The Interzone conference in downtown Vancouver proclaimed that “World War III will be fought in binary code.” But did most speakers, attendees, or your intrepid BetaKit journalist on the scene have an inkling of what that even meant? (Full Disclosure: I moderated a panel called American History in Binary Code focused on ‘the next generation of human enterprise’).
That, as the jury-is-out crowd are wont to say, is a very good question. Either way, folks on stage and members of the audience asking questions performed a heroic service in connecting the dots between the various focal points: education sessions about tech for enterprise-class companies, panels exploring new paradigms of business like the sharing economy, and more openly political discussions involving panels on security and democratization through social media.
It was fun, it was different — and it provoked a lot of follow-up discussions afterwards over cold beverages and a relaxed after-party atmosphere sponsored by IBM. Here are some of the highlights.
Managing chaos and the future of business
Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, kicked off the conference by keynoting a presentation on Year Zero – about how today’s business world is advancing so quickly that there is very little to compare between what we do now and what we did even at the beginning of the Internet age (much less the pre-digital era). “Between the social world and the enterprise world, there’s convergence,” he said. “Businesses today need to combine the pieces that are important to the people, like social, while integrating analytics, to make products useful.”
“The cleverness you will have to have as a leader who can hold culture and values together for 20 years will be difficult.”
“The customer is going to come at you through any number of channels — and that (mobile) device is going to be the gateway to any of those relationships,” McDermott said. “From the customer’s perspective, they’ll say, if you don’t have a perspective on other things that are social, you’re a loser — I’m going to find someone who shares interests with me (before making a purchase).”
Looking at the other side of business, how companies are managing their own people, McDermott was enthused about the new choices and capabilities technology was giving us. “We have 77,000 employees at SAP, but we also have 2 million in our ecosystem that supports SAP. You couldn’t possibly hire two million, so you need that support ecosystem — and once that’s working, why not grow to five million?”
McDermott said that it’s an opportunity, but also a challenge for leaders trying to sustain their company culture. “If you look at the sustenance of corporate cultures, making sure your purpose is going to be held together in the next 20 years, it’s going to get harder — because people still need human contact,” he said.
“The things that matter tend to happen when we’re together. The cleverness you will have to have as a leader who can hold culture and values together for 20 years will be difficult, because with speed, comes mixed messages. How do you hold it all together, so people are focusing on the things that are most important? Your job as the leader is to keep enough edginess in the system — but what I see is chaos and confusion and overconsumption of the things that matter. People have difficulty distinguishing between the one or two things that matter and the 22 things that don’t.”
Disrupting industries and making our own rules
“Does privacy impede progress? It does, if we’re talking about optimizing efficiency and bells and whistles.”
– Erin Kenneally, head of cyber security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
The next session addressed how technology and new questions around ethics are transforming centuries-old industries. “Technology is helping government to get comfortable with regulating a product, marijuana, that was outside the bounds — and now the questions are about tracking where it’s distributed, how much it costs,” said Jessica Billingsley, CEO of MJ Freeway. “The green rush community – we’re talking about other scheduled substances. Do we draw the line where it has medical benefit? Or do we allow humans to make their own informed choices?” With access to more data, governments, and the citizens who elect them. can make better decisions about how to deal with entirely new and sometimes controversial kinds of businesses.
While technology is making those new business models possible, the savvy entrepreneur recognizes the need to connect with customers beyond the digital world, noted Lisa Skakun, chief legal officer at Mogo, which is presently disrupting the old banking industry by offering financial tools and loans online. “How do you respond to the importance of human interaction? As an example, we’ve got a program, Adulting 101, which is effectively gamified financial literacy over wine tasting. It’s about making it relevant to people, with a digital interaction but starting with a human touch point.”
Privacy vs. security: sometimes, it’s right to be paranoid
In another somewhat obscurely-named panel (Axioms of Silicon Valley Stuck on Repeat) the true focus of the panel was on privacy versus the “big business of big data”. Erin Kenneally, head of cyber security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, nailed the pertinent conundrum: “Does privacy impede progress? It does, if we’re talking about optimizing efficiency and bells and whistles. There’s no doubt this has exposed fractures between our conception of privacy and privacy laws.”
Complicating things further, private citizens, corporations, or government may not even know a violation of privacy has occurred until long after it happens – putting both law enforcement and the legislative process itself in a never-ending game of catch-up.
Getting agreement on stage for her proposition, she was also optimistic about whether this was really a circle that could be squared. “Of course we can solve this,” Kenneally said. “Technology is not a self-executing, autonomous thing. It is designed and built by human beings. To the extent we want to protect our privacy, we absolutely can. But invariably, keeping mind I’ve worked with a number of information sharing projects with government, the problem is about getting people to work together in ways that they agree.”
Technological change is spurring political reactions in some very dramatic and surprising ways – and there’s no doubt that the conversations at Interzone will be the catalyst for much deeper discussions in the weeks and months to come.