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To Build The Technology Of Tomorrow We Need To Create The Ecosystems Today 

2023 March 26
by Greg Satell

There are a  number of stories about what led Hans Lipperhey to submit a patent for the telescope in 1608. Some say that he saw two children playing with lenses in his shop who discovered that when they put one lens in front of each other they could see a weather vane across the street. Others say it was an apprentice that noticed the telescopic effect.

Yet the more interesting question is how such an important discovery could have such prosaic origins. Why was it that it was at that time that somebody noticed that looking through two lenses would magnify objects and not before? How could it have been that the discovery was made in a humble workshop and not by some great personage?

The truth is that history tends to converge and cascade around certain places and times, such as Cambridge before World War I, Vienna in the 1920s or, more recently, in Silicon Valley. In each case, we find that there were ecosystems that led to the inventions that changed the world. If we are going to build a more innovative economy, that’s where we need to focus.

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Change Is Never Simple Or Linear—You Need To Tap Into Networks And Ecosystems

2023 March 19
by Greg Satell

I still remember the excitement I felt seeing Kyiv, Ukraine for the first time in 2002. I had been living in Eastern Europe for five years by that time and had the privilege of witnessing first-hand how formerly communist countries moved boldly into a new future of peace and prosperity. Still, Kyiv was different somehow, bigger, more raw and bursting with potential.

An often repeated quip at the time was, “Ukraine is like Poland in 1993… and always will be.” Unlike the Visegrad countries of Poland, Czech, Slovakia and Hungary, Ukraine had been an actual Soviet Republic and the degree of institutional and societal rot created greater challenges. Kyiv in 2002 was, in many ways, a cynical place.

Today, no one can deny that a paradigm shift has occurred. No longer seen as a corrupt backwater, Ukraine has inspired the world with its ingenuity, humanity and courage. Its president, Volodomyr Zelensky, is an international hero. Yet the transformation, while still incomplete, didn’t come easily and it has important lessons that we can learn from.

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Don’t Try To Shape Opinions, Shape Networks

2023 March 12

Anybody who has ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it can be to convince even a single person. To persuade dozens or hundreds—much less thousands or millions—to change their mind about something important seems like a pipe dream. Yet that doesn’t stop people from spending significant time and energy to do just that.

In fact, there is a massive industry dedicated to shaping opinions. Professionals research attitudes, identify “value propositions,” craft messages and leverage “influencers” in the hopes that they can get people to change their minds. Yet despite the billions of dollars invested each year, evidence of consistent success remains elusive.

The truth is that the best indicator of what people do and think is what the people around them do and think. Instead of trying to shape opinions, we need to shape networks. That’s why we need to focus our efforts on working to craft cultures rather than wordsmithing slogans. To do that, we need to understand the subtle ways we influence each other.

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The Great Digital Reckoning Is Near

2023 March 5

Roger McNamee is one of the smartest investors in tech, seemingly always ahead of the curve. A long-time sounding board to Bill Gates he was an early investor in companies like Palm, Electronic Arts, and Facebook. He has also not hesitated to be fiercely critical, writing an unsparing book about the danger social media poses to democracy.

So his recent op-ed about “Big Tech’s Lost Decade” is something we should take seriously. McNamee points out that the enormous tech valuations—more than 1000 startups have been valued at over a billion dollars—is more due to a loose financial and regulatory environment than to significant innovation.

The signs have been there for awhile. I wrote about how the digital era was ending five years ago. Yet McNamee takes it further, calling for stricter regulation and a “transformation in culture, business models and industrial structure.” It seems that reckoning is approaching.  Hopefully, it will make our economy safer, more equitable, innovative and productive.

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3 Reasons Why Change Fails

2023 February 26
by Greg Satell

There’s no question we have entered a transformative age, with major shifts in technology, resources, demography and migration. Over the next decades, we will have to move from digital from post-digital, from carbon to zero-carbon and from the Boomer values to those of Millennials and Zoomers. Migration will strain societies’ social compact.

Unfortunately, we’re really bad at adapting to change. We’ve known about the climate threat for decades, but have done little about it. The digital revolution, for all the hoopla, has been a big disappointment, falling far short of its promise to change the world for the better. Even at the level of individual firms, McKinsey finds that the vast majority of initiatives fail.

One key factor is that we too often assume that change is inevitable. It’s not. Change dies every day. New ideas are weak, fragile, and in need of protection. If we’re going to bring about genuine transformation, we need to take that into account. The first step is to learn the reasons why change fails in the first place. These three are a good place to start.

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We Need To Learn How To Bridge Difference To Drive Creativity And Innovation

2023 February 19

I have a friend who was once ambushed on a TV show panel. Being confronted with a clearly offensive remark, she was caught off-guard, said something that was probably unwise (but not untrue or unkind), and found herself at the center of a media-driven scandal. It would cost her enormously, both personally and professionally.

I often think about the episode and not just because it hurt my friend, but also because I wonder what I would have done if put in similar circumstances. My friend, who is black, muslim and female, is incredibly skilled at bridging differences and navigating matters of race, gender and religion. If she fell short, would I even stand a chance?

We are encouraged to think about matters of diversity in moral terms and, of course, that’s an important aspect. However, it is also a matter of developing the right skills. The better we are able to bridge differences, the more effectively we can collaborate with others who have different perspectives, which is crucial to becoming more innovative and productive.

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We Need To Stop Worshiping Algorithms

2023 February 12
by Greg Satell

In 1954 the economist Paul Samuelson received a postcard from his friend Jimmie Savage asking, “ever hear of this guy?” The ”guy” in question was Louis Bachelier, an obscure mathematician who wrote a dissertation in 1900 that anticipated Einstein’s famous paper on Brownian motion published five years later.

The operative phrase in Bachelier’s paper, “the mathematical expectation of the speculator is zero,” was as powerful as it was unassuming. It implied that markets could be tamed using statistical techniques developed more than a century earlier and would set us down the path that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

For decades we’ve been trying to come up with algorithms to help us engineer our way out of uncertainty and they always fail for the same reason: the world is a messy place. Trusting our destiny to mathematical formulas does not eliminate human error, it merely gives preference to judgements encoded in systems beforehand over choices made by people in real time.

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Self-Righteousness Is Not A Strategy

2023 February 5
by Greg Satell

Not long ago I was participating in a discussion on the social audio app, Clubhouse, and I said something a lady didn’t like that triggered her emotions. “Obviously, you need to be educated,” she said before subjecting me to a prolonged harangue riddled with inaccuracies, logical gaps and non-sequiturs.

Yet putting the merits of her argument aside, her more serious error was trying to overpower, rather than attract, in order to further her argument. If anything, she undermined her cause. Nobody likes a bully. Perhaps even more importantly, silencing opposing views restricts your informational environment and situational awareness.

This is why Gandhi so strictly adhered to the principle of ahimsa, which not only proscribed physical violence, but that of words or even thoughts. Everyone has their own sense of identity and dignity. Violating that will not bring you closer to success, but will almost certainly set you on a path to failure. Self-righteousness isn’t a strategy, but the lack of one.

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4 Signs Your Industry Is Being Disrupted

2023 January 29
by Greg Satell

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explained that there are two modes of thinking that we use to make decisions, which he calls “System 1” and “System 2.” The first is more instinctual and automatic, the second more rational and deliberative. We need to use both to make good decisions.

Businesses also have two systems, which can sometimes conflict. One is immediate and operational. It seeks to optimize processes, gain market share and maximize profitability. The second builds capacity for the long term, by investing in employees, building trustful partnerships and creating new markets to compete for the future.

Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive. Just as we can step back and think rationally about instinctual urges, we can invest for both the short and the long term. Yet given that every business eventually matures and needs to renew itself, many end up taking the wrong path. Here are four signs that your industry might be in the process of being disrupted.

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The Eden Myth And How Demagogues, Hucksters And Con Artists Use It To Deceive Us

2023 January 22
by Greg Satell

The story of the Garden of Eden is one of the oldest in recorded history, belonging not only to the world’s three major Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but also having roots in Greek and Sumerian mythology. It’s the ultimate origin archetype: We were once pure, innocent and good, but then were corrupted in some way and cast out.

As Timothy Snyder points out in his excellent course on The Making of Modern Ukraine, this template of innocence, corruption and expulsion often leads us to a bad place, because it implies that anything we do to remove that corrupting influence would be good and just. When you’re fighting a holy war, the ends justify the means.

The Eden myth is a favorite of demagogues, hucksters and con artists because it is so powerful. We’re constantly inundated with scapegoats— the government, big business, tech giants, the “billionaire” class, immigrants, “woke” society—to blame for our fall from grace. We need to learn to recognize the telltale signs that someone is trying to manipulate us.

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