Forefront conference Sydney
Culture, Design, Fashion, Food, Wellbeing | May 04, 2018

Supported by QICGRE

Forefront anticipates future cultures

Si Philby is the founder and Tom Sigelski the strategic lead of Sydney-based cultural consultancy Background, a collective that forges alliances between progressive brands and emerging ideas across art, design, music and fashion. Supported by QICGRE in Sydney in July, Forefront is Background’s take on the day-long conference – a format that the pair saw in need of a thorough refresh.


With an emphasis on open dialogue between all those in attendance, the summit brings together dynamic minds from a range of diverse fields in pursuit of new ways of thinking and revivified attitudes. Expect panels with speakers like Elizabeth Jens from NASA, and Jake O’Leary, the head of music marketing for YouTube in conversations anticipating future cultures.

Here, Tom and Si share with us the ideas that lead to the creation of Australia's answer to SXSW and Summit, and why they see Forefront not only as the genesis of a new international community who challenge and support each other, but also a broad, movable concept that provides a catalyst for creativity at home and abroad.

Tom Phongsathorn: Why did you decide to stage Forefront and what do you see as the summit’s purpose?


Si Philby: Part of Background’s makeup is a network of very bright minds and interesting people dotted around the world, and we work with some great brand partners. Forefront represents a platform that brings our values to life and Australia is a wonderfully creative country, but one with a bit of a gap in the market. In America you’ve got SXSW (South by Southwest), Summit Series, Art Basel and others, but none of that exists over here. Our objective is to throw an event that goes beyond the event itself and is the start of a new community, harnessing a cultural energy, and bringing it to Australia.


TP: Your strapline is: “Conferences suck. Therefore: Forefront”. What are you doing that is different from – and better than – other conferences?


SP: Everyone has been to a conference where you turn up, get a name badge, sit down and listen to someone on stage. It’s formulaic. We want to do something a bit more energetic, and where the audience is as important as the speakers. We’re starting at 3pm and it may well go on till 3am. It’s less of a sit-down-and-listen and more of a conversation.  


Tom Sigelski: A lot of conferences talk about solving problems, like “How to market to millennials”. Our idea involves getting future-focused, and a willingness on the part of the speakers to put themselves out there. If you look at the line-up that we have put together, there are some quite unusual people on it – a jet-propulsion expert from NASA, for example. We feel that different thoughts and perspectives can make sense together. 


TP: How are you structuring the panel discussions that comprise the conference?


SP: What we are trying to do is set up the speakers in an intelligent way that connects the subjects. Let’s say we begin with youth, which links into music and that links into fashion, art into design, innovation into sustainability. We want a rolling conversation that threads together. 


TS: The underlying theme is anticipating future culture, so it will all be focused around that. It might be Gary Aspden from Adidas talking about his design process and how that can play into other areas of culture; or it could be Stuart Holt from Javelin Block, who reanimates buildings of the past to make them relevant for the future.


TP: Forefront has a focus on the youth of tomorrow. Was that a conscious decision?


TS: The way that the Forefront brand is being positioned does lend itself to youth cultures, but what we’re looking to do is throw the doors open and connect people. If it’s a lot of younger people, great, but the bigger focus is to get likeminded, open and collaborative individuals in the room.


SP: When we talk about the future we are thinking about what the next generation’s behaviour is going to be like. Youth is important, but we’ve got a very broad spectrum of speakers representing a lot of different mindsets, places and ages, and we want to make sure that we are covering a diverse set of subjects through different lenses.


TP: Has your Australian identity played a role in the way Forefront has come about?


TS: There’s a real need in Australia for creative minds to connect, and I think that the spirit with which we’re going about it is what makes Forefront uniquely Australian. We want to develop new initiatives to support Australian creativity and those who are willing to look to the greater good, not necessarily always in pursuit of a commercial outcome.

Forefront conference Sydney
There’s a real need in Australia for creative minds to connect, and I think that the spirit with which we’re going about it is what makes Forefront uniquely Australian.

TP: What makes for an effective talk at a conference?


SP: A really authentic, honest, humble insight, and, in our case, thinking about what the future might be. All the people we have engaged are individuals who we feel are genuine pioneers, good human beings and very open about their worlds and what they are working on. 


TS: Also, the way that we are setting the room up will signal to everyone that it’s a conversation; we’ll be prompting through the environment in order to get audience interaction going.


TP: The event brings together people from different professional backgrounds. What can those attending Forefront learn from each other?


SP: That wisdom is not necessarily dictated by age, experience or geography, and that each of these people – of different ages, geographical locations and experiences – have something to offer. The ambition – not just for the speakers, but also the people attending and the partners – is to understand and connect more, and to learn. 


TS: It’s not just about anticipating future cultures, but about establishing a mindset. This is what the guest speakers will learn from each other, but also what the attendees will take away – the idea of being open to opportunities and being fearless. Hopefully what we’re doing through Forefront inspires the attendees and the guest speakers to think in new ways and to work together.


TP: Is there a subject that you envisage coming up and are especially interested in?


SP: One is the future of retail, and that relates to technology and sustainability as well as consumerism. The other is virtual reality and how it is starting to cross over into a number of areas. 


TS: Youth activism and what the future looks like in that space, and music – not just streaming services and what the next file extension is going to be, but the role technology can play.


TP: At this point, do you have any thoughts on what the future of Forefront might be? 


TS: We want the summit to become an annual gathering in Sydney, but we’re also talking about other locations – and not necessarily the obvious cities, but places like São Paulo and Tel Aviv. By the end of 2020 our expectation is to have at least two international Forefront summits. In Australia, Forefront might evolve to become an umbrella brand. One of the concepts that we have in our portfolio is to do with the prediction that by 2022 around seventy-five per cent of the workforce will be freelance. Setting up interesting spaces in unusual locations for people to work out of could very easily sit within the Forefront brand. 


SP: If this summit is a great success, we plan to roll it out. We see the community as global.



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