The Future of Urbanity Tackled in New FUEL Conference

Steven and Jane Cox run design/branding agency Cause+Affect when they’re not putting on events like FUEL.

Zipcar founder Robin Chase and civic innovator Alex Gilliam to headline inaugural FUEL Conference

Jane and Steven Cox—the 41-year-old husband-and-wife team behind design-slash-branding company Cause+Affect Design Ltd.—have, over the past decade, insinuated their ethos and their esthetic into the fabric of Vancouver society. In addition to serving clients as varied as Volkswagen and Tides Canada, the duo has helped launch the wildly popular Fuse nights at the Vancouver Art Gallery and are the Vancouver producers for PechaKucha, an eclectic speaker series that consistently sells out the 1,200-seat Vogue Theatre. Later this month, on May 29 and 30, they launch their inaugural FUEL conference on the “Future of Urbanity, the Environment and our Lifestyle.”

Who should we expect to attend FUEL? How does it compare to the PechaKucha crowd?
Jane: We have social entrepreneurs from the sustainability space; we have food entrepreneurs; we have digital companies buying tickets. There’s also been a lot of uptake from the architectural community. We’re expecting the audience is going to be older than PechaKucha. The average age at PechaKucha is, I would say, 30—and at FUEL, the average will likely be 35-40. Leaders within organizations, who own their own companies, are taking the day off as a professional development-type day. Also the ticket price is higher, which will skew things older. Although $250 for a conference is cheap!
Steven: We’re used to doing an event for $15.
One of the neat things you did was get early ticketholders for FUEL involved in picking speakers and shaping the conference. How did you get people’s feedback to make these decisions?
Jane: We’ve been using this local platform called Picatic, which allows us to do a crowdsourcing campaign before we launch the event. We used it a little bit for crowdfunding, but that wasn’t really the intention. It was more to get people engaged in something new around a vision.
Through the crowdfunding, what were you able to raise?
Jane: In terms of money? Not much.
Steven: I would say we raised about 15 per cent of the necessary costs to put the event on, if we’re being generous.
And in terms of programming, what sort of things were people asking for?
Steven: The first one was what we classified as “the disruption of typical business structures”—that was, topics around the growth of the sharing economy, the problems with the typical capitalist system, etc. Out of that came the selection of Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, as keynote speaker. The second topic that we heard a lot about was, How do we create authentic communities? In Vancouver, we’re getting a lot of discussion around densification, growth, gentrification—and how do we continue to grow in a way that is authentic and allows communities to have a voice. So we went out and got Alex Gilliam as a speaker. He runs an organization in Philadelphia called Public Workshop, which does some very innovative work as far as community development goes.
You have a fulltime job with Cause+Affect. How do you make time for that plus PechaKucha and now FUEL?
Jane: How do we do it? I don’t know. And two little kids…
Steven: PechaKucha is a bit of a machine now. We’ve done it 30 times now—it’s become part of our world. FUEL was an intentional move by us to diversify our business model. Running an agency means that you are always dependent on clients; you’re always just as good as your last project. FUEL is a way for us to diversify so that our new client, in this case, is the general public.
Is there any sense that you’re realizing some sort of “halo effect” as a result of these events—that it’s helping business at Cause+Affect?
Steven: We don’t see as much of that as we would hope. I think one of the challenges is that people have a hard time translating one into the other.
Jane: When we started PechaKucha, it was reflective of the more cultural-focused work that we were doing at the beginning stages of Cause+Affect. All our clients now are innovators and I think that ties in better with FUEL. Hopefully there is more of a halo effect with FUEL. The blue-sky plan is that FUEL goes beyond Vancouver one day.
Then you’ll have to hire some help.
Jane: Definitely.
BCBusiness is a proud sponsor of the FUEL conference. Join editor Matt O’Grady in conversation with keynote speaker Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, on Thursday, May 29. Full details on the conference and its speakers at You can also follow the latest on Twitter: @fuelvancouver or #fuelvan