Marx my words

We spoke to the co-founder of the Elite Educational Institute China, Haisong Tang, on what his next moonshot is and how it will help ensure a more desirable future.

What is it that you are looking forward to most in the future? 

I’m seeking the new Karl Marx is the answer I recently gave to a journalist who had asked me what my own personal moonshot is. I know how a technologist is supposed to answer this question, but that’s a point of view I don’t subscribe to. We don’t need new or more technology. We don’t need other Google-like companies or Musk-like entrepreneurs, nor other innovations. What we need most now are people who can think differently about capitalism, about government, and about multinational companies. That’s because the most serious problem we are facing is the growing polarization between the rich and the poor. And it’s not happening by chance. 

We need to rethink a lot of the rules set up by capitalism. For instance, corporations only seek high productivity, low cost and maximum profit. But does this make sense? Wouldn’t be more useful to value a company based on how many people it employs instead of how much money it makes? In the past 20 years, technology did not really help narrow this economic and social gap. In fact, it has been increasing. 

How so? 

There’s been a lot of hype around AI and Blockchain – but who will profit most from these technologies? The rich, highly educated and most advantaged. A lot of those living in poor areas will actually be hurt by these new technologies. I’m not saying that innovation is inherently bad. It still can make a difference. Energy storage technologies can be the key to help Africa develop, for instance, and provide the continent with more clean water and job opportunities. Health care related innovation is quite important too but, taking a deeper look, we’ll see that we already have all the technology we need. Besides a few types of disease that still cannot be cured and for which further research is necessary, what we really need is that existing drugs be made available by Big Pharma at a very low price for people living in underdeveloped countries. It’s not a question of technology per se. It’s the corporation’s wills that matter. Corporate is becoming humanity’s biggest enemy.

Many analysts and observers believe that big multinational companies are going to replace governments. They are convinced that innovation is driven by R&D made in private laboratories, that these new technologies are empowering the corporate even more, that governments lag behind in almost every way – especially from a regulatory point of view. This is a misconception. It is something we shouldn’t wish. In fact, big multinational companies go about pursuing profit only. For them, globalization is important because they can sell an iPhone in the United States at one thousand dollars while they pay the Chinese workers who manufacture it three dollars per hour. We still need governments, but stronger governments whose role is not just that of pushing productivity or cutting costs, like financial markets and neoliberals recommend, but that of maintaining the well-being of the population. That means that, besides high tech jobs, we need also low tech and medium tech jobs, even if all the today’s hype is about the former.

Has this been demonstrated in the past? 

Historically, every single period of prosperity was ignited by strong government. If today they are doing a poor job and not satisfying the majority of people, it doesn’t mean we don’t need them. China provides a clear example: without a strong government, its people would still be suffering. In the United States, Trump is really trying to strengthen the power and enlarge the President’s room to maneuver, its cabinet and governmental agencies. More than against China, he’s pushing against private institutions, multinational giants such as Apple or Google. He’s reminding big corporate that it has a moral obligation towards the government and towards the nation as well, which counts more than profit, the only thing such businesses have in mind.

So where has the techscape gone wrong then? 

Silicon Valley tech startup entrepreneurs have become too arrogant in their isolation. They really think that they are invincible, that they’ve created something new. But it’s not true. Just think of the Internet and the GPS technology. They both came from a multi-billion dollar, 50-year-old US military initiative, which later became available for civilian usage. It was scenarios such as this which consequently, led to the creation of companies like Google. But without the foundations made by the public spending, nothing would have happened. We can be sure that without private companies, the economy simply wouldn’t work but at the same time, we need strong public institutions to create a fair playing field, because, without them, unrestrained markets inevitably lead to a dog-eat-dog economy and society.

Is that the biggest challenge? 

The real challenge is not that of simply reclaiming power for central national institutions, because they can probably no longer guarantee the success of today’s society. So the real question is: what type of government will we need from here to 2050? New generations will have new and different issues to face and it implies that we need to elaborate the idea of how we are governed. Whether capitalistic, democratic or authoritarian, it has yet to be seen. We still don’t know. But that’s what we have to really think very hard about.

Is there no blowback occurring? 

It’s more than possible that there will be a backlash against what is happening. No-one should be surprised if in the next five to ten years there will be actions in the US against the biggest multinational companies. It’s something already seen, for example when Teddy Roosevelt started breaking up a lot of monopolies or when, years later, in the 1990s, the same happened with Microsoft. It is time to break up some of the very large corporations, given what’s happening and, most of all, considering that they aim to dominate every single area, something which eventually is going to hurt the majority of people globally. For companies like Google, Facebook or Amazon it would be very easy to damage the entire world if they wanted to. Their corporate power is huge and this is the reason why the two superpowers are going to curb it. China already made the first move. Does anyone really believe that Alibaba’s Jack Ma was willing to retire at only 55 years old? Of course not. But in China it is easier to do that, since every company is ultimately being controlled by the Communist Party, which holds the power of life and death over them. In the United States, it is slightly different and that’s exactly the problem that Donald Trump is trying to solve. So, apparently, besides a possible war between the US and China, there is another one that the two countries are fighting together against corporations instead of against each other.

It seems that you aren’t as positive about technology as some of our other interviewees… 

You’re right, there is still so much enthusiasm for technologies such as AI and blockchain. Driverless cars enjoyed a similar hype but I wonder if we really need cars like this. Do they add social value or do they just make us dumber? So we keep inflating bubbles. Quantum computing is just the last in a long series of overestimated innovations. In reality, it is nothing really unique, it’s just about faster computation.

Which technologies are underrated right now? 

At the same time, we’ve been underestimating technologies with the potential for being real game changers, like those related to the hardware. That’s particularly evident in Europe. As an instance, there is so much enthusiasm about R+ but the fundamental technology is the chip. Without a chip design, VR would be a clunky machine linked through a cable to the wall. It wouldn’t work. So I think that people are not paying enough attention to the hardware side, whose core is the chip design and energy storage. I think this is an understanding that is lacking in Europe. We’re all looking to fundamental hardware solutions because the software optimization already reached its peak. So the value we can reap from the latter is almost gone. I believe that the next step will be the hardware revolution. Hardware solution use is above fifty to a hundred times more efficient than the software solution. In the past hardware was a commodity, in the future the software will be a commodity.

So what do you see in the future? 

I see a war. But not the type we are used to. Neither of the two superpowers has any interest in escalating to the point of confrontation. To Washington, there’s no benefit in invading China. The United States needs a partner to cooperate with in order to keep the world order. But a war could be an unintentional outcome of a regional conflict, and in this case, technology would play a pivotal role. As the confrontation will be a cyber one, to be stricken would not be the classic military targets but the electricity grids. When a country is left without electricity, it is simply defeated. Then it would be the turn of communication equipment, whose destruction would spread turmoil across society. In this sense, the Chinese choice of consolidating everything into a single app like WeChat is extremely risky, and in this field, American superiority is indisputable. The US already has the technologies they need implanted in every single country thanks to companies such as Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco. There are so many backdoors, and so the United States probably has the capability to destroy China within a week without firing any single shot. A cyber war is more probable than a nuclear one since the latter implies mutually assured destruction and it forces to act with restraint. On the contrary, with cyber weapons, it’s much more difficult to find who is attacking.

So a bed full of roses ahead then? 

The picture isn’t pretty, and it is made all the scarier by growing social disparities. And so I return to where I began with this article: all major revolutions were born out of inequalities. This is the major issue we have to face, which is the consequence of capitalism. A worldwide leading marketing expert Philip Kotler wrote a book, Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System, in which he reflected on what went wrong with capitalism and how to fix it. Well, I believe that we have to fix capitalism and then we have to fix democracy as well. To do that, we don’t need technology: it is not the panacea to solve all issues. What we need is a drastically different, a complete paradigm shift. What we need is a new Karl Marx.

Open irritation

It has been reported that over 50% of corporations are left feeling disappointed after working with smaller firms. Why is this you may ask? I have a few thoughts on the subject, having been CEO for two venture-funded startups myself, so I’ll try to explain why not only is this fine, but that we should actually be surprised that the figure is not in fact much higher. But first, let’s look at some of the more evident reasons as to why there is such a deep disconnect between corporate expectation and reality.

The first reason is that when we are discussing open innovation, what we are really discussing is an elephant dancing with a mouse. Corporates are often huge entities which exert mass amounts of control upon startups from the very beginning of this process. Many startups are therefore forced to follow rules and regulations that run counter to their idea. The result? Almost always a zero percent success rate. By assuming that they are in the right by default, the bigger players always create a lot of wrongs.

The second basic point is corporates often approach working with startups the same way they approach all work. In the corporate world, for example, failure is not an option, but when it comes to open innovation, it is essential. The differences don’t end there, corporations rely heavily on the waterfall method which requires mass amounts of input and resources to be spent on any single decision. Open innovation, on the other hand, requires rapid and lean methodology.

This is because open innovation is not about a singular decision that is then invested heavily in. Companies should instead be taking a more scattershot approach, wherein they employ a pool of projects from a portfolio of startups which are enacted quickly, cheaply, with an overall lean methodology. If nine out of ten startups fail, then corporations should be ready and willing to employ the expertise of at least ten startups – expecting nine to fail. Following this experimentation up by funding only the ones validated through this methodology. This is why there should indeed be an over 50% disappointment rate, in fact, it should be as high as 90% if corporations were getting it right.

Now is this the nature of the beast? Or have they been misled through dishonest marketing on what open innovation is? Or is their overall definition of innovation simply wrong? We cannot know, so there is no point speculating. All I can state with any confidence is that a lot of this is to do with human nature – we often rely on the tried and tested methods of what got us here today, because they have worked thus far, so why not now?

Companies which are large and successful are often such as they have survived by being incredibly efficient at what they do, whether that be a product or a service. To achieve this success, they have created and perfected procedures which are effective. It is this exact success, however, which makes them less successful when it comes to innovation – limiting their ability to enact or welcome any change due to their inflexibility. A business in the banking sector, for example, would be more logically inclined to hire people who are good at banking, not the guys dealing with crypto in their shed.

Open innovation flips this concept on its head: it is not about a hardened or perfected process, it is about taking risks and trying something new. The entire point of open innovation is that it is a response to a question which corporates do not know the answer to. Sometimes, they may even be lacking the right question. So if a corporation goes into this arrangement thinking that they know the right answer, they are undoubtedly going to get it wrong. In fact, it is arguable that they are not even attempting open innovation in the first place.

So in this sense, the more successful a company is, the more faith it has in its current systems and procedures and therefore is much more likely to struggle with the concept of open innovation. If they are massively successful, then why would they need to innovate is the general thought process behind it all? To once again turn to the banking sector – banks make a lot of money, it seems entirely illogical to risk such systems when the coppers are full. If a company is on death’s door, however, they are much better inclined to work properly with startups, as what they are currently doing simply isn’t working and the writing is already on the wall.

This is why it is best to begin adapting open innovation strategies early and incrementally prior to such a dire situation: a stitch in time saves nine, as the old saying goes, and it was as true then as it is now. This is why companies should try to get ahead of the innovation curve by adopting a portfolio approach that isn’t placed under immense pressure. This pressure causes hostility, leads to a controlling environment and the inevitable aforementioned disappointment when the startups (or often just one startup) fail(s).

On the startup side, the best advice that can be given to them in the face of this disconnect is to walk away from any deal which they are not 100% sure will lead to success. If like I mentioned above, a corporation states exactly what they want to be built, details a 50-page specification, requires that the startup follows a long list of procedures and that it will take 9 months to reach a PAO – then it simply won’t work for the startup. It’s strange advice, but if they enter a corporate environment, one which is hostile or suspicious of startups, then in my view it is simply not worth the startups’ time. More importantly, startups by their nature cannot afford to waste their time, and such a situation it will most likely sink the startup before it has even had a chance to start up. It is therefore paramount that they stay strong and be selective, no matter how tempting such a Faustian deal may be.

Corporates, conversely, can’t afford to be selective, because they really do not have the information or data to know what the solutions they are selecting startups for – thus the need for open innovation in the first place. Instead, they should cover all possible bases, procure a portfolio of options and ultimately, prepare to be disappointed, because they most certainly will be.

I work therefore I am

The great pace at which AI is growing is being matched only by the number of gloomy headlines it creates. Today, most analysts think that this technology will cause a mass jobs loss, and people feel more and more threatened by it seemingly by the hour. But what if I told you that AI will actually give you the chance to finally get your dream job?

Imagine meeting someone for the first time: the first thing you’ll say is your name, no doubt about that. But what about the second thing? For most, it will be what your job is. This simple example shows how work is one of the defining traits of the society we live in: tweaking a famous quote by Descartes, we could say that the motto of the our age is “I work, therefore I am”. Work, in fact, is crucial for our personal identity and it affects all aspects of our life: if you’re doing something you’re passionate about, in an environment you like and with people you share a vision with, you have a high self-esteem and feel valuable for the society. The opposite happens if the role you have does not match you passion or, worse, if you’re unemployed.

Artificial intelligence expert, investor, and author of the groundbreaking book AI Superpowers, Kai-Fu Lee even states that work remains the most important part of self-esteem in people. Kai-Fu expects that it will certainly remain so for at least another 50 years and that this must be taken into account in the development and use of artificial intelligence.

In this scenario where work is profoundly connected to the idea we have of our own selves, it comes with no surprise that AI, thought by analysts to be cutting up to 800.000 jobs over the next 11 years, is pointed to as the main cause of a dark future where most of us will be unemployed: because, if these predictions come true, we will be deprived of a great component of our identity. Now, let’s stop looking at the dark side of the moon for a second and consider AI in a different light, too.

We can of course dispute the numbers, but AI will indeed substitute humans across a number of jobs. The good news is, it can also help people finding jobs they genuinely like and do what they do best, putting human talent back into the core of employment and creating more value for the entire system. This through the founding of a “People Centered Economy (PCE)”, a book promoted by i4j Innovation For Jobs, a non-profit foundation I am the publisher of. It’s all about looking at the other side of the coin and considering how innovation can create jobs – more engaging, stimulating ones – instead of focusing all our discussions on how it will kill them all.

This is not the utopic vision we wish for the future, but something that’s actually happening already. You don’t believe your ears? Well, let me give you an example. Catalyte, an US scaleup, began leveraging AI to tackle a real, current problem: the endemic lack of engineers in the U.S., a deficit which over the next five years will grow to 1.5-million a number that can’t be filled through the educational system only. Thanks to predictive analytics, Catalyte’s AI-powered platform tests and identifies individuals who, regardless of their background, have the innate potential and cognitive ability to become software developers. Then, it hires and upskills them, making people’s aspirations and jobs match on one side, and meeting the markets’ needs on the other.

But Catalyte is not a drop of water in the desert, new companies (such as Harver and Freeformers) are popping-up in the AI-powered recruitment sector, and there is every reason to believe that it will be a profitable one. Who would not pay to be upskilled, be hired for their dream job, and with a high salary? And which company wouldn’t invest their money to have a talented team nurtured and recruited? Now, imagine what could happen if employment agencies used this method, too. It would be a real, Copernican revolution: AI, now considered the main threat to the world of employment, would end up being the tool to finally put people in the center of our economic system.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games: a revolution can’t be a bump-free journey, and there are many challenges ahead of us. Luckily enough, the main one is already in the spotlight, and it’s something called bias. It’s a serious issue, which is not something we can just swipe away: humans are inherently biased, and there is nothing we can do about it. What we can do is have companies share as much “good quality” data as possible and be constantly on the look-out for biases, making sure we don’t transfer any to of our AI-powered technologies — if we do, the very idea of creating a people-centered economy would be completely betrayed.

We have the technology, we can scale companies fast, we have a leadership that’s more and more interested in inclusivity: the times couldn’t be better. Let’s put humans, with their passions and skills, back at the center of the game and create a people centered economy together.

What is asteroid mining?

It’s no news to anyone that, while our planet’s population is forecasted to grow up to 11.2 billion by the end of the century, the supply of natural resources we mine from water, the most basic one we need to survive, to platinum, a pivotal component in our tech gadgets soon won’t be big enough to meet our growing demands. As we’ve know, most of these resources are not only unique to Earth but to somewhere else, too, hidden deep under the surface of asteroids and other minor planets located not too far away from us in space.

This being a given, the thought of substituting land with asteroid mining is a natural one, and it’s something that’s been fascinating our minds for quite a while now: science fiction started talking about asteroid mining in 1898, and over the last 50 years or so there has been much speculative literature about how to turn this futuristic idea into reality. The gap between words and deeds, though, has been too wide to fill. Even if we found a way, it has always been too expensive to even reach the asteroids, let alone the rest. This idea, though, has never really been fully put to bed, and has instead sat patiently awaiting visionaries, and for technology to catch up to be mature.

That was until 2004, when the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act finally took down the ivory tower of space government monopoly, enshrining the legalization of private space flights and kick-starting the Space Race 2.0.

One of the consequences of this ferocious, ongoing competition has been the dramatic fall in the cost of launching rockets: to give an idea, if launching a space shuttle into Earth’s low orbit in 1981 cost more than $85.000 per kg, in 2006 this number dropped to less than $10.000. Now, it’s around a tenth of that, and NASA’s goal is to reduce it to just a handful of dollars by 2040.

The cost of space missions, the main obstacle for asteroid mining, is slowly being eroded away. Costs of travelling to space will soon be negligible, asteroids are becoming as easy to reach as any mine on Earth. With one difference: the mines in space are is virtually limitless in their abundance. This is what the founders of the many startups which popped up in the 10’s with this specific (though at the time still largely hypothetical) mission, must have thought. Companies such as Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and Moon Express, have been followed more recently by governments who were the first ones to see asteroid mining as a plausible operation that could feed not only our appetite for natural resources, but for profit, too.

But now that it all seems more possible than ever, how would asteroid mining work? Well, it’s as complicated as it seems. First thing first, there are different types of asteroids, and not all of them are suitable for mining. Asteroids, also known as planetoids, are small planets whose volume differs greatly, not as subjected to gravity as ‘normal’ planets do, and which can be found in the inner solar system. Most are located in what is known as the asteroid belt (an area between Jupiter and Mars’ orbits), but some of them, the so-called NEAs, near-Earth asteroids are closer to our planet, too. The latter are what companies and organizations are focusing on, and there are approximately 13,000 asteroids out of the 1.1 to 1.9 millions that should be out there.

Asteroids are classified in three, different types, all of which can be of interest: C-types (carbonaceous) are mainly composed of Carbon and carriers of water; S-types (silicious), are mostly stony, but contain nickel and iron; while M-types (metallic), are probably the most interesting ones, and are mainly composed of nickel and iron. However they are also the prime suspects in the search for the gold and platinum group metals (PGMs) that our devices are in much need of. The rare materials are there, and with great abundance: according to NASA,  a small, 10-meter (yard) S-type asteroid contains about 1,433,000 pounds (650,000 kg) of metal, with about 110 pounds (50 kg) in the form of rare metals such as platinum and gold.

The NEAs are first scanned with spectrographic instrumentation to set the target — depending on the resource to be mined. Once a final exploration mission confirming that the asteroid is worth mining is made, the target is set the actual mining should take place. And that’s when things get (even more) interesting: there are many ideas here regarding the actual building of the infrastructure and the extraction techniques, but there are too many variants to be considered: until we’ll actually get there, there is nothing we can really be sure of. All we know is that once the mining is done, it should then be relatively easy and not too energy-consuming to lift the materials, thanks to their negligible gravity of asteroids.

Some materials and minerals can then be taken back to Earth, but many other could be used both to provide the energy the mining industry itself requires, propelling at the same time another sector of the space industry: infrastructures and space settlements. The benefits are not only profit-sided or space-oriented: the first beneficiary of space mining would be the Earth, which would be spared the mass amounts of emissions that the mining industry produces every year. Even more: according to a recent study, the impact of asteroid mining in space itself wouldn’t be as strong and disruptive and that of the earth, and could actually be sustainable.

With a market value forecasted to be worth trillions of dollars, it definitely seems like the juice is worth the squeeze. But right now, other than the technological viability, the challenges equal (if not overcome) the certainties. However, what is certain is that such a market would be a game changer in all aspects, creating legal, economical and geopolitical turmoil. If 2030 is the decade we start mining asteroids, it’s about time we begin to think about this what comes next.

Crafting virtual nations

The concept of the traditional, centralized nation-state has been a defining structure of society for centuries. Yet today many countries are having a hard time satisfying new needs arising from the global shift into the digital era. This is an issue we can potentially improve by tapping once again into technology, integrating the current system with emerging concepts of virtual citizenship not necessarily controlled by the old nation-state system.

Modern countries rest on the concept of Westphalian “nation-states”: places composed of ethnic group histories, limited by physical geographic borders and based on centralized governance. Depending on your citizenship, you may be subjected to certain duties (such as taxes or laws) for which, in exchange, you may receive public services – including to some extent general welfare and protection. What all nation-states have in common is they endeavor to provide a platform for fulfilling shared human needs: shelter, food, protection, through interaction in the form of common policy. The purpose of the state should not be for its own purposes, but for those of the people it represents.

As society’s needs evolve, components of this system are showing signs of stress and vulnerabilities are becoming more evident. First of all, there are enormous disparities when it comes to accessing such services, even between the citizens of the wealthiest countries: just think of how hard it is for a large part of the U.S. population to access public healthcare, or for anyone, anywhere to access digital data controlled about them by others. In the broader sense, the “majority-wins” concept on which modern democracies stand often disempowers minority viewpoints, who sometimes feel unrepresented by their own governments and over time opt out of participation.

The cracks of the traditional system are not fully caused by the current shift to the digital era, but by many large demographic and environmental forces that operate beyond the scope of any particular nation-state. Just as people and businesses everywhere are going digital, the way we manage our societies should too in order to keep up with the modern needs that citizens everywhere encounter. If, for example, we can now access financial services on the internet without having to physically go somewhere, why shouldn’t the same happen with public services? This rather simple question is being addressed by the Republic of Estonia, which has intrinsic reasons for growing its international footprint related to matters of security for its core, physically resident population. This Baltic state is the first nation in the world to provide “E-Residency”, a digitally-issued ID which empowers any global citizen to run a location-independent business, pay taxes, and to access a wide of range of government-related services. Another innovative state, Bermuda, is similarly experimenting with the idea of Citizen Authentication, providing Identity-as-a-Service in which they become an authenticator of identity data so that system participants inside or outside their country can access an array of services.

Projects such as these are setting the first boundaries in a race toward “virtual nationhood” – a system of cloud-scale services provided by governments to stakeholders beyond their national or ethnic citizenry. In simpler terms, a virtual nation will not overthrow the current nation-state system but could integrate it with different layers of ‘serviceship’. To give you a more concrete example, this means you could be a French citizen and a virtual nation resident at the same time: your pension service could be provided by France, your healthcare assistance by a virtual nation, and travel visa documentation by another. Or, as you can already, be a Brazilian citizen with an E-Residency that gives your business access to the European market.

But who and how will we choose the participants of these emerging virtual states? An individual may choose which virtual nation(s) to be part of, depending on their specific needs and on available options. A virtual state population could be ultimately self-selecting: communities already gather digitally through platforms to manage themselves. Some even vote or maintain governance systems, just like they do in “real” states. The new virtual nations will need a complex platform offering digital identity, currency, distributed governance systems, an economy, community services, even an identifiable culture — and that’s what Hub Culture, a global collaboration platform focused on digital currency and identity is trying to do: envision, anticipate and develop some of the tools we, in our future as consciously active citizens, will need to prosper.

If it is clear how such a system would benefit its citizens, who would be empowered by access to better and more tailored services? Nation-states themselves can benefit: in an era where the boundaries between private and public sectors are becoming thinner and thinner, and the battlefield for power has shifted from share of physical territory to share of attention via data and information, small and innovative countries such as Estonia or Bermuda (where Hub Culture is based) have the chance to broaden the “public” of their services and to scale global services in new ways — an idea which seemed impossible before the digital era.

Within Hub Culture new services provide tethers to build governance and rules across a distributed network of Hubs, providing communities large and small a way to develop and share characteristics of governance. This system, which became available in 2019, is called Propel and can be applied to any type of community, anywhere. Some application of community governance, perhaps with liquid democracy as part of this process, is crucial to maintaining buy-in and engagement with the new communities of virtual citizens emerging across the world. Many of these are driven from within the evolving nation-state structure, but the reality is that the vast majority, like Hub Culture, are evolving outside of this structure and seeping back in.

These are the outlines of what a virtual state can look like in the future: a digital territory system with social services based on the idea of a self-selecting community which can be labeled as “multi” or “post” national, anchored to progressive states with forwarding looking legal frameworks for rule maintenance and enforceability. Some of the challenges include equitable access, rules for who gets to participate and how, and the financial models associated with these platform services. Real integration of such services may grant participating citizens with better, more distributed and even decentralized services, easing emerging burdens traditional nation-states seem to have trouble adapting toward.

In practice, this transformation cannot happen without the collaboration of nation-states and anchor jurisdictions for the application and interpretation of the law. We can never forget that, even if we are all going digital, we are still living together in the real world.

Théorie de la liberté

An American diplomat meets a French diplomat and says. “We have invented a new approach, it’s incredible, and it works in practice.” The French diplomat replies, “That’s great, but does it work in theory?”

Why did I tell this joke? As academics, we are always looking for a model, a theory. In the last 20 years, I have studied over 300 companies who are looking for a model to liberate employee initiative and potential – and I haven’t found it. For an academic this is painful. But the good news is, I have found a lot of practices that work, and many real companies who have truly liberated their employee potential.

All of the companies did this their own way, but there was one common theme running through them all: the company’s chief executive let go of his ego. Which led me to the conclusion that corporate liberation can only begin when leaders lets go of their ego.

Such is the case of Bob Davids, CEO of Radica Games. One day, when he was building a new plant in China, he saw some workers installing sewage pipes with no slope: so the sewage wouldn’t flow. So he took off his shoes, jumped into the ditch and showed them how to slope the pipes, helped them build two other sections and then left. His Chinese managers were shocked, but this story spread throughout the company and made Bob Davids a leader who his employees trusted.

My message is not that leaders need to get their feet muddy, but rather: leadership is not a position assigned by your superiors, but a role granted by your people when they chose to follow you. Why is this so important?

Here is another story, this time from an auto-parts supplier, Favi’s, in the 1980s. One late evening, a cleaner named Christine was cleaning the CEO’s office when the phone rang. She picked it up. On the other end of the line, the caller apologized for not warning about the late arrival but said Favi promised to pick him up and no one showed up. No one was around, Christine took the keys to the company car, drove an hour to the airport and picked up the guest, put him in the local hotel and returned to the office to finish cleaning. She didn’t ask permission. She did what she thought was right. And it’s great she did. The guest was a quality auditor from Fiat, and he was so impressed he raised Favi’s rating by 10%.

Most companies would like to have employees like Christine. But in most companies, Christine would not answer a call to her CEO, have access to company cars or dare to leave without permission. At Favi, “The boss is not the CEO, but the one facing a challenge.” Christine reached beyond herself but in most companies, the excessive ego of some prevents most from doing so.  Therefore, unlocking people’s potential can only begin when the company’s CEO lets go of his ego.

Favi, along with companies such as Gore and Quad Graphics, has been liberated companies for decades now. So corporate liberation is not a fad. It is perhaps the longest living organizational form and philosophy which embodies McGregor’s theory Y.

Liberated companies are not anarchies, either. As Lord John Acton wrote in the nineteenth century, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought”.

So, can any company be liberated? In fact, it is the wrong question, the right question is: can any leader let go of his ego and become a liberating leader? I have never met a liberated company with a leader who hasn’t let go of his ego. Of course, there are leaders who did not need to accomplish this – they didn’t have ego to begin with. Others needed months of executive coaching and a few needed psychoanalysis.

Only when a leader transforms himself will he naturally treat his employees as adults. In Latin, infans means a child that does not have the ability to speak. In many companies, leaders believe that they are the smartest in the room, and as such, do not ask their employees for their ideas. They treat them as infants. Treat your employees as the adults they are and give them the freedom they crave. Only then will you be able to co-create an organization where employees go not because they have to, but because they want to. Where they are not doing their nine-to-five, but their absolute best to realize your company’s vision.

The true measure of leadership is in its redundancy. Lose your ego and gain engaged employees, gain a thriving business and make the world a better place. It’s a simple theory, but it works in practice time and time again. Hundreds of liberated companies exist today around the world, that unleash the initiative and the potential of tens of thousands of their employees.

And, after all, isn’t this is the best test of any theory?

Designing systems through diversity

Innovation is the name of the game today. But you can’t have innovation without diversity, which acts as a kind of vehicle for progress and our only way of reaching our desirable futures.

Many see friction in diversity, but this is a necessary part of progress. Diversity of thought brings new perspective, views, ideas, combinations of ideas. Someone said that you cannot see new things by only looking harder in the same directions. It really is as simple as that. If we all agreed with one another all of the time, we would be lying to one another and stunting our collective potential for growth. A study on Nokia found that all levels of seniority were doing exactly that: they promoted thoughts that the others wished to hear. The result? A dramatic inability on the part of Nokia in preparing for the advent of the smartphone, leading to bankruptcy within five years after almost two decades of total market domination.

Ultimately, if everyone agrees with you, you’re doing something wrong. If something is decided and rested upon then it is the status quo, if it is the status quo it is established, if it is established it is not innovative. So, the key here is to throw some friction into that, and the best way to do that is to have a diverse group with different points of views, experiences, and perspectives on life. Friction can be seen as instability and “rocking the boat”. That feels uncomfortable and for many that is an indicator of bad processes or teamwork, people love stability and certainty. Innovation never comes from something we already know for certain only, we need the creative and friendly friction. The opposite to stability is not instability, it is emergence and evolution. Diversity brings building blocks to that emergent and evolutionary process.

Taking the perspective of an outlier and then mapping it on to a situation you may not have associated with that specialty is where this diversity comes into play and divergence from the norm arises. By diverging, it is possible to gain a bird’s-eye view of the wider picture, that’s when you converge on the new solution. Innovative methods such as design thinking are based directly on the idea of diversity, and diversity of thought is what fueled the renaissance, the enlightenment, and many of the inventions we learned to love.

This is the difference between solely designing a product and designing a system. When you design a product, you are mostly working in the set parameters which led to that product. When you reinvent the concept upon which that product rests, you are creating a system. An ecosystem is the sum of multiple ideas converging together and sparking innovation. That’s where diversity steps in; it is the basis of new ecosystems which are much more important than any individual product. 

This is why we need to foster creativity and originality of thought, not shun or avoid it. We are standing on the shoulders of giants – there is a huge chance that we may never have the great ideas of the past – but there is no shame on building what on came before. When we remix those ideas with other ideas, innovation is almost inevitable.

This is how you design a desirable future and don’t simply extend the present. From the dawn of time, human ingenuity has enhanced our experience, and the interaction between different minds and experiences has been one of the main chargers behind that. On an individual level, before you go to study a mathematics class, read a poem, before you attend that workshop on new business models, look at some art – you may be surprised what new ideas this brings to mind.

What is mobile-first customer engagement?

Have you ever discovered a fashion brand while scrolling on your smartphone, but then went and tried (and possibly also bought) the clothes in a physical store, perhaps after checking a review on YouTube? If your answer is yes, you’re in good company: a recent study stated that in 6 cases out of 10 customer engagement is a seed that is planted in your smartphone, but that blossoms later in-store. Proving that the line between online and offline is more blurred than ever.

According to Mckinsey’s State of Fashion 2019, ‘mobile-obsessed’ is considered by far to be the most impactful trend of the past year. This behavior is not only limited to the younger, digital-savvy generations—although it is more amplified in both Millennials and Gen-Z—it’s actually cross-generational. Making smartphones the main touch point for where customer engagement happens. The reasons behind this mobile-first frenzy in the fashion industry are composed of different factors.

First of all, basically everyone (read: any potential customer) has one: by 2020, active smartphones users are forecasted to be 3.5 billion in total, with a spike in countries such as China and India where fashion and luxury brands have the most potential to grow. Second, we don’t just carry smartphones with us 24/7, we use them as substitutes for the good ol’ television (for finding inspiration, keeping updated, filling our daily downtime …) to such an extent that, last year, over 51% of smartphone users discovered a new company or product while conducting a search via their mobile. If this was not enough, smartphones’ infinite amount of channels, which one can potentially access, are extremely targeted, fueled by the data we have given to third parties throughout our online years and making the mobile experience more meaningful than any other: most of the times, your device knows what you’re looking for before you know it yourself.

Luckily enough, fashion is one of the most change-driven industries. A vast majority of brands today are already understanding how crucial smartphones are for engaging with their customers and have started filling their channels with micro-moments such as catwalks’ backstage videos on Instagram TV, brand-selected playlists on Spotify, and much more. But, (and there’s always a but) investing in creating varied and meaningful digital content and in expanding a brand’s presence online, with a special eye on the mobile experience, is not always enough to convert customer engagement into an actual purchase.

Why? Because if it’s true that most customers like to find inspiration on their phones, it’s also true that in the vast majority of cases they won’t buy on the same channel the engagement took place on—chances are, the purchase will actually more likely happen in a brick-and-mortar store. This tendency is widespread across the retail industry but is extremely relevant in the fashion sector, where the physical experience (experiencing the exclusivity or values of a brand hands-on, touching the cloth, trying the garment on) is something inherent in its DNA. This proves that if fashion retail players want to thrive in the future, they do have to think mobile first, but they have to look at the bigger picture as well—developing a coherent omnichannel strategy where real life plays a role that’s as leading as the mobile one is.

The most cutting-edge and notorious example of the process of merging mobile with the offline experience is provided by the sportswear brand Nike, which recently opened a futuristic, 68,000-square-foot flagship store in New York that raises the mobile and in-store integration shopping experience stakes massively. The store even contains a basketball court and an “experience treadmill” where customers can try out shoes “on the field” before buying them online and have them delivered within 24 hours—also brilliantly solving the ever-increasing customer impatience when it comes to waiting for shipping times.

The Nike store is just the tip of the iceberg; there are many more examples of how fashion brands are embracing and conjugating what we could try and define as a “mobile-first, offline-second”, or, better, an “on and off”, experience. What should be clear by now is that that the game of the future of retail is being played on a slippery field: that of mobile customer engagement. A game that will be won by those players who will prove to have the greatest ability to engage customers through their smartphones and take them to the next touchpoint in the most frictionless, coherent, and streamlined way, never forgetting that the in-store experience is one that is making an important comeback.

And always bear in mind the following: digital has not just changed our buying habits, but also the way brands engage with us. Because, at the end of the day, most of your current and near-future customers will be digital natives: and, to them, online and offline are two sides of the same coin.

Finding innovation in nature

Although 97% to 99.7% of the earth’s biomass on earth is made up of plants, our animal eyes rarely look to plants for any source of innovation. We account for as little as 0.3% of life on earth, so why do we assume we are the most potent force of progress on the planet? True ownership belongs to something of the more green variety than we could ever hope to match.

The answer lies in the limitations of our brains. We are plant-blind, since our brains (although admirable in many ways) are not efficient enough at the processing information around us. We can only process around 300 bits per second, while our senses are bombarded by 4 billion bits per second. We therefore prioritize and filter out what our evolution has deemed useless to our minds.

This filtering gave us more time to react to our contexts and any present dangers. If we look at our ancestors’ depictions of the world in ancient cave paintings there is a clear absence of plants. Instead, they are focused on our food and on what we are the potential food of. Our idea of reality is something similar to the table of scala naturale (the Great Scale of Being), an ancient human idea that emerged from the medieval ages and portrays creation as something built from stone. Then come the plants who are depicted as able to live, followed by animals who are able to sense. We humans are placed above them, as the most sophisticated and evolved creatures, between life and the gods. Or so we thought.

This is still the paradigm we believe in today, 500 years later. Reality is that our green neighbors are capable of both sense and of intelligence. Every single root of a plant can continuously sense at least 20 different environmental parameters such as oxygen and other gases, light, heavy metals, PH levels, water and even sound waves. They are in fact, much better equipped to sense than animals, and the reason is obvious. If an animal is in danger, it can run away. If a plant is in danger, it cannot. Plants can only survive if they can sense their context at a level we can only dream of. in almost all ways it is extremely higher than ours.

Returning to one of the senses mentioned above – the sense of sound – which plants have developed to detect the murmurs of underground water flows which they can then direct their roots to capitalize on. On top of this, they cannot only sense sound, but also produce sound. By emitting sound from their roots, they can echolocate their positions to ensure that they are separated so as to achieve maximum efficiency.

Intelligence is based on the ability to sense, and likewise, so is spatial awareness. If we observe single-cell life forms, such as slime mold, we can see these capabilities in action. In an experiment in 2010, when presented with oat flakes arranged in a pattern like the Japanese cities around Tokyo, these brainless, single-celled slime molds build networks of nutrient-channeling tubes that are strikingly similar to the layout of the Japanese rail system. Theoretically, a new model based on the simple rules of the slime mold’s behavior could lead to the design of more efficient, adaptable networks, in the future.

Even the roots of a maize plant, placed in a maze with a nitrogen reward, will find its way through the puzzle without making any mistakes. If we are to measure intelligence based on mistakes made instead of time, these plants outperform even the smartest animals when tested.

Parasitic plants, are also capable of sensing their surroundings and seeking out their prey. When placed in the space of a tomato tree, it will take such a plant a small amount of time to locate and attach itself to its source of food. When placed between a tomato plant and a weed, it will take its time to decide which food will suit it best, in the end choosing the tomato plant. This shows that plants are able to make active decisions and then act upon them. When these plants come into competition with one another, it is possible to see distinct changes in their behavior as soon as one stands out as the victor, with the loser actively seeking alternatives following its defeat.

So why am I mentioning these things, fascinating though they may be? It is because these are all signs of intelligence, and it goes back to looking at why we do not seem to concern ourselves with their incredible talent. For we are animals, animate beings, capable of moving about and solving our problems through movement. We can solve our problems by avoiding them, plants are not so lucky – they must solve the problems they encounter, directly. This consequence of context has led to profound differences in how we have evolved.

One of the most interesting differences between us is how we are organized. We, as humans, are built of organs, centered around our brain. We have modeled our organizations the same way. With a head and purpose-made organs performing specific tasks – in charge of one or another aspect. Everything we make is inspired by us in some way. Which is why we rarely look to plants for inspiration. These same organizational structures are those which have caused human problems such as class and caste systems, separating us into hierarchies. The Indian caste system highlights this point even more obtusely, with the model itself being modeled on a human body.

Plants do not have single or double organs, they are decentralized. The functions are spread throughout the body, and even if 90% of their body is removed, a plant can still survive. This streamlined, more empowered model is better suited for survival, and perhaps explains why we are just 0.3% of all life on earth.

What organizations need to remember is that with the rise of technologies such as blockchain and the internet, both of which are inspired by this plant-like decentralized blueprint, humanity is beginning to see the benefits to survival methods which have sat right in front of us for millennia. If companies are to blossom in the future, they should perhaps look to the lifeforms which have been doing it for a long time in the past.