Opinion Society

Why We Need More Techonomics
in 2018

John Chambers got so excited during his onstage interview at Techonomy 2017 that he ran out into the audience to respond to  questioners (here Ziff’s Michael Miller). Photo: Paul Sakuma Photography

Techonomy enters 2018 with unprecedented momentum. And the world needs the kind of dialogue we curate more than it has at any time since we started in 2010.

Our events hit a chord. Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration about fake news on our stage in late 2016 echoed all year, and at Techonomy 2017 in November a panoply of global leaders and deep thinkers helped our community rethink technology’s relentless societal advance.

The challenges wrought by rapid tech-driven change get more complex by the day. Never has the question of how leaders need to think about tech been more urgent. Networked technology is getting blamed right now for increased economic inequality, threats to privacy, and for fake news, among other sins. There was great vitriol at Techonomy towards the net giants, and that remains an unresolved crisis. But at the same time there was optimism about potential major advances in food, transportation, finance, healthcare, many industries, and even in the governance of it all.

Those of us who think techonomically know that the only hope for meeting the growing expectations of society, in the U.S. and globally, is if we embrace technology. We need to accept and address the challenges raised by connectivity while retaining its near-miraculous efficiencies, which can endow every arena. And as we’re starting to see, if the tech industry and private sector does not act responsibly and ethically, governments will step in and try to correct things. Government, too, has new responsibilities, to engage more methodically with innovators, and figure out ways to work with business without slowing down its momentum.

But at the moment, faith in both government and business is low, for good reasons. Neither have fully stepped up to the scope of the challenges we face. Never in my adult lifetime has there been so much fear about what could go wrong. Democracy and capitalism both seem in jeopardy as tools for human progress. In a disturbing column in the Financial Times on January 2, the paper’s pre-eminent economic thinker Martin Wolf said the question is whether the world descends into “deglobalization and conflict, or a resurgence of cooperation.” He argued, sadly, that the former is more likely.

All this informs why Techonomy is putting a renewed focus on how technology can help business and government heal and improve the world. In our conferences and publishing this year, we will emphasize the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) articulated by the United Nations—an urgent list of ways the world must make progress by 2030. The Global Goals are immodest and bold. They include “No Poverty,” “Zero Hunger,” “Gender Equality,” and “Peace.” To work for the SDGs is to show a commitment to global cooperation, and a recognition that progress not shared is perilous and fragile.

We find that a growing number of companies are enlightened about the urgency of the Global Goals. Many are aligning not just their philanthropy but the structure of their very businesses to line up with the goals. Techonomy believes that technology will be the lever that can speed progress towards these ambitious targets.

Fostering and curating discussion of the highest order is our mandate, and we will take that to an even higher level at Techonomy NYC on May 8-9 and Techonomy 2018 on November 11-13.

At our recent conference, Campbell’s Soup CEO Denise Morrison spoke about advances in healthy food; Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam explained the transformative potential of 5G wireless networking; IBM’s John Kelly outlined the importance of cognitive computing; John Chambers of Cisco effused about innovation’s potential around the world; Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini described a new high-tech, consumer-friendly approach to healthcare; we heard optimism about the technologized future of work from GE’s Beth Comstock and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker (though both also argued we must improve education); C-Sky Microsystems’ Xiaoning Qi laid out how important the Internet of Things is for China; and Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost declared that business has new responsibilities in this tech-infused era. We also heard hours of hand-wringing about the consequences of unrestrained technological hubris, from thinkers like Roger McNamee, danah boyd, and Marc Rotenberg on one panel, and Mark Anderson and Rebecca MacKinnon on another.

We see the challenges, but we are excited, not daunted by them. We agree with Anagnost that we’ve entered a new era of business responsibility. Companies in general, especially the biggest tech companies, are not thus far doing nearly enough, even if Zuckerberg has promised to “fix” Facebook in 2018. But we know what’s possible with the amazing explosion of tech happening around the world. It can help the world move forward, but only if we work to ensure it. In 2018, that is our commitment.

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