September 14, 2021

Tech Policy Expert & Author of “The Raging 2020’s”

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #57

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Alec Ross, one of the world’s leading experts on innovation and author of the New York Times bestselling books The Industries of the Future and The Raging 2020s. He is currently a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Bologna Business School and a Board Partner at Amplo, a global venture capital firm.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Ross sat down with Sam and discussed government, responsibilities of organizations and companies, and the positive and negative uses of automation.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Ross shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “In a world with increasingly powerful tech, what makes us human grows even more important.”
  •  “Innovation brings promise or peril.”
  • “Now that we’re moving from an industrial to a technology based economy, we need to rethink our social contract.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: Just share a little bit about yourself. 

Alec: Sure. I’m an author and venture capitalist, sort of the father to 26 startups CEOs right now in our portfolio who were helping their companies grow, and a professor. So I’ve got this sort of crazy portfolio lifestyle where I live and work at the intersection of academia, entrepreneurship, innovation and investing. It’s a bit of a portfolio life and portfolio work, and incredibly rewarding.

Sam: In your bio, it talks about your work leading tech policy efforts for two presidential campaigns. I just want to ask firstly, what’s that like? 

Alec: It was really something. I started a company when I was in my twenties and grew it from being four knuckleheads in a basement into a pretty large and successful global organization. And one of the communities that my company did a lot of work in was the neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where then state Senator Barack Obama was working as a locally elected official. And I got to know him. And when he ran for the United States Senate, I helped him a little bit with that.

And then when he ran for president, I ran technology policy for his presidential campaign. So that sort of brought me from the life of entrepreneurship, into the world of government. I worked for him and for Hillary Clinton for a total of six years. During all those years that I worked for Obama and Clinton, my role was really to figure out, how can technology be something, first in campaigns, but then inform policy, to come up with new solutions to old problems.

We were wildly innovative at the time. The stuff that we did then has been completely normalized since, but it was then that sort of my entry from the world of an entrepreneur, managing a couple hundred folks working in the technology world, to the application of technology and governance and into some broader contexts.

Sam: What was the most surprising part? 

Alec: The most surprising part of it, I think, was that a lot of the time entrepreneurs, and counting myself among them, can sort of look down their nose at government and say, oh my gosh, it’s slow, it’s ineffective, it gobbles up a lot of money.

And the thing that surprised me most was first of all, how important the work is. And secondly, how well the vast majority of it is done. I mean, my projects ranged everything from restoring communications and rebel held territory in Eastern Libya during a revolution to building a mobile network to help reduce sexual violence in the east Congo to creating programs to help with disaster relief in Haiti.

And the thing that really struck me first and foremost was the difference between doing a good job and a bad job was a body count. People literally lived or died based on the work that you did. And then again, in the second piece of it is the vast majority of the time, 90 plus percent of the time, the people doing this work do it extremely well.

Sam: I have in my hands right now, your book Industries of the Future and it’s pretty marked up. I obliterated it, in a good way. One of the things you say that grabbed my attention was “innovation brings both promise and peril.” Do you recall maybe the background to that point?

Alec: I think we’ve seen it, I hate talking about politics for the most part, but I think we’ve seen it for example, in politics where, let’s take it outside of its American context for a second. We’ve seen how the internet can be used for persuasion.  And it can be a very, very powerful force for education.

So for example, in the 26 startups in my venture portfolio, a lot of the leadership development is done, especially now in times of COVID, online. And so it’s a great way to educate people. It’s a great way to move people to do things, but the peril is that the same ways in which you can educate people for good can be used to misinform and manipulate people. 

So I’ve seen in far too many authoritarian countries abroad examples of how an entire country with tens or hundreds of millions of people can be brainwashed. And one of the biggest mistakes I made, one of my greatest intellectual errors, if we were to go back 10 or 15 years ago, I thought that propaganda wouldn’t work online.

I thought that there was so much transparency online that you could just name and shame fake news or misinformation or manipulation or other such things. And lo and behold, I was completely wrong. Propaganda and misinformation can proliferate quite easily online. So when I say that innovation brings promise or peril, what I’m really saying is that the technology itself is value neutral. It’s inanimate. It takes on the values and intentions of the people who use it. So it can be used to strengthen a Jeffersonian democracy or educate your workforce, or it can be used to strengthen the goals of a dictator. The technology itself is value neutral. 

Sam: As you think about work, I guess I want to throw this whole bag at you if it’s okay, as you think about work, think about innovation, and we think about the responsibility of organizations and corporate leaders to invest in technology to keep their business going but at the same time, maybe leave their people behind. What suggestions or what advice or what observations do you have in this moment?

Alec: Yeah, so let’s do some framing first. I do think that robotics, the robots of cartoons and movies from the 1970s, will be the reality of the 2020s. The power of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, it’s not a hypothetical based on a theoretical, based on a maybe. What we’ve already seen is more labor displacement and substitution taking place because of automation because of AI, then it’s taken place because of globalization. 

Unlike globalization, where you can see a job go from Baltimore to Bangalore, the loss of jobs to automation tends to be more invisible and less keenly felt. Now a lot of what we’re seeing right now is that the jobs more often than not are not just being taken over by software so much as they are enhancing the work of humans. So humans are working with the tools of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics.

So it’s not purely substituted, but to your question, Sam, what is the responsibility of a leader? What are the responsibilities of organizations? To our humans in a world where the zeros and ones of computer code are doing more and more of our workforce, it’s really focused on skills. It’s really focused on development. 

Unfortunately, we are projected to have millions of manufacturing jobs in the United States that are going to go unfilled and they’re going to go unfilled, not because we lack people with big, strong shoulders who can pick up boxes and move them from one place to another. No, those jobs have long since been automated, but the manufacturing jobs in the 2020s are those where humans are working with these technology tools. 

If you go into an Amazon factory, if you go into any advanced manufacturing center, what you’re seeing is not a lot of humans doing a lot of the kind of manual labor that we associated with manufacturing 50 or 70 years ago. The humans who are there may not have college degrees, but they still have training in technology.

So the key for our employers, Sam, I think is to make sure that we are doing the kind of continual leadership development and workforce development that sort of anticipates where the need is going to be in our workforces so that they can keep and continue to develop the existing employees that they have rather than firing, and then looking to rehire people with an entirely different skill set.

Sam: Yeah. And the other thing that you had talked about is knowledge spillovers, and just when you say that it makes me wonder, as communities, the responsibility organizations have in ensuring that the spillover that occurs might not have a direct impact on their organization, but you know, an employee who might work in one role for me today might spill over into another role across the street from me tomorrow and to find the sky, but we have to work more as a community even given the amount of opportunity that innovation presents us. 

Alec: That’s really well said. And the way that I think about it is in terms of the social contract, what is the relationship between a business and its broader community? So if you think about the social contract during the agricultural age, there was a multi-generational tie between the landowner and the people who worked the land.

So basically, people would work the land for 30 or 40 years and then their children would come in and work the land for 30 or 40 years. And then the grandchildren would come in and work the land for 30 or 40 years. And there was a sort of equilibrium that existed. 

Though one form of, in this case, labor, was highly subservient to capital. Then what happened? Industrialization. And so in this case, it wasn’t somebody sort of living on somebody else’s land and working that land. In this case, labor went from farm to factory and from country to city. And the relationship between employer and employee changed.

So factory workers, people would make decades long commitments to a given company, a given factory, but in exchange for that, what happened? The six day workweek of the agricultural age became the five day work week of the industrial age. This was literally the creation of weekends. We got things like a minimum wage, a pension, so that yes, if you work in that factory for 30 years, at the end of those 30 years, you will get money that sustains you through your old age.

Now that we’re moving from an industrial economy into an increasingly technology rich knowledge-based economy, we need to rethink our social contract. What good is a pension if you’re more likely to have 30 jobs in 30 years than one job or one employer in 30 years? So the very nature of a company’s relationship to its community, a community’s relationship to the companies within it, is changing dramatically right now. 

And in the same way in which the early years of industrialization were a little bit messy, that’s when that was the time of 11 year olds working in factories and losing fingers. This was the time of Charles Dickens novels. But, eventually we rewrote our social contract so too, with this difficult transition from an industrial economy into a technology rich knowledge based economy, it’s a difficult transition. And lots of people are raging. Lots of people are not finding their place in their way in that world, but ultimately what can sustain us is rethinking our systems and rewriting our social economy.

Sam: I got my pre-order in, because September 14th I believe is the release of your next book, “The Raging 2020s,” which, from the title, must be a little bit different from the last twenties we had. One of the things, right before I clicked on pre-order, which I’m excited about, one line caught my attention in the description of the book. And it talks about the lines between Walmart and the halls of Congress have grown razor thin. And it went on to talk about how billions of people are governed now more by corporations and governments. 

I guess, give us a sneak peek. Why’d you write the book and what are the big highlights to come? 

Alec: First of all, thank you for pre-ordering “The Raging 2020s.” So look, our decade has gotten off to a little bit of a tough start, right? You know, we are a more divided country today than we’ve been since the civil war.

We are struggling with the lingering effects of a pandemic. There is sort of a lot of rage around us. How can we get our way out of it? How can we rewrite that social contract that I was talking about a little bit before? And so a lot of what I write about in “The Raging 2020s” is making capitalism work, is figuring out if you are working hard to create returns for your investors, how can you do so in a way, consistent with your business goals, that also aligns with a set of values that are gonna benefit not just your shareholders, but a broader set of your stakeholders, your customers, your clients, your employees, the folks in the institutions, in your supply chain. 

So I do believe that we are more governed by companies than we are by countries across a whole host of issues from our health care, to equity, to labor rights. And there’s good and there’s bad in that. And so “The Raging 2020s” really tries to give a guide of sorts to business leaders, to help them navigate a really tricky decade where their employees have different demands, where a lot of people coming to work seem almost damaged by the circumstances that are engulfing us right now.

And so what, what I’m trying to do with “The Raging 2020s” is light a little path during a difficult time.

Sam: I’m just sitting here nodding my head because it’s exciting. As an entrepreneur myself I have a lot of friends in the tech community who have started up and many of us have fought through COVID and many have not been able to make it out the other side. It is a challenging moment for entrepreneurs and startups whose heart is in the right place, because you are, in many ways, not only trying to return value to venture capital, but also trying to deliver value to your end customer and create a culture and a community with your team. It’s a really challenging balance for many. 

Alec: It is. This is one of those really difficult times. It’s much like the roaring twenties, much like the 1920s where we were coming out of the first world war, which people forget created an enormous body count of millions of dead, and then the Spanish flu. So right after World War One, there was a pandemic that killed more people than have died during COVID, with a far smaller population.

And then what happened? There was a remarkable decade, the roaring twenties, and it ended in different places, depending on where you lived in the world. Germany and Italy began the march toward fascism. The United States ended up in depression. It was a remarkable time. A product of the choices made during that day. 

And so I feel like we’re in a similar moment now where, if this decade is going to conclude in a better place than it began, it’s going to be because of a series of choices we make now and in the very few years to come to sort of reset our trajectory a little bit.

Sam: I’m excited for it. I look forward to it. Alec, I have one last question for you. The future of work is also one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot today. But oftentimes it feels like it revolves around conversations about robotics only, and not people. What I want to ask you is, what is your hope for the future of work?

Alec: My hope is that, for the future of work, I do believe that the world of increasingly powerful artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, that which makes us most human grows more important. And so I think about qualities like emotional intelligence and understanding of behavioral psychology, strong communication skills, interdisciplinary thinking and application of that thinking. 

What I hope is that the future of the world and the future of work is, we are in fact that which makes us most human grows more important at work, as opposed to our becoming more robotic. So if you rewind 150 years ago, Sam, a lot of people succeeded or failed at work based on how robotic they were. How fast could you pick something? How quickly could you assemble something on a factory assembly line? So humans were in many respects roboticized during the industrial age. 

What I hope now is that our robots can really do a lot of the grunt work or close to all of the grunt work, and that which makes us most special, our very humanity, our creativity, our understanding of, again, emotional intelligence, behavioral psychology, and things at the core of our humanity. I hope that that is what becomes most important in the workplaces of the future. 

Sam: Alec, thank you for taking time. 

Alec: Thank you for having me.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Innovation, Government, Social Economy, Automation, AI, Workforce, Jobs, Tech

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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