I’ve seen the future… and it’s beautiful.
Lisbon is also beautiful. This gloriously creative and friendly city hosted The House of Beautiful Business alongside Web Summit, the world’s largest tech conference dubbed ‘Davos for Geeks’ by Bloomberg. The House of Beautiful Business is a pop-up community for meaningful conversations about technology and humanity in collaboration with BCG Henderson Institute and Siemens among others and founded by ‘Business Romantic’ Tim Leberecht.
The Caffeine Partnership co-hosted the opening of the conference for Beautiful Business with a high-energy session which took the premise of ‘What if humanity was a start-up?’, applying three important start-up principles to thoughts on the future. My role was also to share some of the key findings from the research I’ve done on leadership in a fast-paced world (as part of the book I’ve written which will be published next year: Superfast: How to Lead at Speed).
This conference kicked off a week of stimulation, discussion and debate. It was like nothing I have ever experienced before – an environment of high-quality connections between ideas and inspiring people with different perspectives. Imagine a house party where everyone you bump into is interesting, the music is great, the food fantastic and everyone wants to talk to you.
And everyone wants to talk about the future. They all were thinking about the high-velocity change that’s being driven by technology. The world is often divided in terms of those who believe in techutopia – that the world will benefit from the brilliance of technology – and those who are deeply worried about humans in an age of machines. How to manage the pace of change smartly as leaders was a constant theme. Start-ups or big corporates: everyone was keen to work out how their organisations could be nimble enough to be reactive to change while also making sure they maintained a sense of humanity and principles.
Three particular themes recurred frequently in the debates.
1. Businesses can be responsive as well as responsible. The most impressive story was from successful entrepreneur Leila Janah. She is an unusual entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, not because she’s a female tech leader but because she’s an entrepreneur running a business which is profitable. She is even more unusual because her (profitable) organisation is actually a not-for-profit. Samasource has been named one of Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” and counts Walmart, Google and eBay among its clients. It’s a shining example of thinking differently and thinking globally about how to speed up success for organisations. Samasource uses proprietary platform SumaHub which is basically an internet-based model called ‘microwork’ used to break down large-scale digital projects from clients into smaller tasks for workers to complete. They help companies enrich and enlarge their data sets – but the way they do it uses a business model which helps lift people out of poverty.
When people think about AI and autonomous driving and about all the incredible things that computers will need to do in the future, they often forget that these computers need to be trained by humans; Samasource has offices in San Francisco, California and Nairobi, Kenya. The organisation currently partners with 10 delivery centres across Haiti, India, Kenya, and Uganda, and has previously paid workers in Pakistan, Ghana, and South Africa. It has also started to train low-income community college workers in the US as well. The organisation’s premise is that instead of people giving aid they should ‘give work’ to help.
This is just one example of how technology can empower humans and how businesses can do the right thing for their business as well as for the world; it helps me feel optimistic that this is a model for the future.
2. AI is simple; AI is complex. Seeking to understand what different types of technology can do for your customer and for your business is critical. As Martha Lane Fox once said to me ‘it’s just no longer acceptable for people in the boardroom to not understand technology’. AI is not an easy subject to get your head round. I liked the description of Martin Harrison from Kortical who explained that AI could be thought of as ‘little engines’. So, like Rolls Royce in the 1930s who made engines that got dropped into other vehicles, AI powers efficiency, speed and connections. He also said ‘anything that’s done on an excel sheet will become AI – or should become AI’ which is another way of thinking about it which distracts us from the rise of the demon robots image. There are certainly two schools of thought about the dangers of AI and the positivity of it; Martin is from the positive optimist school that believes AI will ‘allow us to stop having to play with data on spreadsheets and play more tennis instead’.
Another AI perspective came from someone ‘at the coalface’ of actually developing it. Dennis Mortensen, the serial entrepreneur with a long-term vision to ‘kill the inbox’ which triggered the foundation of x.ai, the pioneering AI assistant (Amy) who schedules meetings for you. Dennis also gives a realistic perspective of the truly ball-breakingly hard work that is often involved in being an entrepreneur and certainly in being a pioneer who is working out how to do things for the first time. He laughs at the predictions about AI taking over the world next year because the ‘I’ has to come from humans first which takes a lot of time. He has spent four years trying to build AI in one narrow field (scheduling) and says openly ‘It’s a hard, hard, slow task’. His task is not helped by the complexity of language. People with manners and human ways of talking make it hard for computers. When you send an emailing saying ‘Let’s meet next week, if you’re not too busy’ – you are being polite, friendly and human. But the poor computer doesn’t know what to do with that conditional caveat! How do you code the understanding of ‘you’re not too busy’? The nuances and precision of language have mattered forever and they will matter in the future.
3. The future will be owned by those who understand humans (as well as those who understand technology). In conversation with an incredible fintech entrepreneur who is building a ground-breaking new vision for what next, we talked about the critical nature of design in technology. Understanding how to make things more beautiful for your customer is important in a cold tech world; it’s all about the experience. Steve Jobs remains the paradigm of this – Apple’s strength has forever come from their design expertise as well as their tech strength. This is reflected in the equality of share options between Jony Ives and Tim Cook; a clear, tangible symbol that beautiful design makes the difference.
It’s not just about understanding humans in order to sell to them better though, it’s also about understanding the humans who will power the future. Getting the best talent inside your organisation and retaining it in a world of nomadic, portfolio career options is your ultimate competitive advantage. The role of your organisation’s purpose (it’s role in society, enhancing the world in some way) remains a key driver for motivating people; people need something to buy into, not just something to buy. Digital anthropologist and founder of Change Sciences Pamela Pavliscak points out that our instinct is always to anthropomorphise robots but that in a world powered more by machines, we must resist the urge to ‘botify humans’. So we put googly eyes on robots and call them nice names to make them feel more friendly. That’s understandable. But when we treat organisations like machines and people like bots, that’s when we will lose our souls and lose the opportunity to make business a positive part of what the world will be… and we will lose a real competitive advantage.
Give people something to buy into as well as something to buy and you’ll be a pace-setter for the future.
In an age of machines, in a world where there is the need for speed, intelligence will still need to come from people who understand people. And when you think about the future of business, that is a beautiful thought.
Images © Joao Nogueira