Business Must Lead.


It’s time to push our conversation toward rational discourse.

At the first annual Shift Forum, we established a framework for a new kind of business conversation: The interwoven, tectonic shifts driven by both political and technological uncertainty have left capitalism at a crossroads, and we agreed to elevate our thinking beyond a single industry or subject area, focusing instead on the issues and challenges driving our society overall. The result was a fascinating dialog between innovative startups, established global corporations, non-profit leaders, and senior regulators and policy experts.

But where do we take the conversation from here?

What’s entirely clear to me is that beyond job creation or social responsibility, businesses are being called to lead. Increasingly, business is how our society works through our most pressing questions — How should we govern communication? How should we house and care for our people? How should we move around the city? Reasonable people can and certainly do disagree on the answers to these questions, and given that our political process seems focused on bomb throwing and caricature, I’d like to frame the next Shift Forum around the idea of “rational discourse” — reasoned, respectful discussion and debate of issues — a forum where people can disagree without being disagreeable.

This framework stems from my recent re-acquaintance (via the exhaustive Hamilton) with the pamphleteering practices of the Revolutionary era (Thomas Paine was a folk hero during the early days of Wired). The fluid, essay-based conversations of that era birthed two of most seminal pieces of political philosophy ever written — the US Constitution and The Federalist Papers — but they also featured toe-curling personal attacks, often delivered in identical essay form in a reputable but deeply biased newspapers. It strikes me we’ve got plenty of the latter with today’s Internet, but precious little of the former.

Rational discourse also comes to mind when considering the synthesizing work of Yuval Noah Harari in both Sapiens and the more recent Homo Deus. While Harari clearly has a strong point of view, he keeps his arguments within the frame of reason. Homo Deus in particular raises questions around data, AI, and platforms that we all must study as we steer our careers, organizations, and civic lives. But Harari’s conclusions can and should be debated. Ideally, in a forum where bomb throwing is generally frowned upon.

With this in mind, the sophomore edition of Shift Forum will focus on identifying the most pressing issues where reasonable people can disagree, and putting those views onstage in the spirit of rational discourse. Why focus on our most pressing and debated issues in a business conference? Because in today’s society, businesses are expected to not just be part of society — they must also be leaders within it. And we desperately need that leadership if we’re going to navigate this shift.

That won’t be the only thing we do, but it’ll be a major part of the program’s narrative. Shift’s unique “Pillar” approach to programming is well suited to the task: each pillar will plumb an issue’s complexity through multiple sessions and points of view. In between we can have servings of fun, weirdness, and wonder.

So this is where you, the Shift community, come in. What do you think are the most pressing issues facing business and society today? Here are a few to get your juices flowing:

· How we rethink regulation in an age of platform-mediated commerce and communication, how the fundamental tenets of capitalism are shifting, and what a new contract between business and society might look like. From net neutrality to public/private partnerships in transportation, we need to talk about Policy.

· Our society’s relationship to super-human intelligences. At present, the potential energy to unleash these intelligences are mostly in the hands of global corporations — yet we’ve not really had the conversation about how best to manage this transition, should it come (and yes, there are plenty of reasonable folks who think we don’t have to worry about this at all). But shouldn’t we talk about it with a bit more….focus? We’ll call this the Intelligences Pillar until someone comes up with a smarter name.

· Given this shift, how do we manage the transition? And now that all businesses are mediated by technology, what kind of experiences must business create for customers, employees, and partners? I’m particularly fascinated by how our largest companies manage transformation of business models, talent, and technology — and let’s not forget that the five largest companies by market cap are all technology platforms. Is it time to ask what a post technology company looks like? Why are there no corporations in Star Trek (or Star Wars, for that matter)? Is it because we managed our way out of capitalism? For simplicity, let’s call this the Management and Experience Pillar.

· The creative destruction of global economic systems, the rise of protectionism and the decline of neoliberalism, and the role of capitalism in an increasingly opaque and highly complex financial system. For now, let’s call this the Capital Pillar.

That’s four, and there’s certainly room for more (our Pillar partners will certainly have a big say in what other topics we’ll chose, I’m particularly interested in the role data and privacy will play in this transition). But before I go on too long, I’d like to hear your input on the topics around which you think we should focus our three days of conversations. And of course, who you want to hear from onstage (remember, default setting is Chatham House Rule. Because rational discourse). Please write a response, leave a note, or email me directly (I’m Next year’s Shift Forum is Feb 26–28th, again at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco. And that’s what they call burying the lede….

Who should fill the seats at the next Forum?

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