REFLECTING ON SEMIOFEST 2016

Semiofest 2016 has been an event filled with inspiration, education, and lots of familiar faces. Director Al Deakin and Associate Director Malex Salamanques were invited to attend and present to the one of the foremost gatherings of Semioticians in the world to celebrate Semiotic thinking and innovation.

Semiofest’s 5th annual celebration of semiotic thinking was held in a decommissioned power station in Tallinn, Estonia; a monument of the Soviet era recently repurposed as a hub for Tallinn’s flourishing knowledge economy. Where communist workers once toiled in its boiler rooms, strongly bearded men now discuss APIs over vegan wraps. Fitting, given that the theme of the conference was the relationship between semiotics and innovation.
It was an invigorating experience. We heard papers from across the globe celebrating the discipline’s capacity for driving innovation in wheelchair design, political forecasting, music choice for brands, avatar therapy and the Mexico City Metro among many other things. Despite the wide range of approaches and backgrounds present, it was easy to see some consistent themes across the papers, all of which suggest the science of signs is flourishing.
Here are some thoughts that have stayed with me two weeks after the event.

Semiotics  inspires bravery in the innovation process.
This was emphasised by Farouk Y Seif’s key note speech which explored semiotics’ role in revealing and diagnosing “the imaginary”, the space where our fantasies of positive transformation reside, which can legitimate and guide the creation of new products and customer experiences otherwise deemed too risky or strange. Sam Grange’s paper on innovation at Bell Labs provided examples of how this works, as did Space Doctors own paper – looking at how mapping the strange and subversive world of sleep for IHG combined with ethnography to transform the experience of the hotel customer. It was exciting to think about how semiotics can help organisations see and trust in better versions of ourselves and to remind us that true innovation is always “utopia by increments”.

The applied potential of biosemiotics remains largely untapped, but maybe not for long.
The conference was organised by Estonia’s Tartu Institute, home of the discipline, so it’s unsurprising that the relationship between biology and signs made more than one appearance.  Mark Lemon gave a great paper on the relationship between dominant/emergent codes and the semiosphere and Malcolm Evans’ closing keynote, which challenged us to embrace culture as a part of nature, was a typically expansive and inspiring tour de force taking in Philip K Dick, Julianne Moore, Tibetan Buddhism and how semioticians of a certain age resemble The Supremes. There’s a lot of work to do in addressing biosemiotics to client challenges, but we all came away better equipped and eager to meet them.

It’s surprising what 40 semioticians shut in a room will get up to.
Surprising if, like me, you thought they would end up deconstructing the conversation until no conversation was possible. In fact, the opposite was true. The mood was generous and joyful and talents were focused on how the discipline can improve things for people. Co-founder Chris Arning put this best when he observed that it was “a conference with soul” and this was nowhere more apparent than in the three hour bootcamps featuring groups of 20 or so delegates, many of whom had only recently met, working together like old colleagues to respond successfully to challenges facing local clients.

Tallinn seems like a hopeful version of the future.
With its digitally enabled democratic system, its flourishing start up culture and its general air of tolerant humanity, it’s a place that any Brits considering a new home in the event of a Brexit win this Thursday should urgently investigate.

There were too many other worthy papers to mention here, and too many mental connections made to capture in a single blog post, but I’d urge those interested to look at the Semiofest website for more detail.
Congratulations and thanks must go to Kaie Kotov and her colleagues for organising a seamless experience and to the Semiofest co-founders Chris, Lucia and Hamsini for conceiving such a lovely thing. Here’s to the next one.