with the tone and topics of the conference.

The Summit focused on ‘disruptive innovation’; the impact of game-changing developments on our work, industries, and the way we live – and how to anticipate this. “We can now safely say we live in disrupted times, when the frequency of disruptive innovation is higher than ever before”, said Herbert Heitman, EACD President.

Some of the big trailblazers in 2015 are AirBnB and Uber, in the top five of start-ups revolutionising business. For a full listing, check the CNBC Disrupter 50 List of companies whose innovations are changing the world as we know it.

No example could have illustrated this better than the news of Paris being gridlocked by angry taxi drivers over the mobile application ‘Uber’. The news was making headlines whilst Uber’s Head of Communications, Gareth Mead, was speaking. “The fear instigated by disruption can upset progress, but it can also greatly serve as a catalyst for change”, said Mead. With Paris at a stand-still caused by an app worth US$ 50 billion and labelled the fastest growing company ever seen, he certainly knew what he was talking about.

The TEDx styled conference was opened with a keynote by Frederik Pferdt, Google’s Head of Innovation and Creativity. An instant dynamism filled the plenary when he asked participants to jot down their ideas, their ‘what ifs’, for their companies…and send these flying off in paper airplanes. At Google, creating environments where innovation can happen is key, “be the ‘yes and’, not the ‘yes but’ colleague,” he said.

This attitude had certainly also fuelled those behind Conservation International’s hugely successful Nature is Speaking campaign. Gabriele Zedlmayer, Vice-President of Hewlett-Packard, who sponsored the campaign, stressed that “we live in exciting times of unprecedented change. We have an exceptional opportunity to use the power of technology to break down barriers, bring clarity to complex issues, and inspire actions that can help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges”. I was not surprised to hear she was voted by Newsweekas one of 150 ‘women who shake the world’. “Be bold, be brave, because this train has left the station”, she concluded.

Needless to say, I was slightly daunted to be speaking among a league of ‘top disrupters’ and ‘world shakers’. And yet, many insights resonated. When I first raised the idea of ‘what if’ we created a simple infographic illustrating what we mean by water infrastructure services, and add a value to them, the IUCN Water team’s response was certainly of the ‘yes, and’ kind. And, let’s write a blog along with the infographic…and let’s aim to get it published in The Economist on World Environment Day. The ‘what if’, and ‘yes and’, led to exactly that, the IUCN Water infographic and blog written by Dr Mark Smith were published in the Economist, see ‘Valuing Nature’s Water Infrastructure’.

Of course, this is not where it ends. The expression ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ isn’t just a nice saying, scientific evidence shows that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text. In a world where we are all overloaded by information, this is worth taking note of. So I attended the session of the visual data software which shared lessons on the use of data storytelling, but also on how to make it go viral and the next big thing, interactive infographics. So watch this space.

If we wanted to target our water message to the Economist reader, who better to read up on than one of the world’s most successful business leaders? Richard Branson in his blog ‘How to Win and Keep your Audience’s Attention’ writes “simplicity in communications is not just a nicety but a necessity”. There was further evidence of this through the presentations of banking sector communicators, such as Lloyds, UBS, and HSBC. They too seemed to adopt this approach – keep communications simple,no complex or jargon-heavy messaging, rather back to basics through engaging employee champions and sharing human interest stories.

Of course, in our globalised world, targeting your key audiences means evaluating how they access their information. For example, Alibaba is hugely popular in China, not so for Europe; and whilst Whatsapp is widely used in Europe, Snapchat is the next big thing in the US.

A data animation video of the European Communication Monitor (ECM) 2015 survey revealed that one in three communicators recognise that traditional communications such as advertising and media sponsoring, are rapidly losing importance. On the other hand, it was acknowledged that the power of data-leveraging measurement insights is crucial to turn good communications into excellent. Viktor Mayer Schonberger from the Oxford Internet Institute spoke about data as a game changer in communications. Indeed, it is time to ‘measure up’.

Lastly, it is not only how you present the data, but how you evaluate it, and create communities and mobilise movements to carry the message forward. During the two day Summit, Sonia Khan received the 2015 Young Communicators Award for her work on the #notjustforboys campaign. Asha Tharoor, Media Head of The ONE campaign, spoke along with Instagram influencer Sebastian Spasic on social media influencing. For example, Queensland Tourism recently organised the hugely successful ‘Instameet’, where more than 6,000 images of the Sunshine State were captured by 1,085 Instagrammers, making it the biggest event of its kind. A ‘Green Instameet’ would perhaps be an idea for drawing attention to the upcoming IUCN Conservation Congress in Hawaii? Both Asha and Sonia highlighted the campaigns’ importance of engaging regularly with their audiences through the social media they used, and adopting an ‘us’ approach.

I took home many lessons from the Communications Summit, but one key message was certainly on the power of communicating data and the technologies out there to harness it. In a rapidly evolving digital world, adopting a ‘can do’ attitude along with staying abreast of the latest online apps and tools, are some of the key ingredients to turn disruption and anticipation into communication possibilities and opportunities, as indeed…this train has left the station.