More than 1500 people went to the first edition of Trendship in Groningen last Thursday at MartiniPlaza, to catch up on the latest tech trends. Three international keynote speakers discussed why newspapers are oversized, how Disney made a 7 billion dollar mistake and how A.I. can save humanity, instead of destroying it.
Presented by NOS news anchor Dionne Stax, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and bestselling author Ben Casnocha, designer and futurist Maurice Conti and London Business School Professor Freek Vermeulen discussed various aspects of innovation and the pitfalls of outdated thinking.
Driving through the fog
Freek Vermeulen is Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London School of Business and the first recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award. He defines entrepreneurship as taking the lead and setting the course for others.
“But it’s a little like driving through fog, because no one can tell what the world will look like in 10 years time”, Vermeulen explains. “It’s easy to see the short term effects of our actions, but very difficult for us to understand and foresee the long term effects.”
Monkeys beating each other up
It’s not just the difficulty of navigating through the fog, it’s also often the way we do things that’s holding back innovation. “When I ask managers the simple question of why they do things in a certain way, the answer is usually the same: because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Vermeulen calls this the cultural transmission of learned behavior. “There’s a famous experiment involving monkeys to illustrate this. Inside a cage, there’s a ladder leading up to a banana. The ladder however, is wired to the sprinkler system, so every time a monkey touches it, all the monkeys get doused by ice cold water.”
After a few attempts to get the banana, the monkeys learn to avoid the ladder and ignore the banana. “But now one of the monkeys is removed and replaced by a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and runs to the ladder to get the banana, but is stopped and beaten up by the other monkeys”, Vermeulen continues. “The same thing happens when another monkey is replaced by a new one, and so on, until all the original monkeys have been replaced.”
“So here’s where it gets interesting. None of the monkeys in the cage have been doused by cold water, and in fact, the sprinkler system isn’t even turned on anymore. Yet, they still completely ignore the banana, because that’s what they’ve been taught by the original monkeys. The moral of this story: sometimes we keep on doing things when there’s no actual reason to keep on doing it, because the circumstances have changed. Innovation is not just finding new ways to do things, it’s also looking at how you can change existing behavior. Innovation through elimination.”
The 7 billion dollar mistake
Entrepreneur and author Ben Casnocha starts with a question: “what is it that makes Silicon Valley the epicenter of innovation?” His answer is short and simple: talented people with an entrepreneurial mindset. “If you want your company to really innovate, it’s about recruiting and retaining these people.”
Casnocha points out that the old school way of thinking can lead to costly mistakes: “Disney once fired an animator who was interested in using computer animation, for wasting the company’s time and resources. That employee was John Lasseter, who went on to found Pixar with Steve Jobs and made Toy Story. Disney, later realizing their mistake, bought Pixar for 7 billion dollars.”
“Forty years ago, companies were interested in stability”, Casnocha explains. “That meant treating employees like family, investing in them while they worked their entire career for the company. But that became too costly, and companies started treating their employees as a replaceable commodity; hire people who are already good at what they do and make it easy to fire them, so they’re forced to perform.”
“Nowadays, innovation very important and even necessary to survive as a company”, Casnocha continues. “Forcing employees to perform will not turn them into innovators. No company can guarantee a lifetime job either, and this is also not something employees are interested in.”
“Instead of treating employees like family or a commodity, form an alliance. Don’t expect them to stay and work for you, but talk about what they want, and make it a 3 year tour of duty with milestones, where people have the choice continue or move on.”
The augmented age
Technology is changing rapidly, and our society along with it, at an almost exponential rate. “Our brains are not really evolutionarily wired to fathom exponential change”, designer and futurist Maurice Conti explains. “But our society is making the transition into the augmented age, and the world will look very different 10 years from now.”
Conti specializes in generative design, where A.I. and humans work together to come up with incredible new concepts. “For the last three-and-a-half million years, the tools that we've had have been completely passive. They do exactly what we tell them and nothing more. Our very first tool only cut where we struck it. The chisel only carves where the artist points it. And even our most advanced tools do nothing without our explicit direction.”
But that will soon change, as Conti points out. “As computers are going to augment our ability to imagine and design new stuff, robotic systems are going to help us build and make things that we've never been able to make before.”
So what about all the warnings of the potential dangers of Artificial intelligence? “I’m actually more concerned that humanity will wipe itself out in the next 20 years”, Conti says. “I think that humans working together with A.I. will make the world a better place and that we're going to see a world where we're moving from things that are fabricated to things that are farmed.”
“Thanks to our augmented capabilities, our world is going to change dramatically”, Conti continues. “We're going to have a world with more variety, more connectedness, more dynamism, more complexity, more adaptability and, of course, more beauty. The shape of things to come will be unlike anything we've ever seen before. Why? Because what will be shaping those things is this new partnership between technology, nature and humanity. That, to me, is a future well worth looking forward to.”