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Reflections from Ross: How the Election Changed Techonomy 2016

Techonomy16 conference in Half Moon Bay, California, Thursday, November 10, 2016. (Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography) www.paulsakuma.com

Marco Annunziata and Diana Farrell are welcomed to the stage by David Kirkpatrick at TE16 (Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)

After I arrived in California on November 5th to prepare for this year’s Techonomy conference…I entered the hotel excited about the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency…By the time I finally left on November 12th…not so excited any more.

The plan was always to start the conference with a group discussion about the election. How could we not if our conference started the day after the election? But the triumph of Trump put a rather different spin on things. In general the mood of the room was shock and numbness. For me, it highlighted that no matter how much we talk about tech and its ability to connect us, it is degrading our ability to see beyond our bubbles. As Dave Morgan CEO of Simulmedia said on the post-election panel in reference to both the small coal town in western Pennsylvania where he grew up and New York City, where he lives now: “… on my Facebook, there was no question to them [in Pennsylvania] about who was winning the election, including those who were college educated. There was no question whatsoever. Yet I was surprised. Clearly there’s massive disconnect between where I am from and where I am today and not understanding each other.”

One of my favorite moments in this conversation was when John Suh of Hyundai said that technology has failed us, and that it’s time for the tech industry to realize that technology has limits.   Fundamentally, this conversation grappled with the question of how we provide dignity, comfort and purpose to all parts of society. If we don’t get it right on the jobs issue, the participants generally felt, we will not have stability. The tech economy has left people behind, and they voted Donald Trump into power.

The election results dominated the conference at other times as well. In his onstage interview, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg now almost infamously hit out at the suggestion that fake news on Facebook influenced the election, calling it a “pretty crazy idea.” I don’t agree with that statement at all. But as we soul search, it is inarguable that his comment has added fire to a very important conversation about the nature of truth, facts and the responsibility of the media and tech today.

And to cut Zuckerberg a little bit of slack, he had been put on the spot earlier in the interview when Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick asked him “How do you respond to the fact that Donald Trump has just been elected president of the United States? What do you think it means?” Let’s be honest. No matter what you think about the role of social media, we were all asking ourselves that question and struggling with it the day after the election.

Despite the gloom over the gathering, there were many great sessions and conversations. And if anything, some seemed more important and pressing given the result.  One of many highlights for me was the interview with Padmasree Warrior, CEO of NextEV US, talking about electric and autonomous vehicles and the problems her company is trying to solve when thinking about EV’s in the US. Apparently $70billion worth of productivity is lost sitting around in traffic. In a related earlier segment , ChargePoint COO Tony spoke about Why the Switch to EVs is Coming Faster Than You Think. According to Warrior, cars remain aspirational products, and “we are building a robot that looks like a sexy car.” By the way, NextEV just unveiled a pretty great looking, record breaking supercar. She’s clearly enjoying the challenge of bringing together talent from the tech and auto industry.

Warrior also had a thoughtful answer to the question, “What’s your reaction to this new political reality?” (18.07 on the video link): “I was publicly supporting Hillary Clinton…And like most people in America probably, or some people in America, I’m disappointed with the results. But, at the same time I have a huge amount of respect for the democratic process…I respect the process. I respect the fact that we have now a new president-elect. It’s made me very introspective. The last few days I’ve thought a lot about what is it that perhaps some of us were in denial or not aware of, and how can we use technology to be a unifying factor versus a divisive factor…There is an opportunity there where technology can be a unifying factor…It’s sort of a wake-up call.

This year the program included a lot of discussion on the role and value of data in business, society, climate and our urban environments. Diana Farrell, CEO of the JPMorgan Institute, and Marco Annunziata, the Chief Economist of GE, sat down for a conversation on the economic impact of data convergence. And Katie Benner of the New York Times led a discussion with Eli Broverman of Betterment, Brett Hurt of data.world, Priya Kumar (formerly with the Ranking Digital Rights project) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Sarah Telford on data and the “new knowledge trust.”

Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things were everywhere. Someone should do a poll to see which of the three… the election, AI or IoT have gotten the most airtime in recent weeks. It’s probably pretty close…

There was much, much more. Check out the TE16 Conference Report for video of sessions.

Now, almost two weeks after the election and the conference, I’ve had a chance to process things a little more. Still no answers, only questions…including: What role should we at Techonomy play in all of this?

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