Raising consciousness among digital leaders
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Raising consciousness among digital leaders

Kenny MacIver — April 2019

Futurist Rudy de Waele says executives everywhere need to design ‘conscious businesses’ that channel digital innovation towards outcomes more in tune with the needs of wider society.

For much of the past decade, futurist, keynote speaker and business design consultant Rudy de Waele has based the presentations he gives to senior executives and policymakers on the rise of exponential technologies — AI, robotics, autonomous vehicles, blockchain, IoT, 5G, 3D printing and more — and how those will impact business and society.

But in recent times, he has come to the firm conclusion that a focus on those technologies in themselves — as extraordinary as they might be — is simply too narrow, too incomplete, too unrounded an outlook to encourage a positive technology-enabled future.

“I would not want to diminish the fact that through rationalization, productivity and automation technology has been delivering tremendous wealth — mostly for the benefit of corporations and investors. But only now are we seeing the broader impact that such technologies are having on society, on the nature of work, on customers, on our children, on ourselves.”

He gives just a few pointers to how technology is contributing to a less than optimal world: the influence of Airbnb on the inability of local people in tourist cities such as Barcelona and Lisbon to rent affordable housing; the way Cambridge Analytica used data from Facebook to manipulate behaviors; and the design of apps and content that encourage a “dopamine addiction” to online experiences.
New age leaders

Today, de Waele’s keynotes and executive sessions still look at rapid advances in technology but they do so through a new lens of business and individual consciousness. He argues that businesses and their leaders need to start thinking differently about the design of their organizations and the role they play so that their purpose becomes much more holistic and aligned to wider societal goals.

One of the main catalysts for this change, he argues, is that a new generation of digital natives has emerged that doesn't want to see technology exploited solely for maximizing business profitability or for individual convenience or gratification at the expense of others. Rather they want to see technology applied in areas that support the common good. They think business leaders need to recognize that shift and dramatically change their thinking and their organizations’ response.

“RudydeWaele”

“The new generation doesn’t want to work for companies whose values they don’t share. Neither will they buy products from companies that do things they view as negative,” de Waele says.

“As we enter a new world and move beyond the industrial society of the past 150 years, we need to be thinking entirely differently about things like the function of companies,” he says. “To date, it has been argued that technology and automation have been better for us simply because they create wealth for companies. But in the future it is going to be more important to put humans first,” he says.

Indeed, he argues that existing economic models are not serving society well any more. “Just look at climate change, air pollution caused by vehicles and plastic pollution,” he says. “The previous generation didn’t know these things were so harmful; but the younger generation knows they are and wants change.

“Technology now challenges us to do things differently,” he argues, “to have wider societal goals.” And some of the problems that near-term innovation will be capable of addressing are global in scale.

De Waele confidently predicts that “we can solve world hunger and provide clean water to everyone at low cost; we can stop and reverse global warming, eliminate major diseases, solve energy problems and switch to sustainable economies. We know for a fact we can do all that with technology; what we will actually need behind that is ‘conscious leadership.’”

Such conscious leadership is about “seeing a much more positive side to what we can do with technology, having a more holistic understanding of the impact it has on everyone and then embedding that insight in a new model for your company,” he says. “Because we are just at the start of this revolution. The impact on society of technologies such as AI in business automation or blockchain in healthcare is going to be tremendous.”

De Waele admires much of what has come out of Silicon Valley (indeed he studied at its renowned Singularity University). But its companies have mostly been about empowering digital models to solve problems and supplant traditional practices, albeit at incredible scale and hyper-efficiency. “Many of these companies, however, have neglected to take a broader scope to their mission, and that is one reason many people have developed a genuine fear of certain technologies. It is only now we have started to see that narrowness of perspective and its impact,” he states.

What is important at this stage, he argues, is that we use technologies such as AI for the benefit of society. “Until now we have been encoding mainly for the benefit of the corporation. We need to encode and embed human values in technology for shared benefit and prosperity.”
Business in the driving seat

De Waele outlines just some of the qualities he thinks will be needed from conscious, responsible leadership in the future. “Conscious leaders empower employees with information and give them a voice; create opportunities for shared action; train employees so they are ready to be the workforce of the future; concern themselves with the impact of change on employees; improve societal conditions in the local communities in which their organization operates; respects societal values; and engage directly and show personal commitment to societal challenges.

“When you can do that, you become a good conscious leader and that is recognized not just by your employees but by your customers — customers who, as a result of your company’s behavior, will trust your business more and remain loyal to it in the longer term,” he argues.

“RudydeWaele”

According to de Waele, such leaders’ influence should not be restricted to their own business environments. As faith in governments to carry through important change has waned in many countries, there is greater expectation of business leaders to act. Indeed one recent survey showed that 76% of employees think their CEOs should take the lead in societal change rather than waiting for governments to impose it, says de Waele.

He cites just a few of the many examples he observes of such pro-active behavior: the management board at outdoor clothing company Patagonia which recently decided to donate the $10 million benefit it gained from US tax reforms to companies that are fighting climate change; IKEA has committed to only use 100% renewable energy by 2020; LEGO has started to produce toy bricks from cane sugar rather than plastic; and the We Compnay (previously WeWork) has announced an organization-wide ban on serving meat within the company and banned staff from expensing meals that contain meat.

Such action ultimately encourages de Waele to be optimistic about the future. “What we are seeing is the last eruption of the egocentric industrialized society which has lasted for just over 150 years. In my own networks I see an amazing number of people who are already thinking along these new lines. The old version of capitalism is not serving us well any longer, and new technologies are showing us how to meet some of the challenges we face by doing things differently.”

• Rudy de Waele was a keynote speaker at the recent Fujitsu Industry Summit in Finland

First published April 2019
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