It’s time to put people and planet front and centre in the new technologies that are reshaping our economies and that just might help us save the world. That was the central conclusion of an exclusive group of jet-setting business executives who got together in the Vienna Hilton for the Global Peter Drucker Forum just days before Austria returned to lock down in November 2021.
There are two imperatives that must drive business of the future, the human imperative and the green imperative, both just as important as the traditional profit motive. There was a broad consensus amongst participants in the Vienna meeting that the challenge of our generation is how to find a new balance, to strive for positive impacts on people and planet from economic activity and not simply profit. Indeed, if it’s not serving people and planet or, in other words, if it’s not safe and sustainable, it can’t be good business.
Yet if an alien landed on Earth and surveyed today’s business environment, what would they see? It doesn’t look too healthy. A handful of huge monopolistic firms, mostly from the United States such as Google and Facebook, dominate the new digital economy and we don’t trust them. China’s tech challenger firms such as Huawei and Tencent are likewise distrusted and even demonised. We haven’t figured out any of the rules or guardrails to protect people from algorithms designed for surveillance, manipulation or that are fuelling fear and division.
At the same time as the tech revolution that continues to unfold, although not yet governed by any agreed framework of norms and rules, world leaders have been seeking for a generation to start a green revolution to avoid catastrophic climate change. Yet, despite much talk, we have no real agreement on how we will achieve our goals for sustainable energy, infrastructure and transport. Indeed it appears we are not transitioning fast enough to prevent a looming climate crisis. To an alien, it might look like humans are not living up their potential to solve problems, but are letting problems get seriously out of hand.
This is where the business leaders in Vienna found common ground, that leadership, strategy and culture must all be harnessed to shape change. We are co-evolving with our new technologies, suggested Helga Nowotny, who has written about the challenges of governing artificial intelligence to ensure people remain in control. In a new world of complexity that is incomprehensible to any individual, we will need to utilise technology, to manage systems from distributing green energy from a multitude of sources, to ensuring the safety of driverless transport systems and a myriad of uses for robots and other AI-enabled machines. But, at the same time, these technologies – no matter how advanced the new powers of AI deduction – are simply unable to understand the nuances of ethical and cultural values that only people can perceive and decide. Only humans can imagine the world they want to live in ten years from now. So, governance of new tech and of the green revolution remains important and the quality of future leadership is therefore perhaps more important than ever.
At this rare live get-together, the first time most delegates had attended a conference with colleagues for two years, there was furious agreement on one thing: that the world needs opportunity-inspired innovation. Sometimes innovation is driven by crisis and therefore inspired by threats, such as the focus on high-tech surveillance after 9/11. That singular event seemed to represent a shift to a darker period in which technologies have been devoted to collecting, securitising and commercialising information, turning each of us into data sets, rather than addressing our real and pressing needs. To harness the potential of new technologies, therefore, we need a mindset change, to put people and planet first. This is the mindset tech leaders and experts from Silicon Valley to Shenzhen, gathered at this rare event in Vienna, were hoping might catch on. Let’s hope they are onto something.