Image: World Economic Forum / Faruk Pinjo
“Summer Davos” – the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China – explored the myriad ways that industries are converging, and the impact of innovation and disruption. There was a widespread acceptance of a shift in thinking, for example from automotive to mobility and from 3D printing to the future of production systems. (On a side note, it’s now possible to 3D print synthetic diamonds of gem quality standards.)
These were some of my key takeaways:
1) Your colleagues of the future will include robots. On display in the conference centre was Jia Jia, a very human-looking robot. She was disturbingly lifelike and could respond to conversation in Mandarin, move her arms and detect your age and gender. There were crowds of people taking selfies with her and shaking her hand. (I am beginning to wonder, however, is anyone working on a male robot?)
2) Purpose is everything. Defining a company’s – or a technology’s – purpose was high on everyone’s mind. Dava Newman from NASA encouraged people to direct their passion at a problem, not a technology.
3) A challenge to venture capitalists. Imagine these initial pitches to VCs: “We’ve built an app to enable strangers to stay in people’s homes” or “Our app means you can get a ride home with a stranger.” Countless VCs rejected them. But changing social norms meant that what was unimaginable became reality – and multi-billion dollar businesses. Some panellists questioned whether VCs were looking at the wrong things, such as web traffic, instead of credit quality and risk management. As I wrote in my blog about entrepreneurs, VCs are being disrupted by crowdfunding and angel investors. To combat this, they need to take a harder look at potential investments and challenge their assumptions.
4) Blockchain as a stand-alone technology. From verifying the province of diamonds to reducing counterfeit goods, blockchain can play an important role in increasing transparency and transactional trust. Now that blockchain has been decoupled from bitcoin, the range of potential applications is huge. And as it matures, blockchain will put more control in the hands of customers (yes, a theme is emerging) by giving them trusted information on which to base decisions.
5) Bullish on bitcoin? Some see potential for bitcoin as a unique asset class. Others believe it will be the currency of the future. While there was dissent on that point, there was consensus that we are moving towards a cashless society.
The disruption formula = technology + customers + society
Advances in technology are enabling disruption. Over three days, I heard about people working on quantum-based technologies such as cryptography and simulators; on 4D printing so that materials change in response to heat and humidity; on researching electricity production from living plants. It seems there is no shortage of innovation and the technical skills to bring them to fruition.
But disruption requires more than technology. A better future will only come about when the potential of technology is matched by societal need and customers willing to embrace new ways of doing things. For that to happen, people need to be made aware of the tremendous changes coming their way – from artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum-based technologies, etc – and encouraged to explore what it means for them, their careers and businesses, as well as the next generation.
Leaders have a duty to prepare people for what’s next. Whether CEOs, politicians, philanthropists or faith leaders, we must articulate a clear vision of the future, so that people understand the end goal. Leaders can’t assume someone else will articulate their vision for them. We need to paint a very clear picture for our customers, suppliers and people. We can’t afford to be ambiguous.
One of the speakers encouraged us to challenge every assumption. I think we all have to ask different questions. Better questions. We have to challenge our own thinking, our own methods. The world is changing and there will be uncertainties. But by probing, asking tough questions, and developing a robust vision for the future that is built on a solid purpose, we can work together to make our visions a reality.