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Tech & Society Techonomy Events

What We Learned at Our Conference in a Fraught Time

Sir Tim Berners-Lee onstage during Techonomy 2018 in Half Moon Bay, California in November. (Photo: Paul Sakuma)

We began our recent Techonomy 2018 conference at one of the most beautiful spots in the country, with a tangible reminder that things in the world are not exactly right. A yellow haze filled the air from California wildfires a hundred miles to the north. The program was assembled with the frank acknowledgement that things are fraught in business and in society.

Our response was to highlight companies and people making a conscious effort to do work that accrues positively in the world. That was clear from our first session, a conversation with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, whose multiple initiatives aim to help return online power to individuals. (All individual session videos are posted, with transcripts still to come.)

The conference returned again and again to certain macro themes:

  • Collaboration as an ethos in all that we do. A top executive of the world’s largest insurer, Allianz explained how insurers must work with companies and cities to help the world embrace innovation. Ericsson and the World Food Program came together onstage to discuss how they have collaborated in disasters for decades. It’s a key example of how business can extend its capabilities for the world. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler made a plea for business to work more closely with workers and government to help craft the digital future of work. The CEO of UiPath, a company that makes software robots, explained how we will increasingly be collaborating with machines. And an amazing conversation between two of the world’s leading experts on AI examined that inevitable path toward the Human + Machine future. Another session explored how corporate culture can facilitate collaboration.
  • Ethics and responsibility, or what you might call conscious capitalism. Tony Prophet, the chief equality officer of Salesforce, talked about why all companies need someone with his title. Emily Chang, Bloomberg anchor and author of Brotopia, explained how unequal Silicon Valley has been up until now and why women must play a bigger role at all levels. The CEO of Amyris showed how growing organic molecules in vats of yeast can help reduce the destruction of the planet.
  • Inclusive growth as a goal for societies, companies and institutions, as well for how we think about our priorities when we innovate. A session called “Who’s Afraid of a Digital Planet” underscored how all of us need to work to improve the lot of the world’s least wealthy, and how tech can help. The president of the New York Public Library outlined his rapidly growing project to make all books available to all people. Another session was titled “Even Transportation Policy is About Inclusion and Fairness.”
  • Optimism about tech’s capacity to improve the human condition. Berners-Lee exuded such optimism. John Chambers presided over an exuberant session about the centrality of innovation to economies, countries, and all our lives. Entrepreneur Justin Rosenstein answered the title of his session “Is Universal Cooperation Just a Pipe Dream?” with a firm “no!”
  • The respective, shifting roles of business and government. President Trump’s top tech advisor, Michael Kratsios, described the numerous initiatives he and the administration have undertaken to support tech in the United States. And Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America explained how techies from the private sector are working to help government do its job better. She was surprisingly upbeat about how work she began in the Obama White House, creating the United States Digital Service, is continuing under the Trump administration. Christina Sass of Andela explained how business, not government, can aid development by taking a more global view. (Her company allows programmers in Africa to work for companies globally.) Throughout the conference we heard story after story of purpose-driven businesses stepping in to fill gaps that have traditionally been led by government.
  • Industries in transformation. The leaders of the world’s biggest roofing company, Standard Industries, described how they’ve switched its focus to sustainability. A session asked “Can We Finally Get the Healthcare System We Need?” Daniel Kraft of Singularity University talked about the potential of exponential medicine. A probing session that made news explored The Future of Real Estate. And, of course, we discussed “Commerce in the Face of Amazon.”
  • What should tech do, regardless of what it can do? A scathing closing session on Facebook’s future saw five experts deconstructing its litany of errors and asking what’s next, and how it could reform.

The days get no less fraught, but our two days of conversation left us convinced that real progress across multiple domains is not only possible, but likely, if we stay true to our values. In today’s chaotic times, business, not government, can lead the way.

 

 

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