Getting from A to B: Technology innovation, global challenges and the Davos process

by Andrew Maynard on January 29, 2010

There’s been something of a theme running through my day at The World Economic Forum Meeting in Davos today – getting from A to B.  The “A” in this case is technology innovation, and the “B” the problems we hope it will solve – the big ones like world hunger and disease, as well as some of the smaller ones like making life a little easier and more comfortable for ourselves.  But rather than write directly about the challenge of translating technology innovation into action, I thought I would give you a sense of how things work here – at least in the outer layers of the Davos onion I’m privileged to inhabit – using getting from A to B as an example.

Having skipped the early sessions I got to the Convention Center in Davos mid-morning, to find a message from a BBC World Service reporter waiting for me. After homing in on each other across a crowded floor using the time honored mobile phone “can you see me yet…” method, it transpired he was interested in a few words on a few word on emerging economies and emerging technologies – in particular on how countries like India and China are doing compared to the US.  We did a quick interview there and then, in which I said precisely nothing of note – for which I was kicking myself afterward.  Not because I failed to say all the smart things I could have said about emerging economies (being somewhat dazed and jetlagged, I forgot that I actually knew some interesting stuff here until after the interview), but because today’s the day I’ve been focusing on a new proposal to address global issues surrounding emerging technologies; and I failed completely and utterly to get this into the conversation.  My media gurus would have been in tears had they been there.

So the day started with an opportunity – sadly blown.  Following shortly after this I met with a senior representative from a petrochemicals company – he was interested in talking about technology innovations strategies for the company.  Fortunately, having woken up a bit at this point, I was able to talk about the work we’re doing in the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils on our new emerging technologies proposal – which is designed precisely to help companies, governments, and other groups and institutions get from A to B more effectively when it comes to technology innovation.  So far, one opportunity lost, one grasped.

But the big event of the day was a Global Redesign Initiative ideasLab, where I had the opportunity to present the “big idea” to a bunch of folk who, in principle, would help hone it to perfection.  It was a format I’m not terrifically comfortable with – timed comments addressing five specific questions.  As the proposal coming out of the Global Agenda Council I work with was somewhat complex, I resorted to scripting my comments – it kills the spontaneity, but it’s the only way I know to prevent me launching into a 20 minute lecture, or spouting pure drivel (or both, simultaneously).  The presentation went okay – not brilliant, but adequate.  But then came the quickfire questions, which were supposedly to prime the following 30 minutes of discussion.  To my horror, the challenge of connecting tech innovation to social need – so clear to me – was brought into questioned by my listeners.  The message they left me with was that innovation works very well thank you very much, and who wants a cumbersome global center helping people get from A to B anyway?

Had I misjudged things that badly?

There was worse to come though.  After six five-minute presentations, the group of about 30 people broke into six discussion groups – one for each idea.  Now you know that feeling when you’re the unpopular kid and teams are being picked?  That was me.  I had no-one interested in talking about making technology innovation work.  Not a single soul.  Clearly emerging technology is the unpopular kid on the block when it comes to meetings of senior decision makers.  That, or there was something else no one was telling me about…

I’m pretty sure the lack of interest stemmed from a number of things – a fear of the unfamiliar, blind faith in tech innovation to solve problems as and when they arise, and a certain degree of masking of the difficulties of getting form A to B by retrospective success stories (masking being where a technology inadvertently solves a problem no-one has heard of, and is heralded as a great success – I’m being a tad facetious, but you get the point).

I had the chance to test these suspicions out in the following session – a panel discussion on rethinking how to feed the world, with a highly distinguished group of people.  Luckily, the discussion turned to the role of technology innovation in agriculture and food early on, and at the first opportunity I got my question in: “we talk a lot about the problems we face, and about new innovations, but how do we most effectively get from A to B?”

Bill Gates took up the challenge, and spoke about a very neat use of of synthetic biology (or something approaching it) to create drought and flood-resistant rice plants.  It’s a great example of how innovation has helped create a better product.  But it didn’t answer the question – which was how can we do better than we are doing.  Bill actually answered very intelligently.  But at the same time he seemed to confirm my fear that our success stories so often detract from where we are not doing well, and need to do better.  Especially where they lead to complacency.  (Here I should be very clear that, while Bill Gates confirmed my growing fears that getting people to see the A to B problem is a major challenge in itself, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is doing a tremendous amount to support the innovation side of the equation.)

I was a little more heartened by Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont, who circled back to the question later on.  She touched on the problem of finding workable solutions to developing more effective food supplies, acknowledging that you need tech innovation and ways to make it work.  The example she cited was DuPont’s approach to working with local farming communities in Africa, so there is local “ownership” of the innovation.

Maybe I wasn’t as off-track as I was beginning to fear.

The day ended with a private dinner of World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council members.  I sat next to three prominent thought-leaders – a neurologist, an economist and a priest.  And I took the opportunity to burden them with my A to B problem.  Not only did they take me seriously, but we had an excellent discussion about where the ideas behind the proposal made sense, where perhaps they didn’t.  The economist was worried about constraining innovation by trying to match it to needs.  The neurologist on the other hand feared that the process of innovation isn’t driven by social need – so there is a real danger of solving challenges that aren’t problems, while leaving the ones that are untouched.  I forget what the priest said – at some point the conversation got on to the far more entertaining topic of religious jokes.

At the end of the day, maybe I hadn’t convinced someone with deep pockets and influence that the A to B problem is of utmost importance.  But I had had a string of unique opportunities to test the concept out, to refine my own thoughts and ideas, and to develop links that will be of lasting value.  And this more than anything is what Davos is about perhaps – grasping opportunities, making connections, being exposed to new ideas and having your own challenged.

I still believe that we have a real problem on our hands in working out how to get from A to B in translating technology innovation into socially responsive action.  But I now have a far better sense of where the possible solutions lie, and how to help people see not only the challenge, but the possible ways forward.

All in all, not a bad day.

1 Tim Jones February 4, 2010 at 7:51 pm

That’ll teach me to read your posts in reverse chronology. I guess the whole ‘A-B’ thing answers my point in your next post about “ideas into actions”, and you seem to say there isn’t a session/forum on that as a generic challenge – at least in the area of applying tech innov. (which isn’t the whole story).

2 Andrew Maynard February 4, 2010 at 8:20 pm

There is definitely a lack of this at the forum – at the moment. Agree that tech innovation is only one of the “A to B” challenges – there are a number of other similar ones. Hopefully this will change over time.

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