Two views of the future

February 8, 2009

First off. Apologies for the intermission in service. I have spent the last two weeks in Davos at the World Economic Forum conference and then in Long Beach at TED. I know the idea is to be on-line 24X7 but I really don't understand how my blogging colleagues manage to immerse themselves in the content and then comment on it real time. It is beyond me I'm afraid. So, over the next couple of weeks I plan on posting some reflections on both Davos and TED.

To start off with, I have been wondering about the relative merits of the Davos approach versus the TED approach. I was speaking with Peter Schwartz, founder of the Global Business Network and father of scenario planning, and he reckoned there were about eighty Davos delegates also heading off to TED. So I guess there is some benefit to seeing the future from two different perspectives but personally I would rather have some recuperation time in between.

Davos is all about the year ahead and hence in the public sessions at least almost the entire focus was on the economic situation with the occasional diversion into the crisis in Gaza. My sense was that no-one could paint a clear picture of what is likely to happen in the coming months and an awful lot of time seemed to be spent on trying to figure out who was to blame for not spotting the encroaching crisis. This didn't seem productive to me. On the other hand Davos was really two different conferences. I participated in many of the private business sessions where CEO's were more focused on issues they could impact. I was involved in reassuring conversations around sustainability and smart energy where CEO's, government leaders and NGO's were describing active initiatives and plans that hold some hope for the future.

My innovation in a downturn session, that I blogged about a while ago, was well attended with enthusiastic participation from business leaders and academics. I am sensing no downturn in the enthusiasm for innovation but quite a downturn in the resources being applied to it. Thanks to the contributions from many who comment to this blog we were able to have a more nuanced conversation about how and what companies should focus on in economic hard times. As well as the obvious need to be clear about creating value inside a shorter time frame, the favorite topic seemed to be transforming organizations so as to be able to create more innovation and to execute innovation more effectively.In general though, Davos seemed consumed by the short term with little to indicate how we might extract ourselves from the current situation.

And so on to TED where there was very little conversation about the crisis but many ideas that may eventually have a huge impact on the global economy. It was exhilarating to hear about new breakthroughs in biology, physics, mobile technology, ecology, the arts and entertainment and many others. I assume anybody that is interested in design thinking already exploits the TED website to the full but if not then go visit it and watch the talks from past years. Bill Gates' talk from last week is already posted and more will appear over the coming weeks and months.

I came away from TED feeling that the creativity of the human race will do a fine job of getting us beyond this crisis. We just need to keep focused on the bigger opportunities and not get consumed by the apparent intractability of our financial problems. I certainly felt that as a design thinker focusing on the opportunities, as TED does, is a far more productive way to spend my time than focusing on a crisis that I can do little to effect.