The Saguaros were vibrating outside the hall in Tucson during Techonomy 2013 last week, such were the energy waves emanating from the stage. Or perhaps the foundation of business was shaking. I don’t know.
One thing that is clear is that the giants of old industry are really starting to think differently about how to conduct their business, organize their companies, and evolve their products. This was especially evident when I sat down with Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, who described his company’s shift towards creating a tech platform for health, with its tech subsidiaries separated from the traditional health insurer. Bertolini’s personal story is astonishing. He broke his neck in a skiing accident and almost died, and spent many months caring for a seriously ill son. This gave him a direct view into the medical system which allows him now to bring a consumer’s frustrations and insights to the table as CEO of one of the biggest medical insurers.
Shortly after that session, we heard from Ford CMO Jim Farley, whose thinking about the role of social marketing, collaborating with customers, turning the car into a platform for new experiences, along with his own humility in the face of tech-driven change turned many heads in the audience.
One theme that emerged repeatedly in our sessions was the pace of change in biotechnology, with progress in genomics accelerating even faster than Moore’s law, according to several speakers. Stewart Brand, whose tech pedigree stretches back to the earliest days of the PC (and his “Whole Earth Catalog”), believes that the disruption coming from synthetic biology will perhaps supersede even that from the Internet. An astonishing late-night session brought Brand together with serial tech and medical entrepreneur Walter De Brouwer and veteran tech journalist Ina Fried to discuss the ethos of entrepreneurship and innovation and how it’s changed over time. De Brouwer explained the key role, in his opinion, of disrespect and disobedience in creating new value in society.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh anchored an entire afternoon devoted to the changing role of cities. He explained the ways he is conceiving of Zappos’ evolution in the context of its home town Las Vegas. Hsieh says that the role of culture in a company is much like the role of community in a city. He is placing one within the other so that benefits will flow both ways, now that Zappos employees are ensconced in the former Las Vegas City Hall, in the once-neglected downtown district. He’s investing in small businesses, tech startups, health care, and educational institutions with the aim of catalyzing a zone of creativity that benefits all the participants, including the company and its employees.
MIT’s Tom Malone explained the results of new research at his Center for Collective Intelligence that finds that the most productive and creative groups are those where people speak roughly equally and where women play a big role. Sensitivity and relationship skills turn out to be a key factor in the success of work teams, and the research data suggests that women—big surprise—are better at that. Even more unnervingly to people of my gender, Malone’s research suggests that the more women in a team the more effective it is, all the way up to groups that are entirely women.
Our closing session with Tim O’Reilly and Max Levchin took on the biggest topics. Levchin said, matter-of-factly, that we would obtain immortality, probably by about 2050. What more eludes him is how innovation will progress in the interim, though he’s got some extraordinary ideas, and has lost his former pessimism (shared with his PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel) about the scope and ambition of modern entrepreneurialism. He thinks we’re getting better at targetting the biggest problems. O’Reilly was also extremely optimistic about the opportunities for tech to foster social progress, though he worries about social disruptions from political and religious forces in the U.S. and worldwide that may slow things down.
This is just a taste of what our 250 participants found in the desert outside Tucson. We will continue next November 10-12 at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco. Techonomy believes that all of us can improve our effectiveness and that of our organizations by engaging directly with the realities of tech-based transformation. It’s an arena that gets more exciting and unexpected by the day.
For a complete archive of video and transcripts from the Techonomy 2013 conference, click here.