They Knew

Insights from Web Summit Lisbon and Smart Cities Barcelona for Building What’s Next

By our Design Partner, Greg Hart (December 2021)

That’s what the slide said in Ed Gillespie’s presentation at the Smart Cities Congress in Spain last month. They knew. Below that statement were the logos of the major energy companies. He was referring to the, by now, well-known fact that internal scientists in these companies (rather precisely) predicted the climate emergency that we are now living through. That it would come about as a result of the production and use of fossil fuels. And they knew decades ago. They used this knowledge to publicly deny the reality and spent a lot of money to sow misinformation and fight the emerging facts while working to delay any action being taken. They knew.

The slide that followed looked almost identical except this time it presented the logos of the large tech companies like Google and Facebook. They knew that their products were contributing to a variety of problems ranging from poor mental health outcomes to the unravelling of democratic institutions. This is unfolding on the back of misinformation-driving algorithms designed to generate as much advertising revenue as possible - their bread and butter. They knew.

Two weeks before Ed Gillespie’s talk in Spain, Frances Haugen took the stage in Lisbon as part of the opening night of Web Summit. A gathering, in the COVID era, that reminded us about what it is like to be together with tens of thousands of other people (albeit wearing masks and flashing vaccine certificates to enter every day.) It was strange but it was also great.

One of the really interesting dimensions of the Web Summit experience is their approach to handling controversy. Which is to say, they invite it. It is this kind of attitude that differentiates the experience from other large technology and innovation shows. This year, we need look no further than the Metaverse to see this unfold. While Web Summit gave the stage to senior people in Meta like Nick Clegg, the first night closed with a riveting interview of Frances Haugen. She blew the whistle on Facebook by bringing 10,000 documents out of the company when she left. Her interview introduced a theme that continued across many other talks (formal and informal): the tension between the efficiency and speed of technology with the human scale of time and processing capacity. Facebook created an evolutionary algorithm that searches and then selects for things that increase dwell time and eyeballs which then sells advertising. As Haugen said, ‘Facebook chooses expansion over safety.’ She also suggested that there is a false choice between transparency and privacy and that it is possible to have both suggesting that mandated accountable data disclosure is needed. She also introduced the idea that technologists - who tend to be wired towards producing efficiency - need to be well rounded in the humanities, particularly critical thinking and ethics.

Roger McNamee who was an investor and advisor to Facebook in the early years continued the conversation the next day saying that the situation compares with chemicals, health, and food - things that are necessary for the economy but can be dangerous and therefore must be regulated. In recent years, we have seen efforts at places like Stanford University to introduce programs for software engineers around ethics. It is encouraging to see how popular these programs have become in a short period of time - oversubscribed.

"Building a world that runs on technology while supporting individual agency, effective democratic governance, avoiding a climate catastrophe, and building the social foundations of society is the bulk of the mission of the future and of today." --- Greg Hart, Design Partner

And this is important because ten years from now the play is largely tech. Everywhere. There is growing momentum for creating not just individual companies, but entire industries and ecosystems of companies driven by technology. Currently, about $3 trillion is globally invested in tech, while $43 trillion is sitting in old school companies. The shift is underway but really just getting warmed up. Building a world that runs on technology while supporting individual agency, effective democratic governance, avoiding a climate catastrophe, and building the social foundations of society is the bulk of the mission of the future and of today.

The end of the year is the customary time to take stock of these questions. What has happened and what is likely to happen? We are confronting serious challenges - many that have not been encountered before in the history of humanity. With so much at stake there is an easy path leading to anxiety and fear. There is also a path that leads to incredible opportunity and optimism. Let’s continue to have a conversation about what we know and what we don’t. It seems like an appropriate way to transition from one crazy year into yet another year of uncertainty and opportunity. We hope that you engage with us as we ask these questions. We can consider what the implications are for citizens, ventures, the planet, cities, the economy, and our supporting institutions.

What will people say ten years from now that ‘They Knew?’ What do we know now? What don’t we know? Where should we go next?