23rd Nov 2017
I recently attended the annual Wired Live conference over two days at Tobacco Dock. For my money, the best short conference there is; built around the areas of innovation, technology and humanity.
Introduced by Sadiq Khan and including 60 sessions across two stages, presenting luminaries included Jimmy Wales, Whitney Wolfe Herd (founder of Bumble) Nico Rosberg, Mo Gawdat (CBO at Google X), and Sarah Lacey (CEO of Panda).
Wired Live’s brochure highlights a focus on ‘fascinating individuals changing the world and the rules along with it’. Whilst this is certainly true, I was looking out for a stand of thought or a theme, that I could draw through the sessions, including as much of the content as possible.
I will call this strand – ‘Different Takes on Collaboration and Creativity’. How some surprising brands are lacking in the areas of innovation and collaboration; and others are doing the exact opposite.
Although the event curators could not have known it at the time of arranging the line-up, a good deal of the content was closely aligned with recent events associated with the Harvey Weinstein scandal and more broadly, the areas of exploitation and inequality.
Annie Powell, a solicitor from Leigh Day representing Uber and Deliveroo workers, provided a compellingly objective perspective on the ongoing legal cases brought by drivers associated with these brands. One of the key questions was whether they could claim to be employees of these companies, and access the associated rights and benefits involved.
As a regular Uber customer, this was a sobering talk. Apart from the headline issue of drivers not being given employee status, the talk highlighted a range of issues pertaining to the relationship the company has with their drivers. These include not supporting drivers in disputes with customers and requiring that drivers receive high customer ratings – enforced by the threat of possible censure, if a high rating level is not achieved. Since the conference, we know that Uber was defeated in the case regarding drivers’ employment rights,pending a likely appeal.
Sarah Lacey, journalist, ex-Techcrunch columnist and Founder of Pando.com, took to the stage promoting her new book – A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug. The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy.
She shared some openly honest and uncomplimentary observations regarding Uber and some of its senior staffers. The style of the company under these individuals (a number of who have left) is well documented, but it is far from clear whether a change in personnel can affect the company’s approach. A key stumbling block may be the organisation’s deep-rooted libertarian ideology – this from Jacobin : ‘companies like Uber and Airbnb may seem to lean left, but they’re rooted in deregulation and uncertain employment’.
The male dominated culture of the tech industry (identified again, recently in the New Yorker ) was also a focus of this talk. Lacey commented on a ‘Uberesque’ context of hyper-masculinity in this sector, and (as she put it) ‘the impact, on women, of drawing every breath in a patriarchy’.
A key question coming out of these talks, was why certain ‘dynamic’ tech companies rely on aggressive and often unimaginative techniques to gain a business advantage; when one might have hoped, they would be smart enough to succeed using more ethical avenues.
Also, importantly, how have they managed to get away with these tactics? The often-accepted narrative is that their ‘ideology and ‘vital energy’ has been stifled by regulations. The result is that these organisations have acquired an embedded contempt for rules; which has provided a ‘justification’ that allows them to operate outside of the usual boundaries.
As well as asking why the above companies feel the need to operate in this way, it is also worth considering – how viable is any business that pays its employees close to or below the minimum wage?
Lacey’s lead message, is that there is a necessary imperative to change this ‘story’, and society’s associated acquiescence to this narrative.
In this area, a comparison was drawn with the Industrial Revolution, which was accompanied by some negative societal effects including – an impact on women’s status, housing problems and the proliferation of child labour.
The provocation here, is that despite the promise of greater opportunity and empowerment associated with it – the Digital Revolution is threatening to usher in many of the negative aspects that accompanied its predecessor. This possibility is particularly interesting (and ironic) as some thinkers are seeing the current, Digital, Revolution as an opportunity to undo the effects of the previous, Industrial, one. This perspective was nicely espoused by Stephen Hawking recently – ‘Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one, industrialisation. We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty. Every aspect of our lives will be transformed.’ How AI can make the world a better place, if we are prepared.
Jimmy Wales took to the stage to discuss his ‘objective’ news service Wikitribune, professing to do what he can to counter fake news. Like him or love him, Mr Wales is taking a refreshingly creative, collaborative look at news provision, at a time when journalists and journalism are increasingly under threat.
For Wales, fake news falls into two specific areas. The first and most obvious type, is that distributed from fake news ‘factories’ in Macedonia and Russia(?) whilst the other, and possibly more pernicious type, is that disseminated by establishment figures and content providers. The problem of veracity in the news space, has also been exacerbated by the decline of news organisations, especially regional ones – meaning there are fewer organs holding those in power to account.
Wales stated approach is to be biased in ‘favour of the truth’ and having a NPOV (Neutral Point of View) although some perspectives are already suggesting this is an untenable aspiration.
He highlighted a plan to avoid the problems Facebook has had with fake news – which have been somewhat driven by confusing the areas of personal information, news and advertising. Interestingly, his thoughts appear to be in tune with the approach taken by Snapchat. This from Bloomberg – ‘(Snapchat) has kept itself free from fake news…. It’s proving to be a much more competent media company than either Facebook or Google. Facebook deliberately blurs the line between personal status updates, news articles, and ads—sticking all three in its constantly updating, algorithm-driven News Feed—Snapchat has taken a more old-fashioned approach. The app’s news section, Discover, is limited to professionally edited content, including dozens of channels maintained by old-media outlets.’
Harking back to the earlier (Uber and Deliveroo) discussion around ‘irresponsible pipes’, Wales places his faith in communities to keep his service honest and underlined his preference for being ‘right’ over being ‘fast’.
A similarly refreshing perspective came from Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder ofBumble, who was introducing the brand extension – Bumble Biz.
The Bumble proposition (in stated contrast to other dating apps) is focused around positive behaviour, positive technology and providing opportunities to link in with entirely new people. Bumble has been called the ‘Facebook for people you don’t know’.
The app’s approach is turn dating on its head, providing women with greater control of the process (they have to make contact first) than is achievable across other platforms.
Bumble’s plan is to gamify positivity, kindness and provide an ongoing ‘positive addiction’ to the platform. A focus for its business model is to stay connected to the user, even after successful introduction(s) have been made. Bumble Biz aims to add a business environment and ‘Bumble bff’, for friends – all of this delivered within a hyperlocal context.
A great example of ‘collaborative creativity’ was introduced by Marcus Engman, Head of Design at IKEA. He outlined IKEA’s inspiring, inclusive and democratic approach to creativity – a very different one from the ‘Uberesque’ model, discussed above.
IKEA is ‘vision driven’, being democratic in design, transparent and collaborative. Engman brought their process evocatively to life by saying when it works most productively, it can be described as ‘Ideas Having Sex.’
IKEA sees great importance in the role of play and curiosity about space – especially regarding life at home,and an appeal to the senses. An example of this is an IKEA product line that is both mass produced and unique – a process of mass customisation that forces ‘people to choose’, and creates a stronger connection as a result.
A highly collaborative, altruistic offshoot, is a partnership between IKEA and Cape Town based design company Design Indaba. IKEA has limited presence in Africa but this association gives them exposure on this continent, alongside a genuine sense of authenticity and provenance. This about the project: ‘(IKEA) look towards democratising design, and are happy to be infiltrated by external ideas… it will be also inspired by urban Africa, and our intrepid pan-continental group of reformers, thinkers, makers and activists.’
For me, a major theme running through Wired 2017 highlighted different attitudes towards collaboration and creativity. A stark dichotomy was clear – on one side the high-tech companies that pretend to espouse innovative, liberal values via decentralisation, sustainability and opposition to hierarchy; but actually create systems that control and exploit.
On the other side are businesses that engender collaboration, have a genuine focus on equality, and a creative approach that is built on altruistic aspirations.
The contrast here is not a simple case of ‘black and white’, or ‘good and bad’ ; but the differences are stark, and which approach wins out in the end is a matter of the greatest importance.