Epic Conference 2016: Pathmaking, Receptivity, and the Common Good

At this year’s EPIC conference, held in the magnificent city of Minneapolis, Space Doctors presented a tutorial on commercial semiotics, titled “A User’s Guide to Seeing Differently.” This was an opportunity to throw ourselves wholly into contemporary issues within ethnography and of course immerse ourselves in the local culture (of which The Minnesota State Fair and Minneapolis craft beer culture were particular highlights).


EPIC’s theme for 2016 was pathmaking,  the power of applied anthropology and business in combination to create transformative innovation, growth, and strategic success for companies, industries, and communities. The merging understandings of pathmaking chimed well with the attitudes and approaches of the Space Doctors team.

John F. Sherry, Herrick Professor of Marketing at Notre Dame, co-chaired the initial keynote address with another John (W.) Sherry, Director of the Experience Lab at Intel, and analogised pathmaking as a form of wayfinding, a divination of the best course for yourself, your clients, and for consumers. Acknowledging that the best course is rarely, if ever, known in advance, he rallied for a ‘bushwhacking’ approach – a rhizomatic take on progress that includes periodical changes while remaining open to generating new paths through your wanderings. Fundamentally, this meant maintaining a totally receptive viewpoint to new ideas, new methods, and a “relentless reframing of what consumer research and marketing is about.” That openness can mean many things. For Maria Cury and Daniel Bird of ReD Associates this means a ‘bricolage’ approach, pulling in elements of varying theories to guide and support insight without being beholden to one particular thinker or system of thought. Theory and data need to work in conjunction to ensure rigorous and deep thought that remains anchored to the real world, and “ethnographers dextrous with theory and irreverent towards rules will deliver powerful insights”.

It also means looking to new or hitherto neglected areas for insight, as Adima Daar asked us to do in a thought-provoking PechaKucha introducing biomimicry, the practice of utilising learnings from nature to solve a huge array of problems, and posing the question “how does nature do research?”


Receptivity is not only accepting the possibility of new ideas and ways of thinking, but a questioning of current methods and assumptions, and crucially it requires us to constantly question the zeitgeist. Shaheen Amirebrahami was unafraid to do just that in a paper calling out problems with the now omnipresent concepts of ‘the user’ and UX, arguing that the user as an abstract entity is often unclear and reductive, which leads to oversimplification and sidelining of deep anthropological insight in favour of one size fits all findings. Ari Nave and Anne-Marie Dorland’s presentations offered further food for thought, tackling issues they feel are endemic throughout design culture–like presumptive deep insight into users through assumed empathy or problems with the presentation of ‘design thinking.’ Anne-Marie’s paper could be seen to paint a depressing view of design research today, raising important questions about what we mean by ‘design thinking,’ how it’s enacted, how we train those who do it, and above all, how we can reinvigorate the industry with genuinely transformative design-led approaches.

This may well mean finding new ways to break down, distil, and streamline our findings, such as John W. Sherry’s work using actor-network theory to hone in on the vital aspects of the personal data economy to leverage and enact the biggest positive changes. It will also mean rethinking how we gather and use the wealth of data available, opening understanding of this data beyond the mindset of data scientists and ensuring a more varied approach to tackling data problems (as John’s colleague at Intel, Dawn Nafus, eloquently expressed in a presentation on the “Domestication of Data”).

Common Good

“Whether it’s possible to reconcile markets is at the heart of our quest for the common good” was a recurrent conference theme in talks such as Julia Haines (of Google), who spoke on the possibility for venture capital to shape socially progressive organisations. Karen Ho’s stellar keynote address tackled how corporations’ flawed visions of themselves as tradable stocks underpinned the financial crisis of 2008. Karen received perhaps the boldest question of the conference when she was asked, “Is capitalism sustainable and, if yes, how?” This question is not easily answered, but it’s important to keep these considerations front of mind to help clients better understand themselves and their place in broader culture to ensure larger goals don’t slip out of play.

Alexandra Zafiroglu’s PechaKucha’s “Living Comfortably in Glass Houses” underlined how critical a nuanced and contemporary understanding of concepts such as privacy are to really understand consumers–“when the frame changes, the rules for how we interpret things changes.” This was a powerful reminder of the need to stay responsive and adaptable in the flux of modern society.

Understanding consumers better can only ever help brands connect more strongly with them, but its critical to understand that brands also shape consumers’ understandings. It’s not simply a question of remaining responsive to changing attitudes but anticipating and helping to form broader narrative by deeply engaging with underlying shifts in culture writ large.

As would be expected, EPIC 2016 brought more questions than it did firm answers. But it’s clear that the main challenge for the industry moving forward is how we research, adapt to, and apply our insight in a way that is meaningful and creates positive change for ourselves, our clients, and society.

We’ll be busy then.