The future of man and machine, the energy debate and the importance of social purpose were all standout moments for me at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting.
Think Davos and the names of politicians are most likely what come to mind. But beyond the headline grabbing speeches from some of the world’s most prominent people, the annual gathering is a genuine opportunity to engage in deeper and more thoughtful dialogue. One that should question our thinking.
Optimism and a sense of purpose filled the Swiss mountain air in equal measure this year. World leaders revelled in the strength of the economy and the wonders of the fourth industrial revolution, while accepting unequivocally that climate change is one of the biggest challenges our civilisation has ever faced.
Delegates were challenged by one profound question: how do you create a shared future in a fractured world? That led to thousands of conversations covering everything from the refugee crisis now affecting 65 million people, to data responsibility and the future energy mix.
It is critically important that those of us at the cutting edge of digital technology engage with these fundamental issues and act as positive advocates for a better future.
The Future of Man and Machine
Artificial Intelligence was on everyone’s minds with many arguing that society needs to draw a line under its suspicions. A culture of fear is growing unnecessarily. Governments and the tech industry must reconsider how to demonstrate AI’s overwhelmingly positive impact on humanity.
AI can never replicate human creativity. It can implement, in an intelligent and autonomous way, processes that have been created by humans. AI will augment human capability rather than replace it – freeing us up to focus our energy on creating and developing.
As one prominent leader reminded us: “No one has ever come to me to tell me how much fun they have implementing processes.”
In 1990 one third of the world’s population lived below the extreme poverty line. Nearly 30 years later that number has fallen to 8 per cent. Countries that have invested in digital economies – notably China and India – are leading the way. We all must work harder to demonstrate that AI offers life changing opportunities for everyone in society.
The Future of Energy
Panel members, including the USA’s Rick Perry and Saudi Arabia’s Khalid al-Falih, seemed yet again, to be ignoring the elephant in the room. Discussing shifting geographies, technologies of supply, uncertain demand and a global push to reduce emissions, they sought to balance the global conversation about the energy transition and growing investment in renewables.
Several argued that, viewed from a technology standpoint, our infrastructure is decades away from being ready for full electric supply, and that modelling from the IEA suggests the world’s growing economies will drive growth in oil and gas until around 2040.
I see the logic in these arguments in some ways, but I’m not sure I agree it’s as far into the future as oil-based economies would like it to be. Technology development has reached a tipping point, and digital technology in particular is accelerating the transition in a way that was unimaginable a decade ago. It’s certainly not as linear as many in the panel believed.
There is however an important debate around the world’s understanding of oil’s importance in the energy mix. While it’s clearly not a long term solution, we do need to remind people that it is, and will continue to be, a vital source of energy in powering the transition to low carbon sources. And that the oil and gas industry remains a key driver of innovation that has direct applications in renewables.
One audience member pointed out that the rise of LNG in the USA had actually lowered emissions to levels that haven’t been seen in 25 years. This seems to be at odds with much of the popular narrative.There is much to do if we are to demonstrate that the oil and gas sector has a critical role to play in supporting the shift to renewables and a low carbon future.
The Accelerating Sustainable Energy Innovation xChange session was really engaging. Attendees discussed the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach to the energy transition. If we’re to build and maintain momentum, governments, NGOs, the energy sector and high-tech companies need to work together to make it happen. This is something I stand by as a CEO. Each critical stage of Akselos’ growth has been executed with a multi-stakeholder strategy. From the R&D stage, to bringing our technology to life in the oil and gas industry, to improving the productivity and resilience of offshore wind farms – it takes a great ecosystem to execute the fast development of hard core mathematics R&D to critical industry applications.
The New Normal – Social Purpose
Much is now being said about the emerging trend of businesses rooted in a social purpose.
Leaders in the private sector are advancing innovation in a way that governments can’t compete with – and that has resulted in an expectation, particularly from the younger generations, that all companies should be tackling social issues and championing innovation for the greater good.
For me, social purpose and technology development go hand in hand. We’re committed to the idea of Digital Guardians for critical infrastructure because we can see the benefits it will bring to our societies, both in terms of sustainable and safe industrial development, reliable access to energy, and increased productivity. The same is certainly true for all the other leading innovators I know and have come across in the digital transformation era.
An experience that I knew I had to have, but also knew would be disturbing, was A Day in the Life of a Refugee – a simulation that lets participants spend 75 minutes in the shoes of someone forced to endure the agony of displacement because of war and violence. The anticipation of the simulation was in itself a sobering experience, and I’m lucky to have been nudged by a good friend to attend together. My experience put me in the shoes of a 14 year old refugee in a camp. Words used to describe the situation were powerless, humiliated, anxious, distressed, dishonoured. Addressing what is one of the most devastating issues of our time needs to be part of the focus of social purpose. We can’t ignore 65 million refugees who have to live day in day out in atrocious conditions. Of course, this is first and foremost a problem for our governments to address, and a crucial matter to support as taxpayers and voters.
Leadership on Education for a more Inclusive Society
Although there is always far more to Davos than politics, the only standing ovation I witnessed was given to French President Emmanuel Macron.
Mr Macron’s speech was anchored by the threat of climate change, and stressed the importance of continuing to drive globalisation in response to nationalism and protectionism in some parts of the world. It was an in-depth, intellectual speech covering a broad range of issues – a very different approach to the campaign speeches we heard from him a year ago. I recommend taking the time to read it if you can, for a glimpse of what’s to come as he creates a paradigm shift in centrist politics.
He echoed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments about gender equality, and reminded businesses investing in developing countries in their ‘duty to invest’ in the education of young girls (among other things) within those countries.
“…if we have a priority in terms of investments, it is investing in the education of children, girls…And if there is no investment for girls there will be no gender equality, there will be no place for women and often in the most difficult societies.” — Emmanuel Macron
The duty to invest in education is something Akselos takes very seriously and even at the earliest stages of our company’s development, it was integrated into our business model. Right now, we’re working with MITx to improve worldwide education by making our technology available to students studying the MITx course in Mechanical Engineering. MITx courses are free and available online, meaning that students from anywhere in the world and from any financial background can have access to the world’s most advanced engineering simulation technology. I am absolutely committed to growing our investment in education on multiple levels as our business grows.
Held in the depths of an alpine winter, Davos offers an invaluable opportunity to help shape our future. With a good product, it’s easy to create value for shareholders, but it takes much more to create value for humanity in a fractured world.
By Thomas Leurent, CEO