The final day of the Health and Wealth of America conference focused on the power of data. The pandemic forced companies to take their services virtual, and doing so led to the capture of loads of data that can enhance their businesses, and ultimately society. In the opening interview, Mindy Grossman, the CEO of WW (formally Weight Watchers), described how WW changed to continue to effectively serve its clients once in-person meetings became impossible. “To be able to marry technology plus meaning to help people live healthier connected lives is more relevant than ever,” Grossman said. During the past year, WW invested in data and AI capabilities, increasing personalization and utilizing technology to create a seamless virtual transition.
But data capabilities are not evenly distributed. Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business at Tufts’ Fletcher School, presented research showing that the digital divide has been increased by the pandemic, and that the divide often aligns with American economic and racial division. Can the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure bill help? Bhaskar’s answer: “It’s both too ambitious, and not ambitious enough.” Not only does the U.S. have to modernize its existing infrastructure, but it also has to break down the systemic racism and economic inequality that is ingrained into American society. Half of the country doesn’t use the internet at broadband speeds because they can’t afford it, and children’s education is suffering as a result. He also described overwhelmingly Black counties, like in Tennessee, where most people don’t have broadband yet government communications regarding vaccine availability were made entirely online.
Bret Greenstein, global head of AI & Analytics at Cognizant, also spoke about the potential that data has to change society. A truly data-driven company, Greenstein said, uses data as a means to look forward rather than analyze the past. Data-centric companies have been much more responsive to the changes created by the pandemic. They were prepared; they could adapt. Yet as data becomes more useful, companies tend to hoard it. Sharing data, he said, is the inevitable future, and once companies and institutions get better at aggregating and sharing data from diverse sources the country, they will be able to use that much clearer vision of what’s happening to address myriad problems.
The lack of reliable data was one factor that marred the American response to COVID. Nina Burleigh, author of the new book Virus: Vaccination, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic, observed that underfunding and politicization at the Centers for Disease Control hindered its ability to get accurate information to Americans. Burleigh says, “They [Trump Administration] started to politicize and mess with the data, which was really outrageous. But I don’t think that the CDC was in full rot mode before that.” She pointed to the vast asymmetry of spending on defense versus health which has characterized American priorities for decades as key to why we did poorly last year.
Asmau Ahmed, founder of Plum Perfect and a senior executive at a major bank, focused on the ability data has to improve diversity, a concept she is exploring with her new startup, The Diversity Meter. It is a tool for companies and individuals to measure the diversity of networks—whether among contacts or in a senior leadership team. It spotlights weaknesses and suggests ways to diversify connections and networks. The goal is to overcome the natural, unconscious ways that people create communities, which almost always results in associations with people who are like themselves. Asmau described a moment when she looked over her Linkedin profile connections and followers on Instagram and realized that the majority of the people she surrounded herself with look just like her. It’s critical to both long term social success and even innovation to expose yourself methodically to a diversity of people and views.
Thursday was also Earth Day, and several sessions focused on sustainability. Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick interviewed Cristoph Schell, chief commercial officer at HP. This week it announced aggressive goals for greenhouse gas reduction and carbon neutrality. HP already has achieved zero deforestation for its paper and packaging products, and aims to help partners adhere to similar rigid standards. “We want to prove to our ecosystem that it’s possible.” As a company that does 85 percent of its business through partners, Christoph stresses the importance of focusing on its entire business ecosystem and value chain.
Heather Cox and Antonio Melo of Humana spoke with Drew Ianni of CDX, Techonomy’s digital innovation community. Humana is a large health care provider. It had many examples of how it used digital innovation and data to adapt in the pandemic. From a vast expansion of telehealth services to buying and mailing devices, and even masks, to members, it was able to personalize its attention to where it was most impactful for people.
Techonomy columnist Robin Raskin closed the session with Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at PANGAIA, a fashion brand which invents and produces natural and sustainable textiles from materials like seaweed and mushrooms. Fashion, she argued, is one of the most exploitative and expensive industries, often disregarding human rights, environmental rights, and sustainable manufacturing. Most fashion textiles have components that are literally plastic. Parkes pointed to the lack of innovation in the textile industry in recent decades, “we’re well overdue for some real concentrated scientific efforts there and that’s what we’re taking on.”