Over the weekend, the halls of Saïd Business School were flooded with entrepreneurs, technologists, journalists, performers, and students for Emerge, the Skoll Centre’s annual conference on social innovation. As could be expected from such an eclectic mix, many quickly found themselves making new and unexpected connections, often an eco-cup of coffee. However the question of conversation was far from confined to the conference hall or corridors of the Business School. Several sessions addressed the importance of connecting with others be it across the social, economic, geographic, or political divide.

In panels on human trafficking and the Refugee Crisis, audiences were urged to speak to others in their local communities in order to combat human rights violations and to remind us that victims – be it of slavery or conflict – are people first and foremost. In the first panel, speakers Chris Blythe, Emilie Martin, and Anja Meinhardt spoke of the prevalence of human trafficking, quoting reports by the International Labour Organization and the Walk Free Foundation that 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016 alone. Personal recollections of where speakers and audience members were when news of The Oxfordshire Grooming case broke, brought home the speakers’ points that trafficking happens everywhere. The later discussion on how we can help those affected by the Refugee Crisis not only challenged definitions of both ‘refugee’ and ‘crisis’ but also called for a change in narrative in order to focus on interacting with and respecting individuals in order to create systemic change and promote inclusion. With a palpable frustration regarding policy, the panelists shared their stories of how they came about leading grassroots or entrepreneurial initiatives to help refugees integrate and maintain – or regain – their dignity.

Justice in Motion’s moving piece on human slavery was a definite conversation-starter.

Justice in Motion’s moving piece on human slavery was a definite conversation-starter.

During the Sunday morning Mustard Seed pitch session, eight startups spoke to the audience about the incredible work they are doing around the world. Nadia Laabs of SafetyNet Technologies took home the prize but two other initiatives focused on using technology to connect individuals in order to help each other. Language Amigo’s Macarena Hernandez de Obeso connects Spanish learners with Latin American youth for transnational conversation classes. Jyotveer Singh Gill, an NHS Communications Specialist dubbed ‘‘the Sikh Mark Zuckerberg’ by the media, created AnonCare, a compassionate social network which connects people from all over the globe to provide wisdom and support in times of need. Described as an ‘accidentally global’ initiative, the average response time is ten minutes. Both showcased how new technology’s most exciting features are not pages of code but rather the humans and connections at the heart of it all.

After last year’s American election, Henry Tsai found that Americans had lost their ability to have conversations with each other. His solution was to create Hi From The Other Side, a simple platform connecting Americans from across the political spectrum and encouraging them to have a conversation at their local Starbucks.  Initially just a Google Form, the idea took off. The platform had thousands of sign ups in a matter of weeks and new users are facing a lengthy waiting list. Emerge participants were able to give it a go in one of the final sessions of the weekend. Within minutes people were paired up and sharing details such as what they had wanted to be growing up through to their views on immigration policy. In the session Q&A, one participant commented that she had shared more than she expected she’d ever share with a stranger. The ability to share and to speak to those who are different from ourselves were key recommendations, echoed in the event’s final keynote.

As the conference drew to an end, Peter Drobac, the newly-appointed Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, shared the impact a conversation had on his own trajectory towards becoming a world-renowned global health implementer, educator, and researcher: ‘A single moment or conversation can change the course of your life and can happen at any time. Be open to it.’

Image of Speed Networking

Attendees were quick to put their skills into practice during the popular Speed Networking lunch sessions. (Photo by Fisher Studios)


Solene van der Wielen - Comms Champion for Emerge 2017Solene is a History graduate from the Universities of Warwick and Oxford. She uses her research and writing skills to help social enterprises better understand, address, and communicate human needs in the United Kingdom and internationally.