As usual, the TED conference in Vancouver was a dizzying mix of talks cataloging what’s new in technology, entertainment, design, and beyond. From a business perspective, there were a handful of themes that captured vividly important shifts in the zeitgeist.
The most strident theme was the undesirable side effects of social media, including social division, and the undermining of democratic institutions. Several presenters suggested that we have reached a point where a radical rethink of business models is necessary. Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr gave a blistering but cogent critique of the damage caused, and challenged the leadership of social media giants to consider which side of history they want to be on. A remarkable interview with Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, touched on some of the root causes and remedies, including shifting from a focus on followers and likes, which it turns out encourages outrage and polarization, to a focus on healthy conversation. It was quite remarkable that the TED audience, one of the most tech friendly imaginable, was roused to indignation on the topic. While the focus was on social media, it’s likely that it is merely the canary in the coal mine signaling the growing interdependence of business, ecology and society, and the need for business leaders to reflect this in how they build and manage businesses.
Other speakers signaled a sense of urgency to deal with other planetary challenges such as global warming and ocean degradation, which threaten to undermine not only the game of business but also many aspects of our individual lives. Overall, this year’s conference was a little darker for its emphasis on such problems, albeit tempered by a number of imaginative and concrete proposals to address them, the TED audience was invited to fund the Audacious Projects. This included a talk by plant geneticist Joanne Chory about progress towards reengineering plants to become even more effective fixers of carbon, and another by Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, about a novel scheme to refinance debt in coastal nations, tied to commitments and financing for ocean remediation and protection.
While the side effects of maturing technologies become apparent, new promising technologies continue to emerge. Several talks signaled that synthetic biology is coming of age, with potentially profound effects on medicine and agriculture. At a dinner held by the BCG Henderson Institute and the Business Romantic Society, protein scientist Christopher Bahl shared his view that TED talks by David Liu and David Baker signaled a real turning point in protein engineering, which is now able to engineer entirely novel proteins from scratch. Technology solves problems and creates unanticipated new ones, which in turn are addressed by new technologies. The cycle shows no signs of abating.
A few talks signaled aspects of a new philosophy of business leadership to deal with such issues. Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of yogurt giant Chobani, talked about the primary accountability of CEOs to customers, employees and community rather than shareholders, and the obligation to use businesses to do good in society. And writer and historian Edward Tenner emphasized the limits of efficiency centric management and called on leaders to embrace the productive inefficiency of tinkering and exploration.
None of these themes are entirely new, but there was a sense that now is the time to address some of the significant challenges which lie beyond business, narrowly defined, but which also underpin it. It’s not hard to imagine a point in the near future where such considerations become not just important appendages to business, but even the most important aspects of leadership, in ensuring the social legitimacy and sustainability of corporate capitalism.