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Techonomy Events

Techonomy 2019 – Can We Find a Way Not to Worry?

Techonomy 2019 conference in Half Moon Bay, California, Monday, November 18, 2019. (Photography by PaulSakuma.com Photography)

If you were sitting in the audience at Techonomy 2019, held last week in California, you heard  a few consistent themes:

-There are clear, concrete ways our digital world could become safer and contribute more decisively to progress and amity, both locally and globally. But nowhere near enough is being done by those with the power to do it.

-The nature of business, innovation, and the workplace are changing so fast that to succeed, organizations must adopt fundamental changes, but too few companies are doing so. 

-Technology tools and platforms are changing rapidly and decisively. We’re moving towards an even more inter-networked “edge” environment, altered by the rapid emergence of 5G wireless tech. Voice will matter but not in the ways we expect. “AI” is fading into the background—so completely part of how most systems work that it’s not a topic in itself as much anymore.

-The battle for tech and innovation leadership between the U.S. and China is almost existential for both countries. It has moved to the forefront of geopolitics, but how it will be resolved is highly uncertain. We are really “decoupling,” and most thoughtful leaders are worried.

-Healthcare innovation will change our lives for the better, and is advancing ever more rapidly and creatively.

-For all that, climate is our biggest challenge, and cannot be ignored. If we don’t take urgent action, all of us, in every way possible, we face catastrophic natural, economic, and social tumult. 

The room was filled with business and societal leaders deeply aware that these are not normal times. They don’t want to worry, but many of them are worried. They know urgent action is needed right now in their businesses, in society, and for the environment. The networking was furious in the hallways. Everybody was relaxed because we were in a beautiful place on the California cliffs. We had a superb dinner at a nearby estate where we heard the fabulous Skylar Grey. 

But nonetheless this was a very serious event. And the leaders there rose to the challenge. We at Techonomy were struck by their intent focus on our program, and the constructive mindset they brought with them. They asked penetrating questions throughout. Many pulled us aside and raved about various sessions. They were there to gain insight and acquire new tools for their work.

One top tech leader told me she found the program refreshingly “positive,” in contrast to numerous other conferences she attends. I was a bit surprised, because from my vantage spending much of my time on stage, it felt a bit grim. But she explained that for all the worries, our speakers were focusing on what could be done and why it was possible.

Amy Wilkinson, an author and lecturer at Stanford Business School, said 40% of S&P 500 companies won’t exist in 2025. That’s really soon! Her point was to urge “legacy” companies to move much faster in implementing changes, even radical ones. She used for an example, as a stunning number of speakers did, Wal-Mart. (It was the hands-down “most admired big corporation” of Techonomy 2019.) Wilkinson said that with 90% of the U.S. population within 10 miles of a Wal-Mart, the “store” is using that penetration to pivot aggressively towards providing healthcare. 

Age in the workplace is a major unresolved issue for business, as baby boomers stick around and increasingly work for millenial bosses. So said Chip Conley, author of Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. Conley took his experience advising Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and turned it into a book and a new career. We need a new conception of how “elders” think of themselves and their companies, retrieving society’s historical recognition that older people actually know something, he said. But it won’t change the fact that power is shifting towards the young, and should. In the course of our on-stage conversation he insisted he was older than me, and was chastened when I volunteered my age. (To hear what I said, you’ll have to watch the video…)

Leaders from Ericsson, Nestle, IBM and other major companies expressed their alarm at the pace and urgency of climate and environmental changes, but each of them laid out concrete steps that they are taking themselves. Nestle has turned recycling into a core part of its corporate DNA. IBM’s Cameron Clayton, who as general manager of IBM Watson Media and Weather applies AI tools to the work of The Weather Company, explained how the much more granular understanding of global weather changes will be indispensable for everyone from leaders of Fortune 500 companies to farmers in East Africa. Ericsson’s Bhushan Joshi explained how 5G technology comes along just when we need it to measure and react to global weather changes, and help combat their worsening.

John Chen, CEO of Blackberry, one of the world’s top makers of software for autos (they don’t make phones anymore themselves), said that his work with automakers convinces him that even in 15 years we are unlikely to have many fully autonomous cars. The obstacles are not primarly the software for guidance. It’s more vehicle-to-vehicle communications standards, highway designs, and other infrastructure challenges. China is likely to get there before most other countries, he said.

As for the internet, the predictable companies got hammered repeatedly from the stage. But many were surprised when Marissa Mayer, now running a startup called Lumi Labs that aims to remake consumer productivity applications, said she believed political advertising should be banned from social media. Since she had been CEO of Yahoo and run Google’s ad-supported search business, her views have weight. And Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO, said his company banned political ads almost a year ago. “We’re going to create a safe environment for members,” he said. “We eliminate toxic content. We eliminate fakes wherever possible.” He also said the company is all about “professional discourse–we expect people to behave on LinkedIn the way they’d behave with colleagues.” He thinks political advertising risks making an environment that feels less safe, untrusted, and unprofessional.  

Shortly before Weiner joined us on stage, longtime ad industry leader Martin Sorrell said there is no question the top internet platforms, making their money from advertising, are true media companies. Therefore they must behave like them. That means they must take responsibility for the content that flows through their systems. To Sorrell that is just obvious. He created and led industry colossus WPP for decades, and his now building a new integrated global company called S4 Capital.

We closed with political sage David Plouffe, top political strategist and campaign manager for President Barack Obama and a White House senior advisor. He said there is a 50-50 chance that Donald Trump will get re-elected, and didn’t sound fully convinced the Democratic field had yet shown it is up to the job of defeating him. But he said that if Trump is re-elected, we should expect a radical degradation of our American institutions.

We’ll be bringing you more details and thoughts from the Techonomy stage in coming weeks and months, even as we start building for our next big event in New York on May 19-20, Techonomy East. These themes are urgent but many remain complicated and hard to digest. That’s why our discussions are needed, and why we spend so much time and thought on this highly-curated program. 

It may be impossible not to worry, but in dialogue with others we can find constructive ways to work harder and make things better.

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