The World Economic Forum's mission is to improve the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society. Much has been written about their Davos and Dalian events and how each event effectively crystallizes the context and direction of thought at any particular time. This year I had the good fortune of attending my first World Economic Forum gathering as a part of the Technology Pioneers program. The transformative power of technology pervaded the event. This was evidenced not just in the viewpoints of the few technologists like me who were in attendance. Rather, it stemmed from the social entrepreneurs, young scientists, young global leaders and even government agents that have unleashed change on the world faster in the past few years than over the last half century.
While technology is no panacea for the world's challenges, its place at the decision making table of all aspects of our future is undeniable. The new reality is that information technology is the fundamental building block to future change. 6000 miles away in China, with attendees from over 90 countries, it was clear that this lens extends far beyond the confines of the Silicon Valley.
Dalian crystallized three significant themes that broaden the platform of information technology in our future to include, well, everything.
Three Drivers Propelling Information Technology to the Center of Our Future
It Allows People to Connect In Fundamentally Different Ways
Today, technology is synonymous with the ability to easily connect large groups of people with easy access to vast amounts of information and one another from anywhere, at any time. This ability to connect quickly, with massive numbers of people, in a multi-directional way has changed profoundly in just the last decade. Today, connecting a billion people (Facebook) or establishing a community of millions in hours (Twitter) has created an order of magnitude shock to how technology interplays with any organized or organic movements -- in business, in politics, and social movements. For example, less than an hour after the Japanese earthquake, with phone lines out, over 1200 tweets a minute where providing a broad view of what was happening on the ground.
One of the sessions at Dalian examined what a hyperconnected world would mean for our future. Free flow of information leading to unprecedented transparency or paralysis in action in the face of information? Will information inspire or influence a less creative hive mind of opinion? How will personalization compete with privacy?
These questions show that beyond scale and speed, how we connect has changed in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.
Mobile Ubiquity Creates the First Global Communications Platform
Today, more people have mobile phones than toothbrushes. In parts of Africa, digital content strategies are based on the very real tradeoff a villager makes between fifteen minutes of communications and buying bread. These stark statistics are not the privy of technologists but of real world practitioners trying to change the world. In Dalian it was in a session on financial inclusion of the 2.5 billion poor into banking and financing practices where these drivers flowed seamlessly into a discussion of potential solutions. A prevalent theme was mobile's role as the first step to broader platforms and richer services such as tele-medicine.
Any social cause looking to reach the previously unaccounted for and unconnected impoverished billions quickly considers how to harness the potential of the mobile phenomenon. In the developed world mobile has become so fundamental that toddlers are shocked and confused when they can't touch and affect a screen. The breadth and depth of the experience has unlocked the age of constant computing and communications.
Intertwining of Technology Into Almost Every Innovation
One of the vibrant set of participants at Dalian were the Young Scientists -- researchers working on all sorts of earth-shattering scientific discoveries that could change the nature of how we look at disease, evaluate our place in the world, and save the planet. Until now, fundamental scientific research has been driven by 'normal' breakthroughs and the technology that supports them. But information technology has pulled at the essence of how scientists collaborate and accelerated the pace of research (by increasing the speed of communication) and the speed at which science can enter the lives of the broader population.
In stark contrast with the excitement the young scientists brought to using information technology were the numerous sessions on how larger enterprises could try to "hardwire innovation" into their worlds. Innovation, by definition, is much like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. At the heart of this generation's struggle is the reality that technology has changed what it takes to create. What once took large teams and vast infrastructures can be undertaken in a garage or on a laptop. This allows innovation to simultaneously become much broader in the the number and approaches applied to problems, and often more focused (smaller needle) on creating highly targeted solutions. Yet at the same time, discovery processes in large firms are buried under a more diverse and global set of drivers that these firms must address (bigger haystack).
The speed and integration of information technologies into new innovations has created a world where it appears to be systemically harder for large organizations -- especially those anchored in antiquated means of collaboration -- to drive new innovation. At the same time, these same structural forces have resulted in a renaissance for innovation through entrepreurship -- no better illustrated than by sessions highlighting the Chinese explosion in entreprenurial pursuits.
Incorporating paradigm shifts in information technology into social, political, government and business initiatives will become intrinsic to driving broad change. Many of the dramatic struggles and breakthroughs we witness today reflect both the scale of this change and its newness. The advances in information technology are so vast in scope -- yet so native to the generation that will create tomorrow's leaders --- that a base level of awareness will come hardwired. They won't call it IT, and they wont categorize it like we do today; for them it will become another native language they have grown up with. New principles and techniques into how to apply it will be the function of research and study instead of just isolated early anecdotes of success.
We are the early explorers of a new era that brings with it incredible opportunity but also dramatic perils and massive uncertainty. At Dalian, Vivek Kundra, former CIO of the U.S. Federal Government noted, "Last generation IT was cartel based, land and expand prioritized over productivity." Transitioning successfully from that to something as ambitious as described here requires both upheaval through new participants and for a few of today's leaders to lead through change.
If there was a final lesson to apply from the creativity, innovation, and desire to improve that permeated Dalian, it was well captured by Shakespeare, "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt."