Saturday, April 23, 2011

The World Foresight Forum: Envisioning a better future

A few months ago, an invitation from an event titled the World Foresight Forum landed in my inbox and the mail said,
we would like to include your speech in the Convention, in the Seminar "Dealing with global challenges: a leadership crisis?", in particular on the topic "Development of a knowledge-based economy."
The invitation added that,
The project, an initiative of the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, Granaria Holdings and TNO, aims at turning The Hague into the centre of the international debate on “Security, Peace and Justice for Sustainable Global Growth”, being already the de facto judicial capital of the United Nations, where institutions, such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court are headquartered.
The theme of “Security, Peace and Justice for Sustainable Global Growth” is something that interests me deeply, so it took about a few milliseconds to say yes. I landed up last week at The Hague without much expectations, knowing only that it sounded very interesting, and interesting it was. A few prime ministers, the Chairman of Goldman Sachs, the CEO of Thomson Reuters, Edward De Bono (the founder of lateral thinking), several futurists, the Mayor of The Hague, academics, entrepreneurs and many others attended this event at The Hague, The Netherlands.

My session was moderated by the very jovial and sharp, Dr. Stephan de Spiegelerie. Stephan, as he insisted we call him, hit the nail on the head when he said that what was interesting about our session titled, "Development of a knowledge-based economy" was that it was all about possibilities, whereas many of the sessions at the WFF were concerned with issues of the past. In another session, earleier that day, Glen Hiemstra, Founder of said that (and I am paraphrasing a bit here and may not be exact) that there are two ways of creating the future. One was extrapolating from the present and the other was looking to the future and letting that create the present. Taking a cue from Stephan and Hiemstra, I painted a blue-sky picture (and most would say, a very idealistic picture) of the opportunities thrown up by the Internet. I started with a story about Emperor Ashoka, who was one of the greatest rulers of India, that I had read in my childhood that had a deep impact on me.

After the brutal battle of Kalinga, the Emperor Ashoka was so overcome with remorse that he renounced bloodshed and embraced Buddhism. As part of his penance, Ashoka went to monasteries across the country. At each monastery, he would leave munificent donations of gold coins. At one monastery, the emperor left behind one solitary gold coin. When his perplexed followers asked him to explain, Ashoka said that the abbot of the monastery was a great man but he did not share his knowledge with others.

I followed that up with another story. As a child growing up in India, one of the first things I learned is a hymn to Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, which says that:

Wonderful is your gift of knowledge
the more we share, the more it grows
the more we hoard it, the more it diminishes

These two stories amply illustrate the fact that there was a moral imperative to sharing knowledge, in Indian traditions. From these stories, I cut to the present where the Internet and the open source model based on collaboration, community and shared ownership of knowledge was leading to tremendous creativity and knowledge sharing, in a manner that Emperor Ashoka might have approved. I cited the example of Linux that has grown from 10,000 lines of code in September 1991 to around 204 million lines of code valued at 10.8 billion dollars and Wikipedia, the open source collaborative encyclopedia, that has grown from a standing start in 2000 to over 13 million entries in 260 languages of the world. Both these examples prove that by through Collaborative Innovation and sharing knowledge, we can grow richer as a society. With the Internet connecting almost 2 billion people, collaborating and sharing is now possible on a scale that no other technology could have enabled.

As the Internet grows and reaches more of humanity, and as it becomes a part of our day to day lives, is it possible that, as a species we will become more of a collaborative species, instead of a competitive one. Like Emperor Ashoka, will we renounce fighting over finite property like land and borders, and learn the value of sharing knowledge? I know that sounds wildly imaginative, but one of the advantages of speaking at an event titled, the World Foresight Forum is that you are not necessarily constrained by the past, and can imagine a future that is discontinuous (and hopefully, much better!) from the past.

To conclude, I quoted four lines from one of my favorite poems, the immortal "Imagine" by John Lennon. The last four lines of Imagine are,

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

As I concluded, Stephan looked me in the eye and asked me if we all could sing along. We all had a hearty laugh at that and moved along to the next presentation. My presentation was followed by another jovial Dutchman, Jaap Roos, VP of Capgemini, Netherlands. Roos spoke about how words that defined our age, words like "Co-value creation, Exponential globalisation, Collaborative innovation, Prosumerism, The long tail etc" did not even exist five years ago. He said that the web creates a 2 billion person, "no-borders amplification effect." Roos concluded with a final slide that said:

* The web is changing all, people remain central
* Our global society and economy will remain very dependent on raw materials, energy, transportation and industry
* The process of Innovation determines success
* Cyber Security and Identity Integrity are the challenges for the web and our knowledge based future

In the afternoon, I was invited to speak to a group alled, TheYoungTheHague, an important Dutch association of young entrepreneurs. These young entrepreneurs were working on “The Hague's Top Ten Improvements” that they would then present to the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, Government of The Netherlands. The event was held inside a gorgeous church called the Klosterkerk and the lead speaker was drs. Albert van der Touw, the CEO of Siemens Netherlands. van der Touw spoke about how Siemens gets involved in the cities it is involved in, its work in renewable energy, and areas like desaliniating sea water and making it fit for human consumption, in Africa. van der Touw spoke with a lot of passion about these initiatives and I felt happy to see leaders at his level speaking about their social initiatives, with such conviction. I gave a talk similar to the one I gave earlier in the day, but added the point that technology can enable new possibilities, but building a better society is a human endeavour and we can build better societies only if we have compassion in our hearts.

The many discussions at the WFF around concerns like climate change, security, happiness in society etc, made me recall Gandhi's insightful words that, "There is enough on this earth for everyone's needs, but not enough for everyone's greed." Many of the urgent and pressing challenges that we face in areas like climate change can be solved only if we engaged with them in a spirit of collaboration and sharing, and therefore, the need for compassion and a sense collective good was more urgent than ever. The audience consisted of a group of about 100-120 members of TheYoungTheHague, and I hesitated a few minutes before saying something that has been brewing in my heart and mind for a very long time. Having seen many businesses put private profit ahead of the collective good, especially in areas like open standards, an issue that I was closely involved with in India, I said that I was struck by how the world of business is being treated as a "compassion-free" zone, how it seems to operate as if it is above the norms that govern human society. Today, businesses are the dominant economic and social forces in our society and what they do has a profound impact on all of us. It is therefore even more imperative that businesses be guided by strong moral values like compassion and the collective good. It was very encouraging to see some members of the audience nodding their heads and agreeing with these thoughts. Mr. van der Touw later told me that some of the breakout sessions created for suggesting improvements to The Hague referred to my talk. On the last day, we had dinner at the beautiful Peace Palace, which also houses the International Criminal Court.

Among the personal highlights for me at the event were sessions by Edward De Bono, the founder of lateral thinking, the author of "Six thinking Hats" and many other books. De Bono ran us through the principles of the six thinking hats and said that his ideas were being implemented in schools in India and China and showed significant improvements in learning effectiveness. There were many distinguished people in the audience, but that did not faze De Bono, who went about his task like a school master, using a sharp whistle every few minutes to prod people into changing their metaphorical hats. I also met some amazing entrepreneurs from the Kairos Society, a global network of top student and global leaders using entrepreneurship and innovation to solve the world's greatest challenges. It was inspiring to see these young motivated individuals talk about doing good in a way that makes commercial sense.

One tangible example is a company called ThinkLite run by Dinesh Wadhwani that is helping businesses go green without the upfront costs. ThinkLite evaluates a customer's lighting infrastructure and replaces their old, inefficient lighting systems with energy efficient, mercury free lighting at its own cost, and takes a percentage of the savings as its fees. This is the kind of innovative model that can accelerate the adoption of green technologies in the world. I found the Kairos fellows, lead by Ankur Jain to be energetic and enthusiastic and look forward to seeing them bring their work to India.

There were many discussions around cybersecurity and these sessions were very interesting but not very conclusive. On one hand, we had Christopher Painter, coordinator for cyber issues, US Department of State saying that most people paint security and privacy as issues opposed to each other, but that was not necessarily true. After the session, I tried to probe him further on this and his answer was that the surveillance would be around keywords. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to dig deeper. On the other hand, was Pablos Holman, a futurist, IT security expert, and a notorious hacker with a unique view into both breaking and building new technologies. Holman who was born in the Soviet Union, was very skeptical about the aims of governments around the world to do 24 by 7 surveillance of e-mails and Internet traffic. He spoke with feeling of of how the Soviet culture of surveillance lead to neighbors suspecting each other and ended up creating a very unhappy society. It would take a 100 years to change that culture now, he said. As a hacker, Holman said that he ran a personal server on every continent, so that no government could get his hands on his e-mail. He sportingly admitted that it was an experiment that he ran purely because he could as hacker and a technology expert. Between Painter and Holman, I am still searching for a common ground between security and privacy on the Internet, and I expect this to be a long search.

At the World Foresight Forum, one of the most interesting persons I met was Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp. A very warm and affectionate person, I was delighted to know that the Rabbi spoke about the role of compassion at the WFF. He shared a Jewish story about heaven and hell that I wanted to share with you. There was a man who wanted to know the difference between heaven and hell. God took him to hell and there he saw people sitting around a table laden with tasty food, but the people all had arms so stiff that they couldn't bend their elbows and bring it to their mouths. God then took him to heaven and he saw the same thing, people with stiff hands who could not bring the food to their mouths. The man said, 'What the difference? There is no difference between heaven and hell." God said, 'Wait my son.' The man waited and he saw that the people in heaven were feeding each other." If we are to really seek, “Security, Peace and Justice for Sustainable Global Growth” we need tons and tons of the spirit of sharing that the venerable Rabbi spoke about.