ON FORESIGHT, FUTURES, NETWORKS, CONTEXT & SEREDIPITY
In the swirl of ideas that percolated though the KIN Global conference this year, perhaps the most surprising was the need to slow down and take stock. That change happens at an ever-accelerating rate has become so embedded in the entrepreneurial canon, it has become a cliché. This microchip-enabled truth has unleashed spectacular innovation, propelled stunning gains in productivity and generated enormous wealth. It turns out, however, not to be a completely unalloyed blessing.
The combination of ever-brawnier data-crunching computing power and speedier connectivity has transformed everything from transportation (ridesharing and driverless cars) to commerce (online retail) to intelligence itself (AI).
For better and worse, in truth and in falsehood, more now can be known about more than ever before—and it can be known instantly by almost anyone anywhere. Change, in fact, is happening at such blinding speed, observed Dawn Nakagawa of the Berggruen Institute in a talk about the Pursuit of Prosperity, that we risk creating a future where humans are obsolete.
Foresight, more than ever, is needed: the alchemical combination of experience and imagination essential for navigating paths forward—and also the theme of this year's conference. Lindsay Levin, founding partner of Leaders Quest, summed up the challenge in a session on how Business Can Do Better, "How do we build a bridge to the future whilst also walking across it?"
The three days of KIN provide some much-needed time and space to step back from the pressures and the heady thrills of building, scaling, perfecting, disrupting and defending a business. The carefully choreographed schedule—an intense mix of lectures, panel discussions, demonstrations, forums, breakout sessions and, of course, music (with plenty of food, drink and time for conversation in between)—is set up to blur the usually rigid lines between professional silos and encourage new ideas to be sparked and shared.
At its heart, the Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN) is a network of networks. The conference is an extraordinary gathering of nearly three hundred senior executives, serial entrepreneurs, technologists and creatives from the worlds of Business, Government, Nonprofits, the Arts, Academia and Defense who travel from all corners of the globe for the chance to soak in the insights and perspectives of others. They know that the most exhilarating ideas and inspired collaborations happen when unlike minds come together.
"The power of face to face," to use KIN advisory board member Ted Wright's phrase, is the brilliance of the conference. The value of the KINpendium, its digital doppelganger, is as a resource and reference: a compilation of the conference videos and session reports with additional related content and links. If the parts are not greater then the sum of the whole, then they are at least as useful, with each of the more than 150 pages on the site individually share-able.
The KINpendium's table of contents reshuffles the conference agenda into eight general topics:
There is much overlap and to a certain extent the divisions are arbitrary. Jake Harriman's story of founding Nuru International could just have easily slotted under "Social Good" as "The Future." Likewise, McCormick School of Engineering Dean Julio Ottino's talk on the shift to "whole-brain thinking" could have been grouped with "New Paradigms" just as easily as "Design & Strategy."
The order of the sections is also purposefully random. There is no hard and fast beginning—or end—to the content. It is perfectly fine to start in the middle and meander your way through. Dividing content into sections simply makes it a little easier to scroll and scan.
If time is an issue, note that videos can also be listened to as podcasts. (Official KINcasts coming later this year!)
"Where will we go?" asked Rob Wolcott, KIN's executive director and co-founder, throughout the conference. It is a question that cuts to the core of the foresight conundrum: What should the future look like if we could make it look the way we'd like? Do we actually have that much control? Just a year after former Mexican president Vicente Fox delivered a moving keynote on Building Bridges, Not Walls at KIN Global 2016, there is a "Trumpaphant in the room," noted Wolcott. Like the insta-success of the male adult onesie––Romphim™—few saw that coming.
The dramatic events of the past several months were never far from mind. They were front and center in discussions such as the one on Brexit and US foreign policy between Matthew Bishop of The Economist and Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Other times, the subtext was more implicit as in a conversation on the future of sustainable energy with David Chen, principal of global asset management firm Equilibrium and Michael Wasielewski, whose lab at Northwestern works on cutting edge solar technologies. It was there, too, in a conversation on Wellness with David Cella, chair of Northwestern Medial Social Sciences department, and pediatrician and author Dr. Darshak Sanghavi.
Even in the talk on Entrepreneurship as a Movement, Cuban-American immigrant and impressario Nely Galán's admonition that companies need to look like their customers and that increasingly their customers are multi-cultural women had a resonance that extended beyond the business world. When a Senate panel on women's health is made up entirely of middle-age and older wealthy white men, there's a problem.
Likewise, Gary Bolles, an expert in work and career trends, noted both in his talk and in his breakout session on the Future of Work that coal jobs are simply not coming back in any great numbers, no matter how politically inconvenient a truth that may be.
KINians tend to think in terms of and rather than or, and yes rather than no. They relish bringing new perspectives and options to the table, always looking forward rather than back. What was considered pioneering work just a few months ago has taken on an even bolder cast now.
Impact investor Ira Ehrenpreis, whose company DBL Partners has stakes in Tesla and SpaceX, rejects the idea of "zero sum," where social and environmental concerns are sacrificed to pump up what he calls the first bottom line. Rather, he notes, having a mission-driven second bottom line can be a strategic differentiator, one that carves out new markets and also develops a more loyal and dedicated workforce willing to work through the inevitable challenges of building a startup.
Jens Molbak, founder of WinWin, a consultancy that brings circular economy-style financial thinking to social innovation enterprises, has made of career of finding ways to recycle often-overlooked assets and turning barriers into opportunities. Using a "tri-sector" lens, he finds ways to leverage the financial, social and information assets of private companies, nonprofits, government agencies for the benefit of all. WinWin builds on the experience of another company Molbak founded, Coinstar, whose coin-counting kiosks took in 1.5 trillion spare change coins worth $45 billion, generating $100 million in charitable donations to organizations such as UNICEF, while saving the US Treasury more than $2 billion. (More coins remaining in circulation for longer periods mean few coins need to be minted and distributed.)
Meanwhile, Indian disabled rights activist Nipun Malhotra has taken Nely Galán's dictum to heart, finding inspiration in personal pain. Despite being born with limbs that would never work, confining him to a wheelchair for life, Malhotra excelled in school (once given a chance), ultimately earning an MBA. A stellar CV landed him plenty of job interviews but once would-be employers saw him, no offers. That led to a crushing period of depression from which he eventually emerged with the help of a loving family and a gratitude journal. "Everyone has a problem. The only difference is that mine is visible," noted Malhotra, whose Nipman Foundation has profoundly changed the lives of "other Nipuns" in India. It makes all the difference when others can see you for what you can do rather, than that what you can't, said Malhotra.
"We have to be about something" said Galán, summing up the mood in the room during her presentation. "We have to be louder and braver. Time is ticking. ¡Adelante!"
Even given an overly long introduction, there is so much more on the KINpendium than can be flicked to here. The website is full of "Easter eggs"— treasures of information waiting to be discovered. There is music, poetry, a specially minted coin and an entire book full of essays on foresight. There are articles on game-changing tech (self-driving cars, flexible electronics) and also a guide to becoming a more effective negotiator. There are stories of humanitarian heroism in Asia and of the vibrant startup scene in Africa. Plato's cave-dwellers make an appearance, too, as do eyes-in-the-sky drones.
And, and and...
So Explore. Discover. Learn. Enjoy. Share.
— J. A. Ginsburg, Editor, KINpendium
J. A. Ginsburg