Article | by Andy Wood
Freestyle were there in force, running a workshop session (Disruption Techniques in the Corporate Sector, available below) and soaking up high profile speakers from the world of European politics, corporate business, cutting-edge technology and the public sector. Below are my personal highlights from this year’s summit.
If you didn’t already know, old style ‘bolt on at the end of your annual report’ CSR activity doesn’t cut the mustard in a social media dominated world ready to expose unscrupulous practice. A long list of global corporates, including Egon Zehnder, Roche, Microsoft and Vodafone covered the key theme of ‘Social Licence to Operate’. They spoke of unwritten social contracts between people and companies, and recognised that companies can only successfully trade when ‘the people’ feel they’re worthy of trust.
Roche commented: 'You can't offset socially harmful activity anymore. The questions you need to ask are: why are you in business? Does this help society? Is it good for us? If you can’t answer, you need to question the future prospects of the company you’re working for.'
Vodafone followed up with: 'When public perceptions and expectations become out of step with your business activity, you’re in trouble.' In summing up, Egon Zehnder suggested the best way to judge anything you do as a business…
"Corporates need to worry about only two target audiences for everything they do: mother earth and all future generations, after that it’s all good!"
EACD President Herbert Heitmann kicked off the summit with a two-minute statement on the EACD’s commitment to tolerance and diversity across Europe. This seemed to set the tone for comment from all the key speakers; who seemed surprised by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and concerned for the rise of ‘populist politics’ across Europe (France, Germany and the Netherlands were singled out).
What came across was a recognition that the UK Brexit vote had highlighted a real disconnect between ‘ruling elites’ and ‘ordinary people’ across Europe.
Ana Palacio, Council of State of Spain member, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Vice-President of the World Bank, spoke of the ‘erosion of trust between society and elites’. She pointed out, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the Chilcot enquiry and the banking crisis, it’s ‘no wonder Brexit saw a rejection of experts’.
She agreed with the previous speakers on the increase of corporate accountability to ‘the people’ and spoke of her own experience as Spain’s Foreign Minister involved in climate change negotiations: ‘Peer pressure and public opinion is driving enforcement of climate change measures, not legal enforcement, which never worked anyway.’
There was open and honest analysis of the problems and limitations of the European Union, ‘27 opinions, rules, and standards is a problem’. There was also a communal awareness that ‘Brexit has acted as a catalyst for self-reflection, and an opportunity to review where the real benefits are.’
The Spanish Foreign Minister summed up with a closing appeal to the business elites in the audience:
"The European project has been built by elites with the tacit agreement of the people, but now the people are in charge, forcing companies to pay tax, and we have to start listening and things need to change"
Probably the most thought provoking session came from Jürgen Schmidhuber, Director of Swiss AI Lab, IDSIA. Jürgen develops deep learning artificial neural networks - his teams have won global recognition in machine learning and are widely used by Apple and Google (Siri is powered by Jürgen's Long Short Term Memory neural network model). Jürgen described how intelligent machines are on a development path to outstrip human intelligence by around the year 2040, an event termed ‘The Singularity’ , and that this will be ‘the last invention humans will ever need to make’. Then super intelligent AI will overtake human intelligence and transform every aspect of civilization forever, exploring space and connecting the universe in a process termed ‘waking up the universe’! Watch Jürgen's Ted Talk on super intelligent AI
Finally, bringing it back down to earth, we led a workshop on Disruption Techniques in the Corporate Sector. The session looked at the key lessons from successfully disruptive start-ups, and how to apply these lessons to large corporate businesses, using three case study examples to illustrate the tools and techniques involved.