(... not your average conference)

Picture a queue of people at a coffee cart. Winding around in a spiral.

This is where we found ourselves standing last week at a conference in Sydney. Somehow, collectively, we’d all shuffled ourselves into a communal circle around the room.

This, I soon learn, is pretty normal. Because there are no straight lines here at Purpose.

We’re at Commune, a collaborative event space that brings people together for creative experiences. And today is day one of Purpose, an annual two-day celebration of purpose-driven businesses in Australia.

This is not your average conference. There are no stuffy convention rooms (although, yes, it was hot!).

Instead, we walk through open brick alleyways, painted with graffiti and messages. Weeds spring desperately through the cracks. Fairy lights hang overhead. The rustic warehouses on either side were once a paint factory, and feature high ceilings, skylights and exposed beams akin to an air hanger. Painted rocks, paper moons and beachside settings—the incredible interior designs of Nino—decorate just about every little nook you look at.

From the minute we arrive there is, quite literally, a buzz. A hum of energy, laughter and excitement. We’re handed name placards to hang around our necks and I get the sense that there are no wallflowers allowed here.

There are people getting dressed and brushing their teeth in the communal bathroom. If I was worried I wouldn’t be ‘hip’ enough, I needn’t have bothered. There’s an eclectic mix of age, ethnicity, sexuality and style, and yet there is a real sense that everybody here is part of the same.

Cheer up Jen! We're at Purpose.

Cheer up Jen! We're at Purpose.

In the main Porter’s studio, a band is playing soothing synth/folk/rock with poetic lyrics that swell the room. Where I’d normally sit and flick nervously through my program, I find I’m transfixed by the music and watching concert lights circle the room and the people within it.

Camera crew and videographers float through the aisles. Their shirts say ‘storytelling in progress’. The lead singer of the band puts down his guitar and runs onto the stage. It turns out he’s the MC for the event too—a perfect, yet I’m sure unconscious, example of energy efficiency.

The newbies are asked to stand and they clap our welcome. There are old faces too. They smile and whoop each other. We’re asked to close our eyes, breathe deeply and think about our intent. Why are we here? I can’t find the words yet, but I think, maybe, connectivity?

We’re welcomed by Sally Hill, the co-founder of Purpose, and like most speakers at this event, she’s incredibly articulate, passionate and respected. This year, Purpose will be exploring the ethics of exponential tech, mental health and human wellbeing, and systems change and the new economy. You know, just some simple topics.

Over the course of the two days, we listen to incredible speakers talk about global warming, corporate social responsibility, gender equity, responsible entrepreneurship, trust in the age of technology and the war on waste. We workshop activism through communities and partnerships.

From left to right: Jo Scard (Fifty Acres), Andy Marks (ABC's War on Waste), Tim Silverwood (Take 3 For the Sea), Eliza Reilly (Growing Up Gracefully, ABC1).

From left to right: Jo Scard (Fifty Acres), Andy Marks (ABC's War on Waste), Tim Silverwood (Take 3 For the Sea), Eliza Reilly (Growing Up Gracefully, ABC1).

We watch a performance by poet and filmmaker, Max Stossel. He raps and rhymes about algorithms and lies, social media, FOMO and opposing sides. He says ‘tech is a beautiful tool but it shouldn’t replace an already beautiful world’.

A gong sound signals when it’s time for the next session. My head is full to the brim, raging with passion and power and overwhelm and let’s be real, complete exhaustion.

In the breaks, you’re encouraged to attend speed dating sessions on marketing, insurance, start-ups and superannuation. You can flop on a Koala bed in the green garage, do some origami or join in live colouring-in on the wall.

The sun beats down on boxes and bench seats in the laneway (did I mention earlier it was hot?). There’s no shortage of conversations and laughter. Friends and networks are being formed right in front of us.

A woman sits across from me at lunch. She’s also from Brisbane and we do that Brisbane thing and ask each other if we know so-and-so. We say ‘your face is familiar’. We, of course, don't know each other. But that’s kind of what happens here with everyone. You really can’t hide in the corners or you’ll miss out.

We’re asked by the MC to absolutely ‘nail the waste system’. There are bins for food waste, biodegradable food utensils, recyclables and general waste. I feel a mild panic that I’ll be the one that throws the bamboo out with the beans.

There’s not a takeaway coffee cup in sight. Only ceramic ‘ugly’ mugs and reusable coffee cups and little french press pots for leaf tea. Yes, leaf tea. At a conference. With 500 people.

On the final morning, we participate in a group musical performance, clapping our hands, shaking maracas and bells, zinging xylophones and throwing the odd ‘ha’ in. Some people join in straight away (you know who you are) while others take their time warming up to the dancing and chanting. In the end, it’s infectious, just like most of this event has been.

Because the word ‘conference’ does Purpose no justice. It’s really more of a festival. A gathering. A place to celebrate and also face the serious consequences of our humanity and the choices we make.  

Like a rip in the ocean, at Purpose, you have no choice but to go along for the ride. It might take you out further than your comfort zone, but as environmentalist and Purpose speaker Paul Hawken so wisely said: ‘You just need to go and do the work. It’s not game over. It’s game on’.

Rebecca Fitzpatrick