Happy 2021! Building a Better Next

VERY HAPPY 2021!!! On January 1st, I hosted a 90min online experience, Themed “Building A Better Next”, it highlighted several audacious yet remarkably tangible ideas that are shaping our future right now. I’m excited to give you a quick overview, because this is the kind of thinking, caring and acting we are being called to do now…

A Moment of Transformation
As deeply challenging as 2020 was, it made really visible the things that were working … and those that are not! It opened the doorway to an era of huge change and radical invention. As we sit on the front edge of a technology fueled “productivity revolution”, we are being granted this extraordinary once in a generation opportunity to redesign, rethink and reimagine every institution, industry, organization and societal norm — how we’ll live, work, innovate, coordinate… and be.

When we envision a “better next”, we imagine it provides a stronger sense of wellbeing, connection, accessibility and sustainability, don’t we? But what does that actually look like? Who is leading this kind of work? What motivates them? And how can we all we navigate this scale of change safely and compassionately?? In my upcoming book, Leadering (out Feb 14th!), I point to loads of examples of bold thinkers and enterprise leaders… but what are we all building toward?

Rather than just champion the idea of being “visionary”, my co-host, Marcus Whitney, (a successful entrepreneur, investor, author and visionary in his own right), and I introduced the work of ten people committed to integrating technology advances with a a deep sense of caring, centered around five themes: Better Life, Better AI, Better Work, Better Humans… and a Better Prepared Us. Here’s a taste of what I believe is worth paying attention to:

Better LIFE
Forecasts of our future often point to things like drone delivery at your doorstep and smart refrigerators that ensure you have fresh milk (whatever kind you are drinking at the moment). Some imagine sturdy but shockingly affordable 3D printed houses, made with sustainable materials such as “hempcrete”. And encouragingly, many around the world are becoming champions of the“:15min city” in which all our needs — work, school, entertainment, shopping, medical care and recreational activities — are accessible within a :15min walk or bike ride.

So what if we were able to combine all these ideas and reimagine the notion of community and regenerative infrastructure altogether? In our first session, Geci Karuri-Sebina, a Johannesburg-based scholar-practitioner who works on urban planning and governance issues with a rich background in comp sci, sociology, architecture and urban planning, chatted with fellow Singularity University lecturer and visionary founder James Ehrlich about what he is currently championing around the world. RegenVillages is a Stanford University spin-off company realizing the future of living in regenerative and resilient communities. James often describes this as the “Tesla of eco-villages” in which there is a village operating system that optimizes sustainable energy, waste, water usage and supports hyper-local, hydroponic agriculture. Investors around the world are interested, government leaders are curious and over 27,000 folks have already signed up to be early residents (including me!), as this points to more thoughtful and integrated way to live.

Better AI
So given that almost every aspect of our world will be touched by applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the big question is how do we advance this safely?

I am big believer in all that is possible as we gather and analyze data to tackle big issues, usher in the era of precision medicine, vertical farming, personalized education, on-demand shopping, autonomous vehicles, the creation of new materials, an entirely new approach to our work… and sooooo much more! But having joined an AI start-up years ago and as an advisor to AI services company, Kungfu.AI now, I’m very focused on how we build and deploy this potent technology as responsibly as possible. Which is why i was so excited to learn about the work of AI Global!

Spatial computing expert (and a “Top Ten Tech voices” on LinkedIn I highly recommend you follow), Cathy Hackl spoke with the former Director of Data and Digital for Canada and now Executive Director of AI Global, Ashley Casovan, about the much needed mission to create a global certification for the safe and responsible use of AI. Working in coordination with entities around the world that include WEF, IEEE and ISO, this will take a couple of years to fully take shape. Right now, however, AI Global offers an open source “AI Design Assistant” to help engineers and project managers assess/address unintentioned blindspots in five key areas of AI development: Accountability, Explainability, Bias + Fairness, Quality Data, Robustness and — all vital to better understand as we develop our own AI literacy.


Better WORK
While the subject of “work” has gotten a whole lot of our attention this past year as we reconsidered what is essential, who has flexibility and support, where we ideally want to sit all day and how to address long standing, deeply systemic biases, there are many more issues we need to be preparing for. While the pandemic furloughed many and put industries like travel in upheaval, technological displacement is well underway and accelerated this past year, with an increasing number of studies, such as this from the WEF , pointing to the huge shift in skills that will take place in just the next few years. Large organizations such as PwC, AT&T and Walmart have been driving the wave to upskill/reskill, but it will take more than this to address the growing employment gap, and recently Harvard Business School wrote a case study on Unilever’s thoughtful, purpose-led, more systemic response to the future of work.

In our NYD event, FOW (future of work) expert, educator (and my new soul-sister!), Elatia Abate spoke with 15 year Unilever veteran and Director of Industry Relations and Sustainable Living, Alison Castillo, about what this feels like on the inside, and how this jives with Elatia’s and my counsel to think about talent in radically different ways. Though it is behind a paywall, I found this 12 page read worth the price, as it explains in detail what it means to “change the way one changes”. Key points: putting folks at the center leads to more innovative and relevant solutions. And including those directly involved in the decision making leads to much more successful outcomes.

This, however, all raises an even bigger question of what we do when not everyone is able to cross the digital skills divide quickly enough — ­or not even offered the opportunity? Solutions such as UBI or demanding a “digital dividend” for the data we create are two concepts on the table to ensure a more equitable distribution of this technology enabled productivity revolution we are headed toward. We should expect many more to be conceived, discussed and tested, as we can clearly see the need to build a more solid societal scaffold to the era ahead.

Better HUMANS
How far are we willing to let technology permeate our lives… and our bodies? We can edit genes, use an exo-skeleton to walk again and eventually decide whether to embed a computer in our brains. Advances in robotics, sensors, virtual reality, augmented reality, bio-engineering and yes, machine learning, can be empathetically designed to vastly improve our day-to-day existence.

In our fourth session, two of my favorite humans, and Wikipedia-worthy badasses, Elliot Kotek (co-founder of Not Impossible Labs, multi-award winner and CEO of Nation of Artists whose body of work has amassed more than 1.5 billion media impressions and is archived in MOMA) and his long time buddy Chris Denson (creator and host of Innovation Crush, a series with over 750,000 subscribers around the globe, author of best selling Crushing the Box and newly appointed SVP, US Director of Innovation for agency MullenLowe), discussed applying human centric design to very human problems… like how to support kids going through chemotherapy.

A part of the team that brought the Aflac Duck — a highly sophisticated “toy” with four pending patents — to kids across the country, Elliot shared how this TIME Invention of the year and CES Tech for Good award winner is giving kids a sense of agency, helping them communicate their feelings and encouraging them to stay connected versus isolated — all of which are driving improved health outcomes. Impressed, Chris countered with an experience that allowed folks to eat 3D printed scans of their brain patterns … on the path to better understanding the value of mindfulness practices. ;) Key takeaway here: designing with (vs for) all stakeholders creates breakthrough, literally world changing ideas.

As wearables and biometric readers permeate our bodies inside and out, we have barely scratched the surface (ha!) of the innovation that lays just around the corner. And we need to ensure these advances are available to all.


A Better Prepared Us
So game on! The future needs us to step up and step in right now and all become caring visionaries, willing to rethink, reimagine and redesign much better solutions. Ones that are safe, sustainable, inclusive and hold us all well.

I hope you gift yourself a view of this entire event. The conversations above were only 7–8 min long each (we packed a lot in!) with some commentary before and after. Half way through you’ll find a beautiful, created-on-the-spot performance by beatbox artist + singer, Butterscotch, who reminded us that “we are all we have”. Damn straight!

What does it take to prepare for this work? We ended the experience in way in which I hope you start your year: zen buddhist teacher and former psychotherapist, Flint Sparks, led us in a meditation, encouraging us to “mind the gap” by holding space for Grounding, Awareness and Presence. Cultivating these practices are essential for taking good care of ourselves as we all work hard to take better care of each other.

… A Better NEXT
I am grateful for all who participated in our first event of the year — and for all you each do to make this world work better. We’ve received a lot of feedback on how good this experience felt, so as my book launches in a few short weeks, we hope to offer similarly inspiring ones that make this journey feel less daunting, quite doable and irresistibly inspiring! Rest up, stay tuned and let’s use this extraordinary moment to put love and imagination into action, as we work together to transform a very dark year into a brighter and so much better new era.

xox, Nancy

ps — If you are wondering if you’re ready to take this on, here is one a minute lift provided by eleven changemakers I adore (!!), as they share the words that guide me forward each day. 💛

described as endlessly optimistic, Nancy is a strategic futurist, gatherer and author of LeaderING: The Way Visionary Leaders Play Bigger (avail Feb 14, 2021)