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Death is not an option

English biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey is the chief science officer at SENS Research Foundation and vice president of New Technology Discovery at AgeX Therapeutics, Inc. and SENS. He is author of The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging (1999) and coauthor of Ending Aging (2007). De Grey, who founded SENS in 2003 and was an early advocate of regenerative medicine to stop aging, is considered an anti-aging pioneer, and has often said the focus is not indefinite life, it’s trying to prevent people from getting sick when they age. The non-profit he founded works on the development of what he calls “strategies for engineered negligible senescence,” a collection of proposed techniques to rejuvenate the human body and stop aging. In this respect, de Grey has identified seven types of molecular and cellular damage caused by essential metabolic processes; SENS is a proposed panel of therapies designed to repair this damage. In the early days of his research, his ideas were not always well received, but in the last few years, they have been catching on — so much so that there is an anti-aging industry worth billions of dollars.

Do you remember the moment when you decided to devote your life to defeating aging?

When I was eight or nine years old, I realized that what I wanted to do with my life was to make as big a difference as I possibly could in terms of improving the human condition. My mother was trying to get me to practice the piano, but I didn’t really fancy it: there were a lot of other good pianists already, and having one more would not have changed the world. I recognized that the people who make the most difference were scientists, so I started studying programming, and decided that the particular problem for humanity was that of work. The fact that people have to spend so much of their time doing stuff that they would not do unless they were being paid for it can be solved with automation.

So you went into computer science?

After I graduated, I spent seven years working in artificial intelligence research. But then, I had a second revelation, which happened more progressively. While I was an AI researcher, I met and married a biologist. Through her, I discovered that most biologists were not interested in aging, and very little was being done about it. This was a complete revelation — I had always assumed that aging is the world’s biggest problem, the one that causes the most suffering. And it seemed a larger issue than work. I didn’t think I was an exceptional programmer, so I thought I would let the biologists get on with that problem. Discovering that few biologists were studying aging, at around the age of 30, I switched fields.

Courtesy of Aubrey de Grey

Aubrey de Grey

Is there a univocal definition of aging? 

Yes, there is, but it is distorted and misstated all the time. As I define it, aging is the combination of two processes, one that goes on throughout life and one that starts later. The first one is that the body damages itself as a consequence of its normal operation — something which is no different from the way that a simple man-made machine damages itself: if you drive a car, then it’s going to accumulate rust slowly but steadily. The second process is that, later in life, the damage starts to cause loss of function. In the case of a car, eventually, the doors fall off. In the case of the human body, eventually, we start to get the chronic progressive health conditions of late-life. The reason why that process only happens later is because both machines (the body, and the car) are set up to tolerate only a certain amount of damage without a significant decline in function. But, eventually, that amount is exceeded. And that’s what aging is: usually, people refer to the second of the two processes, while biologists will only mention the first one. A huge part of the reason why people had not figured out how to fix aging, is because of that confusion about what aging is.

Both Western and Eastern philosophy considers aging as a period of wisdom and serenity, devoted to transmitting information and knowledge to our kin.

These are just ways that we distract ourselves from the actual thing that aging is — namely, the progression of sickness and death. We all know perfectly well that the decline in function of a simple man-made machine is not an inevitable feature of life. The reason we have 100-year-old cars is because cars are simple enough that we already know how to do the comprehensive, preventative maintenance that is required to keep a car going just as well as when it got built for as long as we like.

Most studies say that biologically we could live up to 120 years only.

It’s correct today, because we do not have the medicine to perform the best comprehensive preventative maintenance on ourselves. But once we do have that medicine, we will be in the same position as a 100-year-old car. If you went back 100 years and told a car manufacturer that a car would last 100 years, they would have laughed at you. But today, that’s not the case. And it’s exactly the same with the body.

What could be the impact of having a society made of people that could theoretically live indefinitely? 

I’m not a sociologist or a politician. But that’s why I spend so much of my time talking to people who are professional economists, sociologists, and so on. I’m giving them the information about what’s coming medically so that they can figure out how to optimize the transition into a post-aging world.

 

Cryostats,Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township,Michigan. April 2010. Six patients are stored in each one.

Are you testing something on yourself?

I haven’t done that yet because of a combination of two things. Number one, the therapy is not ready yet. And number two, I’m still doing very well. It’s a case of the risk-benefit ratio. I have not yet got to the point of justifying doing anything experimental.

How important is perception when it comes to radical ideas?

People have to realize that this radical idea is good for them and that they want it. Developing this medicine is something that costs money, and the money has to come from somewhere. Science has genuinely progressed: now there is an industry, a private side consisting of startup companies that are developing products and medicine that is not yet available. Every step forward in the laboratory constitutes one more piece of de-risking of the project, and therefore an improvement in the attractiveness to investors. SENS Research Foundation is definitely still a nonprofit, nevertheless, our business model is to take projects far enough along so we can span them out. The conversation around life length has improved: people are taking medical control of aging more seriously as an idea. And I would take some of the credit for that.

Almost 15-years-ago, you mentioned a detailed roadmap for defeating aging. Are we on track?

In 2004, I said it would be about 10 years before we reached a decisive level of control over aging in mice. After reaching that milestone, it would be another 15 years before we did the same in humans. However, there is a caveat on both of those numbers. The first one is probabilistic: there was a 50 percent probability that this could happen within 10 years, and at least a 10 percent chance that we would not defeat aging in humans for 100 years. Another variable is funding. It would only be that rapid if the amount of money that was supporting this research was sufficient — and at that point, progress was going three times slower than it could. Back then, I thought that it would be reasonably easy to bring in the money, which, of course, it wasn’t, and the timeframe definitely flipped. But the situation got better since then, and my timeframe is coming down more rapidly: I now think that we are probably between three and five years away from the mouse milestone, and probably only about 17 years away from the human milestone.

So you still think that the first person to live to 1,000 is already alive?

Yes. And they’re probably in their 50s.

Finding work’s new normal

Maks Giordano is a digital strategist, creative, and futurist with 25+ years in digital. He has worked with Apple, LEGO, Lufthansa, Daimler, and many others, and led innovation projects during the dot.com bust of 2001 and financial crisis of 2008.

Winston Churchill said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” How does that apply to the workplace in the Covid-19 world and the “New Normal” post Covid-19?

I like to look for the positive within the current crisis. There are clearly some companies who will struggle for a long time and need to re-invent parts of their business model (the travel and automotive industries), while others will hugely benefit from the “new normal” (e-commerce and collaborative software) and some new companies will be founded in these times of the crisis because they will identify something that the world needs right now.

In a workplace context the current situation of ‘work-from-home’ puts a huge spotlight on the elements that currently are not optimal – is our IT infrastructure modern enough to cope with remote work? Do we have the right tools and methods in place? Is our communication — and product development environment — working in a virtual setting? Is our mindset agile enough to come up with new strategies in PR, marketing, sales, etc. on short notice?

As individuals, we are forced to do things differently all of a sudden, like video conferencing, virtual team meetings, etc. We start to realize what is possible to achieve within a remote setting. We accept certain things about work-from-home and others we desperately miss, e.g. I keep hearing “I’m looking forward to being back in a meeting room and having a ‘proper’ brainstorming. I’m really looking forward to having quality time with colleagues. I miss the serendipity moments in the kitchen with my colleagues,” etc.

But even if we go back to a “New Normal,” many people will stick with habits from during the pandemic and realize, “hey, wait a second, that ain’t that bad.” Many people are getting accustomed to many positive elements like less travel — I haven’t heard one person say: “I miss business travel, or my commute to work so much.”

Is it possible that in the “New Normal” companies will be more intentional about face-to-face meetings?

I think it will come with a trade off. People will reevaluate, when do I really need that meeting and the travel? Does the sales meeting really need face-time or is it possible via a video call? Do we need the team in a meeting room or is a web meeting “good enough”? I expect a lot less business travel and fewer face-to-face meetings. Probably 9 out of 10 meetings can be done virtually and it comes with an advantage to do it virtually.

We will be super selective and choose physical meetings only when we need to see the body language or “creative energy” in the room for a brainstorming or co-creation workshop. In an HR leadership skills set development environment we will go back to physical meetings to have more inspiration, creativity, networking, and team-building in the room.

I have friends in Berlin who started doing walking meetings. Because it still feels really weird to currently push a doorbell to an office and enter a meeting room. But you can do a walking meeting and keep a little bit of distance and still interact with a real person, and see their body language and micro emotions.

Successful creative collaboration is definitely possible online when you’re very disciplined, adopt the process of a virtual environment (e.g. shorter time periods, virtual breaks, higher interactivity, etc.) and use software tools like Mural, Howspace, Klaxoon, or Miro.

For me, the ‘New Normal’ in my creative work will be a mix between virtual and physical formats. Some parts of the process can be done with remote teams in a virtual environment and other parts will hugely benefit from being back in a creative environment with great people.

How are companies trying to mimic the creative process virtually. And what are the limitations?

Imagine this pandemic 20 years ago, it would have been a disaster without that technology that allows us to work remotely.

But in 2020, we have these environments where you can collaborate virtually — there are tons of visually collaborative software tools and we learned to work iteratively, agilely, and with remote teams and team members. If your virtual workshop has to be a larger group, then you definitely need virtual breakout rooms and to work in smaller teams. I recommend limiting it to a maximum of five per breakout. Also make sure to adjust your process to the new virtual setting. I would aim for 2/3 of the regular time, say usually something takes up to 60 minutes in an agenda — make it 40 minutes. Take your virtual breaks. Make it highly interactive. Check back with the virtual audience regularly. Use visual feedback, e.g. with menti.com.

One thing that we miss out on virtually is picking up the energy in a room. That’s really hard in a virtual environment. It’s not black and white. If having the creative juices flowing in a nice meeting room is pure magic and if that’s 100 percent, virtual is not zero percent. It’s somewhere in between: You can write your virtual post-it and you can see what the others are writing, but there is simply a bit missing — that magic energy is almost impossible to recreate virtually.

So does that mean that during this time the creativity of certain companies might be stifled? 

Going back to the Churchill quote, great ideas come from real problems —they are often developed when you identify a pain point, something that is not going well. So it also creates a lot of entrepreneurial moments. I’m really sure a lot of great companies will be born out of the crisis because they identified a problem and now they’re looking for a solution. But we still need these kinds of serendipity moments, these personal interactions where ideas are born, as well as team building. Companies need to think about this and if they think hard about it, they will come up with something that works for them. Maybe software tools where people can stick virtual notes up about what they’re currently passionate about, and then interact around those ideas. Perhaps virtual lunch meetings with a randomly assigned colleague. Or, you have inspiration moments delivered virtually. We can recreate serendipity moments, even online.

Are you saying that in the “New Normal” workplace we need to digitally replicate on-boarding, team building, and community? 

Yes, this must also be possible in the virtual realm — let’s call it a passion for detail: Zoom backgrounds, a distinctive coffee mug, quality headsets, a PDF or a course with tools and tips for making working at home more efficient, and an online yoga meditation. Management should check in with their team regularly, have virtual coffee breaks together, host virtual team events, etc.

I’ve seen examples of virtual team meetings in game environments, playing Minecraft together or hanging out at a virtual campfire within the Red Dead Redemption game.

For me, this lockdown, it’s a big amplifier. It pinpoints bad leadership and bad tools, but also great leadership and caring, being compassionate about others, and being a resilient leader. This type of leader, who says, first of all: We are safe. We are healthy. We are at home with our families and loved ones. We have our jobs, and what can we do to survive these coming weeks? What are the positive things? And most importantly, what new opportunities can we seize from this situation?

Curing a different type of epidemic

“I understand that. But your victories will always be temporary,” says Tarrou to Doctor Rieux in The Plague by Albert Camus. This seems to make Rieux sad, “Forever, I know. But it is no reason to stop fighting.”

Chico Tillmon possesses the same obstinacy: he fights even though he knows there won’t be any solid successes to hold on to. Born and raised in Chicago, where he still lives, he is now in the middle of his life, but when he was 23, he was arrested for drug dealing and being a member of one of the gangs that drenched the city in blood. He spent the next 17 years in prison — his entire youth in a cell. As he counted his steps during yard time, he decided to dedicate his life to a mission. He is now about to finish his PhD in criminology and every day he tries to change the fixed destiny of adolescents in ghettos, who are like he was 30 years ago. Like Rieux, Tillmon is fighting what seems to be an incurable epidemic in his city: violence. Chicago police statistics recorded 565 homicides in 2018 — more than one murder per day. The epidemic shows no sign of abating: 9,000 robberies, 1,841 rapes, and 65,000 shoot-outs in 12 months. In some neighborhoods, the sound of sirens is constant background noise. Firearms are a commodity. Fifty-six percent of assailants are under 30. Seven arrests out of 10 are of African Americans. This is the backdrop against which Chico Tillmon talks about peace, possibilities, and pride. He knows it is a mission more than a promise. For him, utopia is a duty. A necessary vocation, “Even if it comes to nothing,” he says, “How could I not try?” In 2017, he received Ford’s “Men of Courage” award, an accolade assigned to people who have contributed to reinforcing the African American community. Now, as part of the “Cure Violence” association, and an independent consultant, he deals with crime de-escalation and prevention.

What exactly do you do?

I work with institutions and sector professionals; I try to help them find the best possible way to talk to the young people who grow up in this context of degradation. It is an activity I am involved in alongside my doctorate research. The objective of my analysis is to understand violent behaviors and to study how institutional agencies can make a real impact on people’s lives. Twice a week, I spend time with these kids who live in marginalized communities and are therefore at the most risk of adopting aggressive behaviors they can then not get away from.

How do you talk to the young people who you meet at workshops?

I never give solutions; I don’t tell them how they should behave, what they should say. I give them questions. I try to help them ask themselves about themselves by giving them ideas to provoke thoughts, reactions, and discussions. It is fundamental that they feel they have a space where they can say what they want, freely. They don’t have to obey but feel they can think. These ideas often give rise to long fiery debates because they also start talking about deeper themes, ones that young people who have grown up in the ghettos are rarely asked to express.

They follow you. Why?

Because I used to be one of them. I was the same: I spoke, hated, and scorned life in the same way, but now I am about to earn my PhD. I have a completely different profile from the others who “study” them as if they were human models to solve or isolate. It is an important aspect, it’s immediate, and it’s one that they can identify with. One of the fundamental elements in our meetings, for me, is to make them understand that they exist, that they have a voice, they are active subjects. And therefore they have a choice. Even when conditions appear to predetermine everything, they have the chance to change. It is hard to believe it is possible. But I managed, and I can tell them about it: I try to get closer to them by talking to them about my experiences. I explain that it will be hard, the obstacles are many, and that they will want to give up. “But you are better than me,” I say again and again. Because they are young, and can choose what to do with their lives. Part of my job is to connect them with the opportunities that already exist for helping them.

So, it is possible to change?

Thousands of people in Chicago live in a scenario without hope; not because they deserve it, but because the system has taken away their possibilities to improve. When you create claustrophobic conditions, from the point of view of prospects, worthiness, the potential for growth, then you have to realize people who are left with no hope react differently. One the one hand, people who possess something — whether it is a degree, a house, or a career — react differently to the context they are in. They become more strategic, shrewder, because they have to. A person who has nothing to lose on the other hand, sees the world from a much more ephemeral perspective.

You are talking about the system, not just people.

Yes, because violence is, above all, and always is, systematic. The first violence doesn’t come from the street; it is the economic and social structure we are in that creates the conditions that allow whole classes of people to be squashed and destined to stay that way. In some of Chicago’s districts, marginalization and aggressiveness have been handed down for generations. Labels are used to talk about these people: negro, red-neck. They are used to categorize people, to immediately identify them as a problem. They are not individuals, but collective problems. In this way, young people who grow up in the ghettos assume criminal profiles from the start. These are people with no self-control, who are hotheaded, often not well educated. But the first violence is perpetrated by the system on them. My objective is to give dignity back to these young people. Make them see that they have been left out.

How did you manage to change?

I saw that I could react differently, yes. I don’t know how to explain it; it was a moment, a revelation. I saw a better way forward, and from that moment it would not have made sense to go backward, to go back to how I lived before. It is like having to choose between taking a ship or an airplane to go from Italy to the USA: knowing it saves a month of traveling anyone would choose the airplane. Not because they have to, but because it makes sense, so you wouldn’t do it a different way. Once we see a different way of reacting, one that is better for us and those around us, it makes no sense to go back to how things were. That is what happened to me. I try to do the same thing with these young people: not by giving them more information, but by transmitting to them their possibility to have choices and to make their own. It will be they who say: I will take the airplane because it is simply smarter.

Where did the revelation come from for you?

From God, and from my mother. It happened while I was in prison. My mother didn’t want to see me in there: this was all I thought about in my cell all those years. I realized I was behaving in the wrong way. Religion can be lived in many ways; for me, God’s message is founded on two pillars: loving humanity and doing good. I was not doing anything good to people, on the contrary. The Bible changed my life. The Bible, my mother, and my children. Since they arrived, they forced me to do something with my life every morning. Not simply live it, but use it to have an impact.

Have there ever been moments when you have lost this belief?

The hardest time was when my grandmother and father died. They were dying, and I was stuck in jail, I wasn’t there for them, I couldn’t help them. I was truly desperate. I couldn’t stand the walls anymore, I didn’t know how I was going to get by for the remaining years of my sentence. But God gave me awareness and strength. I understood I didn’t want to be there; I no longer wanted to be that kind of person. I felt I had to make my mother proud. I thought that when I got out, I might become a minister, that’s how strong the faith inside me had grown over those years, but things went differently. Even though when it comes down to it my work is simply a different type of ministry.

This was the beginning of your mission.

I used the relationships I had had in jail to become even better at communicating with those who come from violent contexts, from the streets, from gun culture, and from anger. I saw that I could exercise the same leadership talents I had to use to rise through gang wars, for different objectives and priorities. This isn’t a job anyone can do. Every morning you go into a room with agitated, aggressive youths who you have to calm down so you can talk to them. They are individuals with violent behavior, people who have perhaps already killed without reason, beaten an innocent person. They are criminals. And you know it. Not everyone can deal with this. But I think isolating them is not, and cannot be, a solution. So I try to help them change.

Are there happy moments?

The best moment of all was when the first young man who I worked with, alongside other, extraordinary professionals, called me to tell me he had managed to pass the selection process for a master’s degree. He went from drug abuse and dealing, to enthusiasm for studying. Receiving messages like this makes everything I do make sense. It isn’t rare.

On the other hand, how does it feel, knowing that a young man who you have dedicated time to, has gone back to shooting?

When I fail, it is devastating, what else can I say. I have known young men, really young men, who have died, and others who have killed people. Every time it happens I can’t help asking myself: maybe I should have called him one more time, I should have spoken to him more often, been closer. It is difficult to bear the weight of the pain, and I’ve been doing this work for 10 years.

Are you saying you carry on anyway; you don’t stop?

My question is: once you have become aware that your people are dying for futile reasons, because of the proliferation of weapons, violence inherited as the norm, the absence of any prospects, what do you do? I have no choice. I cannot give up. I cannot stop, because I love my people. Today, trying to help marginalized families and young people is my life’s mission. I simply couldn’t do anything else. Perhaps all the difficulties I have had to overcome have prepared me to bear the pain.

What about when you look at the system?

It is frustrating. America is a nation built on racism. Initially towards native Americans, then African American slaves. An African American life doesn’t have the same value as a white life. When black people who enter politics don’t understand from experience the conditions in which the twenty-somethings from the neighborhoods grow up in, they seem to forget about the roots of the problem. We have had a black president, but as far as institutional racism goes, nothing has changed. Diversity and inclusion, on the other hand, are essential. You have to make space, and above all give a voice to people who are different. To have them sit down at the table and eat together. Don’t invite me to dinner if you don’t want to share your food. The other structural tools of violence no one seems to be able to put a brake on, are firearms. In Chicago, more people die from gun crime than in Los Angeles and New York put together. It is considered the city of records. But there is also a lot of social attention: the movement against firearm violence was born in Chicago. Many people believe that if we find a solution here, it means we have found one for the whole of the United States.

What keeps you going?

The element that most helps me carry on believing is simple: winning. Learning that some of my young men finish school, find jobs, or are expecting children. My children, for me, are fundamental: knowing they understand what I am doing, the effort I put into society. In his class essay, my son wrote that his daddy is a doctor, even though I haven’t finished my PhD yet, and said I help people.

What image would you give to a utopia?

A balanced community of interconnected people. People of all ethnic groups, classes, and education. I think the challenge is to find harmony within diversity, not aspiring to be homogeneous. I would never imagine a utopia of absolute sameness, where we are all blue. I would think of a community where we can remain different, but are able to live with respect and love for others. What moral growth can we build if we are all the same? It is when people begin to understand that they can have different experiences and knowledge, but discuss things, that the people in a room begin to grow, and to change.

Brave new work

As the forces of globalization, technological innovation, and digital business models continue to shape our economies in unexpected ways and multiply the degrees of complexity in which companies operate, the century-old model of centralized, top-down management is crumbling. Still, the illusion of command and control provided by traditional power systems, and defining the shape of this “new way” to begin with, is hard to drop.

Aaron Dignan, founder of New York-based organizational design agency The Ready and author of Brave New Work, has made a name for himself by helping companies navigate this uncharted territory. To him, the power equation seems easy enough to decipher and yet, is beautifully complex to explore in the depth of its organizational, and human, implications. Dignan says: “The thing about power is that it really connects to your ability to make decisions. And decisions are what fundamentally shape and drive the firm. If you think about the distribution of power, it’s really the distribution of efficiency. With all the dynamics, all the change, all the competitors and the situations happening that we need to be adaptive to, the risk is greater when you have a single decision-maker (or a small number of them) that might not see the full picture.” 

Distributed authority, in other words, translates to a finer level of sensemaking that allows us to be smarter on the market. Furthermore, power-sharing means companies can make decisions faster — if we wait for information to travel up and down the organizational ladder, we are likely to miss a great deal of chances to do something right, at the optimum moment.

But make no mistake: one could hardly argue that just by sharing power, organizations magically turn into better, smarter places. The flip side of authority distribution, in fact, is information transparency. Dignan continues: “How are people going to make good decisions if they don’t have all the information? And one of the features that’s interesting about a complex, dynamic environment is that it’s not always clear who needs to know what, or what matters. The right information that might lead to a breakthrough could be hiding in some document, it could be hidden in a long Slack chat, or could even be buried in someone’s head.” We are looking at a 180-degree shift from the old model, in which we could afford strict, slow information flows simply because things didn’t change fast enough. Writes Dignan: “Information was power, and hoarding information was an advantage both individually and organizationally. But today, the real advantage is your ability to process information — how fast can you make sense of it? It’s less about the recipe for Coke, and more about Amazon and Google’s lightning-fast data processing.”

The solution? Defaulting to a place of open information across an organization, and making exceptions only if there’s a good reason. The benefits of such an approach far outweigh the downsides — in terms of people’s accountability, participation, strategic alignment, and continuous improvement.

But where do you draw the line? Dignan makes the point that even highly secretive processes, like compensation and performance management, ought to be open. “Why can’t we hear the conversation about our own performance if we’re going to have that? What is the thing that’s being said that we can’t hear? It feels very paternalistic and secretive. And then, if you want to get radical — why do we even have promotions, raises, and all of that stuff anyway? In a real talent marketplace, like the one in which The Ready operates, people set the rate at whatever they want it to be. And if it’s too high, people won’t work with them. All the situations we are afraid of happening, if we open up information or evidence that the system is not correct — there is either bias in terms of unfairness, or people who are paid fairly are not perceiving the fairness because they don’t understand the broader context of information: their performance, their value, what the firm cares about, and so on.” In both cases, we have a problem.

The concept of achieving control through transparency and power distribution might seem paradoxical, but for companies that have undertaken this course, the business case seems pretty solid, as Dignan explains in his book. In the process, the old rulebook must be scrapped almost entirely, leaving the organization in a sort of ruleless horror vacuum in which people begin to exercise their autonomy and develop ownership. But how do you know how much rule is enough rule, and how much is too much? Dignan explains: “There are fundamentally two kinds of systems in terms of authority — the system where you can’t do anything until you get permission, and the one where you can do anything until we tell you that you can’t. If you’re granting permission, then you’re in a wild goose chase against complexity because you have to map every scenario. A lot of people will sit on their hands because they’re waiting for permission to do whatever their heart already thinks they should do. In the other scenario, you basically build the rule when you need it. Who should decide what, for right now? Everybody. Anybody. Whenever. But as soon as we see there’s confusion, there’s frustration, there’s tension, there’s a mistake that we made four times in a row … Now, the principle is not enough. Now we need a mechanism.”

Of course, distributing power doesn’t mean eliminating it — that is impossible. Dignan says: “There is always power in the system — it’s just in different forms and amounts. There’s formal power, and then there’s informal power — in the form of relationships, reputation, persuasion. You can’t get rid of that, but you can be aware of the way power manifests itself in the organization and try to reduce it when you feel it is causing problems. For example, I think reputational power is fine for the most part. It’s earned power that is always being adjusted. And if someone’s exercising it, they’re using something they earned and have to maintain. I just think it’s really healthy to constantly have discussions about this — at this moment, in this decision, what kinds of power are coming into play? Are we doing this because we think it makes sense, or just because Phil is a really good presenter, or because he runs the budget? Let’s constantly check in with that and make sure that we are OK with the kind of power that is being exercised in any decision.” Awareness of, and participation in power can, in fact, regulate it so that it doesn’t turn into coercion and violence — which not only makes for short-sighted decisions in a high-complexity environment, but certainly contributes to people’s detachment and an entropic loss of trust in the system.

A clear, eudemonic purpose; a basic set of principles and mechanisms that employees can truly consent to, and decide to join (or not join); full transparency of information and freedom to act. It is unfortunate that this ethical, non-coercive form of self-determination can really only happen within the closed walls of a few enlightened organizations — at least for now. Dignan says: “I think when we lose ethics, it’s usually when people feel like they’re removed from decision making. There’s distance. There are people we can point to that are not ‘us’ — ‘they are making me do this’, or ‘it’s not my company’. But when you have more participation and more perspective, when you’re taking in more sense, when you have noble purposes that are pursued with participation, I think you get ethics as a result.”

Could this kind of environment really be everyone’s cup of tea? Are there “evolutionary traits” that individuals must display to fit into this new vision? Dignan challenges the premises of this question. “The reality is that we’re not fixed and the system will inform greatly how we show up, what we’re capable of and what we expect of each other — that is, if the system is robust enough, embedded enough, clear enough.” Having said that, there are traits that predict an individual’s success in a high-transparency, high-participation organization. “It’s about learning agility at the end of the day. It’s whether or not people fundamentally believe they are in control of their lives and they can inform and shape what happens to them. Because the only way to navigate this environment and make it better for yourself is to take action — if you don’t like something, you have to engage with it. You don’t have a lot of caretakers in a system like this, at least not formally. You don’t have managers or HR people or others looking out for you, checking in with you, stroking you. You have to figure out what makes you happy, and go pursue it on your own.

And it’s also about a healthy relationship with our egos. “There’s a difference between living from ego and self-confidence. In one of our recent Brave New Work podcasts, co-host Rodney Evans said, ‘The ego is like the bouncer outside the nightclub of your identity — it’s trying to keep out certain things and let in other things.’ I think we need people who are aware of their ego and who can check in with it from time to time and be like, ‘let that in.’ People who are committed not to being right, but to being open, curious, and learning — open to the generosity of spirit that comes with this approach.”

The life and death of conspiracy theories

Conspiracies are born and accelerated in large crowds, and 5G is no exception —especially in the time of Covid-19. Scientists and researchers, have and obligation to communicate their findings to help debunk those theories. But what is exciting to a few of us is often boring to the masses. If we can more clearly communicate, then we can stifle any conspiracies from their roots. Consumers have the right to be worried about new technologies, and experts have an obligation to disperse these fears.

The “Gateshead Scandal”is an example of how this can happen. It was early 2018, when a man in Gateshead, UK climbed onto a lamp post to vandalize a streetlight as he was convinced that 5G antennas — which he was sure would kill everyone — were everywhere. The town council debunked the claim and, of course, 5G was not even standardized back then, let alone commercially built. In fact, the opposite happened: It quickly turned into a movement with conspiracy theories popping up everywhere. 

The conspiracy initially focused on the impact of 5G on humans. Underpinned by “scientific evidence,” reports emerged that 5G was responsible for severe health issues, cancer, and miscarriages. Diminishing populations of bees and birds was also blamed on 5G. The list of the lethal impacts from 5G was growing by the month — all while 5G was not even deployed at scale.

Why, a lot of us in the field wondered, had this movement gained momentum so quickly that it was even discussed on public TV and within government circles? The conspiracists’ videos contained sophisticated scientific equipment – to make it look credible. There was an expert, a true expert, but from adjacent fields. And then there was a celebrity – to give it wings. The trinity of scientific equipment, experts, and celebrity seems to be the perfect conspiracy cocktail.

Facts about 5G radiation and health impacts had been quantified, for some years. We can break this down by better understanding what 5G is, which frequencies and transmission powers it uses, and safeguards that have been put into place. 

In terms of capabilities, 5G follows the telecommunications trend that important performance factors improve by several orders of magnitude. Take for instance, the average data rate: In 3G it was a few tens of kB/second, in 4G it was several Mb/second, and in 5G it will be around a Gb/second. The growth in data rate is facilitated by the usage of more spectrum, which is underpinning most of the conspiracies.

There are three new frequency bands which are generally referred to as the pioneering spectrum bands: 

The first is below 1GHz and occupies a few MHz where the TV used to be. Transmission powers are lower than the massive TV towers we had before. Given there were no reported casualties from watching TV during almost a century, we can safely assume that this band is causing no harm. 

The second is in the spectral region where most wireless systems operate today, i.e. around 3.5GHz. Transmission powers, again, are modest (and more on that below). Given that numerous legacy systems, such as Wifi, microwave ovens, Bluetooth, 3G, 4G, etc., have operated globally without any reported casualties, again, we can assume that there is no harm there. 

The third operates at a higher frequency, i.e. around 26-28GHz, and is thus often referred to as millimeter wave band. Conspiracists argue that this band damages to skin and DNA. Now, while it is a high frequency for telecom, it is by a factor of a million off the ionizing frequencies and by a factor of a million off the power needed to cause such damage. Furthermore, other systems such as police radar have been using similar frequencies. Again, there have been no casualties reported over past decades; if, at all, police radar has been saving lives. 

We thus established that the frequencies used by 5G have all been used before, and no consistent impact has been recorded for decades. Let’s move on now to transmission powers. There are generally two concerns, one on the increased power used, and the other on the increasing number of base stations, thus creating more exposure. Let’s look at each separately:

Transmission powers are highly regulated, following scientific advice which is based on numerous technical and health measurements, and are overseen by various bodies globally. Generally, all transmission powers, including that of 5G, are orders of magnitude below the limits which could potentially cause any harm. Some great and easy-to-follow explanations can be found by Prof Petar Popovski or telco’s leading industry association GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association).

The number of increasing base stations is actually a good thing. It turns out that radio power decreases quickly over distance. To establish a strong link between you and the closest base station, your mobile phone and the base station need to transmit with a quickly increasing power as the distance increases. With a sparse set of base stations, you find yourself in the situation of your mobile and the base station transmitting at a maximum of the allowed (and safe) powers. With an increasing density, however, both can transmit at much, much lower power — often well below the Wifi in your home.

The information above is being quantified rigorously by various international bodies which validate science and write, as well as oversee, respective policies. The most important one is ICNIRP (International Commission of Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection). It effectively sets the standards for allowable transmission powers for telecommunications (and other) industries, based on a rigorous scientific approach. A summary video states clearly that all possible health factors have been taken into account, measurements have been taken at varying powers, and then safety factors have been introduced which are many, many orders of magnitude below what could potentially cause harm. 

5G, like Covid-19, is an example of how we need well-researched data to make informed decisions about how we understand the world around us.