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Business in the digital age: How business can help save the world (a talk transcript)

On 6th April, it was my privilege to talk at ‘Brainstorming the future – the New Digital Age‘, an event organised by Junior Enterprise Brighton (JEB) at the University of Brighton.  JEB is an independently-run not-for-profit organisation entirely managed by students who engage in projects such as professional consultancy to SME’s, events management and charity fundraising. I shared the stage with Aral Balkan (@aral) and Rory Sutherland (@rorysutherland) from Ogilvy.

A video of my talk can be found here: A future of business in the new digital age (YouTube)

Here is a transcript of my talk, with the slides.

 

I am going to briefly talk about business in the New Digital Age. My message is this:

The planet is a bit screwed, and we need to get better at looking after her. I think business plays a huge part of making that a reality, via the opportunities of the new digital age.

So you know where we are, I’ll make my points via the following chapters:

1. Working with disruption
2. Mindsets to change the world
3. Enabling the world savers

1. Working with disruption

In order for business to contribute to saving the world, it needs to first be ready for the challenges of simply surviving in the digital age. That’s why an increasing number of businesses are challenging traditional working cultures.

This is to enable them to succeed in an environment where customers are massively informed about products, presented with broad choice and able to switch to a disruptive competitor at the drop of a hat.

A fascinating and extreme example of these innovative working cultures is Valve Corporation:

For anyone who doesn’t know, Valve Corporation is a super successful games developer and have effectively cornered the market for online game distribution with their Steam platform.

As Valve employee Michael Abrash tells it, when working at Microsoft in the early 90s, Valve’s Managing Director Gabe Newell commissioned a survey on what was actually installed on people’s PCs. Windows, created by 1000s of people at massive cost, was the second most installed software.

The first was Doom, a computer game created by just 10 people.

Gabe took from this something fundamental – the hierarchical structures that had worked from their birth in the military, through to enabling the industrial revolution, were not fit for purpose anymore. The previous objective was to treat people as components, doing the same thing over and over again with ordered efficiency.

To Gabe, Doom’s massive success demonstrated that the value in such a fast moving world was the act of creating something awesome initially, not the repetition of that awesome thing. As Abrash puts it, any half decent software engineer can make a Facebook, but no one else can repeat that unique creative moment in time that made it so popular.

As a result of that insight, the Valve workplace has been created as a place designed aggressively for creative productivity, without the constraints of hierarchical management and other traditional working practices. There are no managers, people have free will in what they work on and can wheel their desks around the office to that end.

It’s such a unique workplace that Valve created an awesome Handbook for new employees to help navigate the complexities of such a structure – I recommend reading if you want more insight into how Valve works and just to have a laugh too because it is pretty funny.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that Valve’s system is the future of the business workplace – various reports are less than glowing about some of the implications of such an anarchic culture. However, to me it says this about workplace culture in the digital age: In a world where what will create value for a business, i.e. make money, will continue to be disrupted all the time, the businesses that will survive are the ones that build cultures and workplaces that embrace that disruption as part of their process.

It is the lessons about what works and what doesn’t work from these kind of companies that we can use to effectively tackle the mammoth issues the world faces in the coming century, outside of purely business.

So, we’ve changed the way we work so we know how effectively tackle some of the big hairy issues. What’s next?

2. Mindsets to change the world

Next we need to make sure we’re in the right mindset for it to work. In that vein, for me one of the most compelling changes in business in the New Digital Age is the new types of business that are about individuals and communities, such as those in the collaborative, or sharing economy.

If you’re unaware of the concept, think AirBNB or Kickstarter and so on – these are businesses that make money by enabling people to do things that would have been challenging or expensive to do on their own other wise, such as renting or selling their stuff or getting funding for their project. To illustrate:

I want to tell you about my friend Jason.

Jason and I are members of BuildBrighton, a local makerspace where we muck about with electronics and laser cutters and other awesome nerdy pursuits. Now, apart from being a bloody nice guy, Jason is also a bit of a ledge when it comes to creating electronic things.

Here you can see his homemade tesla coil, music playing lava lamp and the guitar stomp boxes we’ve made together. If anyone doesn’t know what a Tesla coil is, it’s basically a hugely scary lightning maker and you’ll notice in the picture Jason’s kids’s swingball set right behind it. Nice.

Jason also made some pretty cool electronic music gizmos as seen here and because everyone thought they were so cool, he thought about selling them. Turns out there’s a business to help him do that that!

Jason now sells his home-brewed electronic music gear on Tindie, a business created specifically to enable makers like him to connect to an audience of customers that he would have struggled to find otherwise. He sells a kit, they make a little bit on top. Simple.

Jason’s story is an example of the power of business for enabling creativity and innovation in people through mutual advantage, something that will be massively important in finding solutions to our big hairy problems. Companies like AirBNB help us develop mindsets for reuse, sharing and trust, all incredibly important elements for building a more sustainable world. Kickstarter and it’s ilk contribute to the building of economies that are rooted with individuals and communities, rather than monolithic financial uber companies. By taking advantage of human nature, the ‘what’s in it for me’ mindset, business can contribute heavily to shift our perceptions as a group to the mindsets needed to deal with the issues our world really face, like global warming, poverty, over-population and Justin Bieber – though to be honest, I think he’s dealing with that problem himself.

So, we’ve covered businesses working better to deal with the disruption the digital world, businesses that enable more sustainable mindsets, finally won’t somebody please think of the children!

3. Enabling the world savers


 

This is Jimmy’s finger, which belongs to my colleague Jenni’s son Jimmy. Jimmy is a regular 14 year old boy. The other morning, Jimmy was rushing around getting ready to go to school. Just as Jimmy ran out the door, he rushed back and shouted to his Mum “Mum, make sure you charge my finger before lunch please!“. Understandably, Jenni was like, “Phh, what?”

You see, Jimmy’s school uses biometric finger print scanners to identify each student at the till in their canteen and charge their account appropriately. That’s some pretty nuts sci-fi stuff, no?

Well, it’s not nuts for Jimmy. In fact, Jimmy and his friends probably don’t even register that this epic finger thing IS a thing, it’s just the norm, so much that they don’t call it ‘the biometric EPOS system‘, they call it ‘charging my finger’.

I like Jimmy’s story because it shows that for a lot of people, especially younger people, The Digital Age as just ‘The Norm’. It’s not some intangible concept of ‘hyper-connectivity through technology and cultural disruption’, it’s the every day world we live in, with all the mundane challenges and exciting opportunities that come with human nature.

Jimmy is part of a generation, like some of you, that has never experienced a ‘disconnected’ existence and in about 5 years, they’ll be joining the workforce. When they turn up on day one fresh from a world of finger print based lunches and all the world’s information in their pocket, will the business world they enter meet their expectations from their ‘real world’? Probably not…

I think business really needs to be ready for these people because the New Digital Age is really about them – the bright and inventive minds born in a world of technology driven possibility, free of the constraints older generations have grown accustomed to.

Business has to be ready for this generation because I think that business is both one of the greatest assets and toughest challenges we have as a planet that is in decline. Business has played a seriously destructive role in that decline, but it also has the opportunity for compelling, positive, world-saving change. It’s only by creating engaging environments for the people who will actually be doing the world saving, like Jimmy and his crew, that business will be able to fulfil that potential.

So to sum up:

Business will play a huge part in saving the world. The business workplace is a proving ground for innovative new ways of working together towards our goals. Business can drive the new progressive mindsets needed to start tackling our problems as a group. Finally, Business can enable the new generations who will actually be doing the leg work to fulfil their massive potential.

The new digital age makes of these things possible through connection, sharing of knowledge and disruption of the status quo. Now we just have to start, so what’s your business model for saving the world?

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