Climate Tech, Compassion, and the Innovation Crucible: Highlights of TE22

Our recent three-day excursion into the future of innovation at TE22 brought together concerns about democracy, a semi-obsession with global warming, confusion about the metaverse, and predictions of an AI/robotic society. But we found general optimism that yes, there would be tools for all these challenges.

Mike Schroepfer, Co-Founder of Additional Ventures and former Meta CTO at Techonomy 22. (Photo by PaulSakuma.com Photography)

Maria Ressa told us freedom is at stake.

“Online harms turn into real world harms,” said 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa. ”The weaponization of the legal system, or as my lawyers call it ‘lawfare’, is something…I hope doesn’t come to America. But the polarization of politics, the addiction to the technology, all of these things we share around the world.”

Ressa was scheduled to be our opening speaker at the recent Techonomy 2022 conference in Sonoma, California.  But she had to withdraw to attend to urgent filing of a final legal appeal to the Supreme Court of the Philippines in Manila. Ressa, journalist, activist, and thorn in the side of vindictive dictator Rodrigo Duterte, has been on trial on multiple spurious charges. She faces prison time of up to seven years in just this case, even as she also faces numerous other charges in separate cases.

Ressa sent a special video message to the conference, whose theme was “Innovation Must Save the World,”  expressing her grave concerns about the impacts of technology on our emotions, brains, and society. She also said this case will “basically determine whether I still have my freedom.”

Everything is interconnected.

The legendary Dr. Larry Brilliant (who gifted me a primo mask backstage, btw) is uniquely qualified to discuss how public health, the economy, geopolitics, the climate, and indeed everything, are profoundly interconnected. His overarching message: problems of all kinds must be addressed wholistically, cooperatively, and compassionately. Among his many accomplishments Brilliant, alongside a valiant corps of public health workers, decades ago helped lead the fight to eradicate smallpox, as an employee of the World Health Organization.

Brilliant joined David Kirkpatrick on stage at TE22 to discuss the connection between climate change and global health. He said the key thing to remember is that the fundamental causes of climate change are also antecedent causes of Covid–clear-cut rainforests, rising temperatures, changing seasons, famine, drought, and floods. “All of these things at the same time destroy animal habitat and put animals and human in each other’s habitats,” Brilliant said, “and that’s why we’ve gotten over the last ten years a cacophony of these viruses…SARS, MERS, Lyme disease, West Nile, Ebola, and now you have Covid…The major culprit is modernity. The most invasive species is us.”

(For a more detailed account of Brilliant’s inspiring appearance, read Meredith Salisbury’s report.)

Climate tech (like our precious planet) is hot, hot, hot.  

It’s not just wind farms and carbon capture anymore. Every company must become a climate company and every industry is ripe–overdue–for innovation. Among numerous speakers, Techonomy 2022 hosted leaders from biomanufacturing, solar power, sustainable aviation, next-generation nuclear power, electric vehicles, and climate investing. They all said climate tech is the future and is not a choice.

Mike Schroepfer is all in on climate. As the former longtime chief technology officer of Meta, he learned a thing or two about how to scale technology and organizations. (His direct reports at Facebook, now Meta, grew from 150 to 35,000 during his time there.) Now he is applying that knowledge to his new passion:  hyperscaling climate technology.  “If we’re going to solve these problems, we need to build lots of stuff. We’re going to need a lot more solar, wind, batteries…we’re going to need to decarbonize everything, electrify everything. And that’s going to require a lot of scale up…and we’re going to have to do it really quickly.” He believes that “hyperscaling,” heretofore applied by advocates like entrepreneur and investor Reid Hoffman to software businesses, can apply to hardware systems as well. We face the need for a build-out of sustainable infrastructure that is of unprecedented urgency.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Kristin Tracz shared her optimism about the historic climate funding in the recently-passed U.S. Inflation Reduction Act. That and other recent “Biden bills” are expected to yield major innovations in the fight against climate change. Separately, IDA Ireland’s Maeve Cowley and Dr. Lorraine Byrne of Trinity College’s Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research center said on stage that enlightened regulation, urgent R&D, and public/private collaborations have led to a thriving sustainable innovation ecosystem in Ireland and in Europe more broadly.

The metaverse is still up for debate. 

What is it? What does it look like? What should we call it? What are the use cases for individuals, businesses, and governments? If a “tree” falls in a “forest,” does it make a sound? Will we ever have legs?

Even more than for most nascent but promising technologies, there is excessive confusion and debate about the metaverse. But everyone agrees it will be–for better and/or worse–transformative and consequential.

The debate grew “spicy” at a Techonomy breakfast roundtable on the metaverse hosted by veteran tech journalist Robin Raskin. Unity CEO John Riccitiello said avatars are overhyped and often irrelevant. And Games for Change President Susanna Pollack pointed to the potential for learning and peace.

In response to a question in his main stage interview about the criticism Meta has faced for spending billions on cutesy avatars, Mike Schroepfer said: “All of that money is going towards long term R&D for the actual technological enablers for things I’ve seen in the lab, which is not a cartoon avatar, but someone that looks like a real, 3D person who’s talking to me in real time, who happens to be across the country…And you literally have this experience of ‘Oh my gosh. This is the closest thing I’ve ever had to being here in person without having to travel to see you.’”

(For a detailed account of the debates over the metaverse that prevailed at the conference, see Robin Raskin’s just-published report.)

To make progress in the world, we must also make progress within ourselves.

At the conference’s opening plenary, Esther Dyson, Vivienne Ming, and John Hagel tackled the ticklish topic of how to harness human nature to accelerate innovation. Silicon Valley icon Esther Dyson, who now focuses with her Wellville project on community-based health solutions, says the tech industry itself suffers from addiction. She argues that tech and venture capital’s addiction to big exits and big profits is fostering a culture of short term thinking and a dearth of socially-minded leadership. Author John Hagel says at the core, fear is what holds people back, but that we can learn to tame it and use fear as a tool. Neuroscientist Vivienne Ming’s research counterintuitively found that access to unlimited information, which we all have these days at the tips of our fingers, is sapping creativity and slowing innovation. Her antidote: we must go deeper and keep searching for novel answers. And even when we succumb to things like scrolling Instagram, our welfare and creativity depends on making sure we also ensure we periodically sit back and think deeply.

In a different session that took a similar theme, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost made the case for what he called “innovation without ego.” Too often, posited Anagnost, tech industry CEOs focus more on notoriety and wealth creation than societal stewardship. This leaves leaders always searching, often in vain, for the elusive next big thing. Executives must put stakeholders and long-term vision first, he said.

Keep an eye on advancements in AI and robotics.

Ken Washington, former CTO of Ford and now Amazon’s VP of software engineering, spoke with Worth Magazine’s Dan Costa about how robots can evolve to improve the world. Amazon’s new home robot Astro, for example, is one adorable first step into the coming age of robotics. Amazon envisions home robots that improve safety and security, help people stay connected and eventually assist them with aging in place. And perhaps keep things tidy?

Tekedra Mawakana, CEO of Alphabet’s self-driving car division Waymo, explained the complex challenges her company faces of perfecting driverless vehicles. When lives are at stake, she says, progress must be well-researched and deliberate. But Waymo’s progress is coming along nicely. The company is currently expanding into some neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Serial entrepreneur Dan Neely and  Nina Schick, author of Deep Fakes: The Coming Infocalypse, discussed the promises and dangers of generative AI, which creates surprisingly-compelling and convincing images, video, and audio in response to spoken or written prompts. With the public now able to whip up AI-generated images at will and whim, Neely launched a new company, Vermilio, at the conference. It aims to help solve challenges of IP ownership and image authenticity posed by the generative AI revolution.

These conversations shouldn’t stop here. Our world is at a critical juncture and all businesses across all industries must innovate to drive climate solutions, health, and equity for all. Join us this spring in Silicon Valley for the second annual Techonomy Climate conference, where we will dive even deeper into the tech we need to save our planet.

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