Techonomy Events

Program Director Simone Ross Looks Back at Our First Five Years

The opening session at TE11 (photo: Robert Hines)

The opening session at TE11 (photo: Robert Hines)

I think of our conferences as a live version of my favorite magazine. I want information and intelligence, style and substance, blending short and long form to pace the experience and narrative. Our programs are not simply about the intersection of tech and the economy. They are about the application of tech, and its global economic and social impact. Ultimately we explore whether or not tech moves us towards a better world and consensus on the values of society.

Since the first Techonomy in 2010, we’ve talked every year about the impact of tech on jobs and on urbanization. In 2012 we even added a conference, Techonomy Detroit, specifically around those topics. “Big data” and “cyber-security” weren’t mentioned once at TE10, but have featured heavily ever since. Fitbit was first mentioned at TE11, as was MakerBot, during a BioPunks session. China, digital currency, and payments are among themes we’ve touched on repeatedly.

Sessions on bio and life sciences at TE10 kick-started a growing curiosity. We discussed “Democratizing DNA” at TE11, “Life 2.0” at TE13, and launched a new conference, Techonomy Bio, this year. Why? Because the rapid advances being made in biological and life sciences have huge potential for global social and economic benefit. Soon we will be able to create anything synthetically. It’s not just about pharmaceuticals and devices. It’s about energy, agriculture, manufacturing, sustenance. Life.

Unsurprisingly, the impact of social and mobile on how we live and work is another recurrent theme. There’s no question about the empowerment these forces bring, but society is still struggling with the bigger picture. Be it in corporations or countries, tech alone has limits, with leaders needed to actively shepherd change. At TE11 Jared Cohen of Google Ideas said, “Revolutions will happen faster, but they’re going to be just as hard to finish. Technology doesn’t create new leaders. It means you can mobilize without having a plan.”

The intersection of tech, politics and policy is another area of constant fascination. The theme is often woven into our program, including a post-election session at TE12 called “What Have We Done?!” and “The Future of American Elections” at TE13, where we convened a Google engineer, a top Colorado elections official, an app developer, and a civil rights and election law expert to explore how tech could help fix America’s broken voting system. We’re planning a new conference for next year, Techonomy Policy, to further discuss this nexus.

It’s tough to identify a favorite session, but here are a couple. “Cities as a Solution” at TE10, with urban sociology expert Saskia Sassen, Padmasree Warrior of Cisco, and Steward Brand, set the stage for subsequent sessions on our urbanized future. That conversation has evolved from how you build a physical, technologically enhanced “smart” city to the role individuals, institutions, open data, and tech-enhanced civic engagement play in the evolution of urban centers.

Our TE12 session with Harvard’s David Keith and Andrew Parker on geo-engineering was another highlight. The intentional manipulation of the earth’s ecological systems is controversial and, amazingly, no international regulations govern it. As in the bio realm, there is huge potential for benefit, but also formidable barriers and fear. Weather warfare could become a reality. But geo-engineering could also slow or potentially reverse climate change. As Keith said, “The hard problems here are not technology. They are all about governance and managing symmetric risk and threat.”

The next five years? I suspect we’ll spend more time discussing the accountability of the tech industry to society. (In 10 years we’ll talk about the accountability of tech itself.) We’ll doubtless be talking about tech-enhanced humans vs. humanity-enhanced tech. We’ll still be examining the changing nature of boundaries—physical and virtual¾driven by our hyper-connected social, mobile world, and what that means for nation-states, companies, and citizens. And we’ll no doubt still be talking about employment and the nature of work.

This article appears in the 2014 Year-End Edition of Techonomy Magazine.

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