Business is the Battery of Society: Reflections On Innovation

Techonomist John Suter shares his key insights from Techonomy 22 and charts a way forward. (Hint: Do not negotiate on climate.)

Consumer Reports CEO Marta Tellado at Techonomy 22. (Photo by PaulSakuma.com Photography)

Late November at the Sonoma Mission Inn, Techonomy held an exciting 3-day conference with a mission to save the world Techonomy 22: Innovation Must Save the World. Cards were exchanged and connections were made amidst serious presentations and serious discussions.

The conference was full of wonderful people – both on stage and off. There was exciting new tech stuff – hydrogen planes with a thousand mile range, new plastics recycling models, new electric cars, new ways to power the grid, new virtual reality headsets, new this, and new that.

Yet there was also a recognition that this will not be enough.  Tech innovation alone will not get us where we need to go. We need an accelerator. During this same week Twitter, Meta, and Amazon laid off 30,000 employees. FTX crashed and burned.  In this last year $700 billion was invested in fossil exploration, up from the year before.  Someone is not getting the memo.

Words, Metaphors, and Mental Models

Words and metaphors help to create the framework of our thinking. “Communication” was central to many discussions and spurred many questions. Do our words get in the way, or do they light a path?  Do they help us formulate better questions?  The collapse of FTX brings us back to the basic question of what is money?  And what’s the role of accountability in maintaining the integrity of money?

What is real, and what is virtual or artificial?  Pushing a tiger will tell you whether or not it is made of paper. But where are the levers to push when the line between real and virtual is blurred?

Will innovation save the planet?  Technical Innovation is essential, but it must be combined with social innovation and financial innovation.

Is computer security as bad as the security companies say it is? Consumer Reports CEO Marta Tellado said that consumer power must shape innovation.

The presentation of the expanding Metaverse seemed to bring on nausea, but maybe it was just me.

Growth Types

Are our current social and economic systems working?  This seemed to be an undercurrent theme of the conference.  Capitalism is the most efficient way to extract the earth’s resources, but what do we do when we reach limits to growth? (For more on this see Sandrine Dixson-Decléve’s earlier Techonomy session.) Democracy and capitalism must solve real problems at all levels. An inability to do this will bring catastrophe beyond what most imagine.

DO NOT NEGOTIATE on Climate and Carbon. 

Analyst Isaac Stone-Fish was correct: We should not base our climate efforts on what the Russians or Chinese are doing.  We must simply do all that we can and support other countries in leapfrogging to renewable and sustainable energy sources.  

It will not be enough to look at your own carbon footprint or even that of your company.  It is easy to forget, but cutting down on carbon must be a primary goal for everyone, at all levels.  If that goal is not accomplished, then nothing else matters.  Beyond the tipping point, there is no return.

A Way Forward

Esther Dyson is aiming her efforts and resources at towns and small cities, presumably because that is where people meet, argue and solve problems.  Her Way to Wellville model is an example of effective, collective action at the local level. But will local action be fast enough? Not if change only comes from the top.

How we structure working groups and scale processes will be important. People must find ways to work together. They can then make progress in any or all directions.  Challenge them to find the courage to look, listen, and talk to each other, not to the top.  They should be the players and actors. Challenge them to make decisions. Look at nature. Plant seeds and water as a way to scale the effort.

We cannot fail in this endeavor. Mitigation only buys a bit more time. Wall Street could be a friend, but will it be?  Government can set the stage but business is the battery of society, able to get people to move and do things that government and other institutions cannot seem to do. We don’t have time to waste.

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