Impressions from Lisbon’s “The House”, a different kind of conference
The year is 2019. In Lisbon, 70,000 people are gathered for the Web Summit, the largest and most important tech conference in the world. The entire world is driven by algorithms…The entire world?! No! One house full of uncompromising residents refuses to end its resistance to the technology-driven development of business.
„The House of Beautiful Business“, a conference and global think tank aiming “to humanize business in the age of machines”, has been held annually for the past three year in Lisbon in parallel with the Web Summit. With its 500 “residents” as the participants are called, the conference almost feels intimate when I think about the Web Summit next door with its 70,000 participants. The gathering of all these “post-digital rebels”, as Matthias Horx would probably call them, reminds me of the Gallic Village from Asterix & Obelix: “The year is 50 BCE. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders….”.
As digital natives/immigrants, these “brave Gauls” are by no means anti-technology. Instead, they aim to reshape technological development in terms of a humanistic upgrade. They work together to brew the “magic potion” that is needed to defy Google, Facebook and the like.
Every participant in this conference has a particular role to play. I find myself running into humanist change makers, business romantics and curious tech creators. Participants join different workshops in these roles to listen, discuss, and playfully engage with the content. At this event, everything is focused on the radical transformation of business practices and on a new mode of interpersonal cooperation (including cooperation with machines), while constantly reflecting on how systems influence humanity, organisation and society.
My four days as a “resident of The House” have made a strong impression on me. The longing for a “more beautiful world of business” – and the will to fight for it – was a tangible common thread throughout the inspirational talks, workshops, excursions and art performances. A world where humans, machines and nature work together in harmony. The depth of intellectual engagement varied, but the passion for the topic could be deeply felt throughout. Another thing also became clear: This journey needs companies to play an active, shaping, and courageous role.
In the following paragraphs, I’ll attempt to capture the essence of the conference in the form of four principles with their respective attitudes and assumptions. I’ll also be describing GOOD NEWS for each – concrete examples from the conference of how organisations have had good experiences following these principles. The principles gleaned at The House give companies direction and strength for the journey as they take on social, commercial and ecological responsibility – which by the way demands a tremendous degree of courage – “for a beautiful business in a better world”.
The 4 principles
PRINCIPLE 1 – We change from tech-driven to human-driven business
“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” John Culkin, Professor of Communication at Fordham University in New York (1967)
- Our relationship to our work is a deeply sensuous one.
- We value human playfulness, creativity and madness as a counterpart to artificial intelligence.
- As human beings, we don’t always do things the same way. Meaningful digressions, even from successful routines, are the foundation of innovation.
- The ability to refuse work is a human strength that algorithms cannot possess.
- We are aware of the complexity of human decision-making processes, which occur beyond the bounds of logic and take emotions into account.
- We use technology to make processes faster and easier and to evaluate data. This data forms the foundation for responsible human decisions.
- We acknowledge that technology is never “politically innocent”.
GOOD NEWS for the humane use of technology
Dara Dotz, a young industrial designer who left the private technology sector once she discovered that our blind trust in technology is more harmful than helpful, spoke about some of the projects at the organisation she co-founded.
“Field Ready“ has made the goal of providing people in disaster areas with technological knowledge in order to reduce their suffering through the use of existing resources in co-creation processes. For example, it developed 3D printers for remote earthquake-affected areas of Haiti for the production of water pipe fittings or medical supply parts after transport to these areas broke down.
The White Helmets work under even more extreme conditions. When it needed help, the volunteer group founded in 2013 that works to rescue people in war-torn Syria from bombed-out buildings turned to Field Ready. Their challenge was that the gaps in collapsed buildings that they tried to rescue trapped people through were often a few centimetres too small. Fully equipped earthquake relief teams have access to technical aids for this, such as mobile lifting devices. However, the cheapest of these sets costs €5,000, and there was zero chance of having something like that brought to Syria. Field Ready accepted the challenge, and its engineers in California launched a design thinking process together with the White Helmets in Syria. They would only be able to use materials available on the ground like doormats, cables or miscellaneous parts from the many destroyed cars lying around. After several failed attempts, they finally succeeded in developing a kind of airbag capable of lifting tons of concrete the few centimetres needed to save many human lives. https://spark.adobe.com/page/Ivb8wXmOuz0UJ/
PRINCIPLE 2 – We focus on purpose, not financial profit
“On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world.”
An enlightened Jack Welsh (2009), former CEO of General Electric, previously an icon of the shareholder value movement in 1981
- We acknowledge the tension between purpose- and profit-driven decisions and always give priority to meaning and purpose.
- We want to be as profitable as is needed to secure the survival and continuing development of the organisation, but striving for profit is not a fundamental concern.
- We treat our customers, suppliers and employees as equals and make sure our profits don’t come at their cost.
- We serve no shareholders whose only goal is profit skimming.
- Our annual reports consist of stories of our successes and failures on our journey to fulfilling our purpose. Revenue and other financial KPIs are mentioned in passing.
- We are convinced that the contradiction between profitability and humanity in business is the result of debilitating basic assumptions.
GOOD NEWS about handling profit from a French software company
After a lecture on new approaches to profitability, a participant shared her experiences. Three years before, her company had decided to abandon the premise of profit maximization.
The most impressive result was how quickly the relationship between management and staff improved and tensions eased or became easier to deal with. Cross-departmental cooperation also became more relaxed and effective. The numbers clearly showed a drop in sick leave, but also in overtime. The biggest surprise was how company profits rose higher than ever before over the following years.
PRINCIPLE 3 – We strive for impact instead of efficiency
“Don’t waste your time with efficiency!”
The House of Beautiful Business, one of the tenets of the conference (2019)
- We consider pure efficiency to be inefficient.
- We look at impact instead of smart goal achievement.
- Not “as fast as possible” is our creed, but the quality of targeted acceleration or deceleration.
- We view “wasting time” as a prerequisite for creativity and innovation.
- We know that the human brain often comes up with the best ideas or solutions to problems when we’re taking a break, taking a “day off” or even sleeping.
- We make sure that no one in our organisation works too much or too hard.
- More and more often, we will set off searching without knowing what we are searching for.
GOOD NEWS: The workshop “Imagining New Value”
We make sure that no one in our organisation works too much or too hard.” You probably won’t find this sentence in any corporate vision statement. Yet it’s a topic of intense interest to almost everyone. Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, spent eight years researching what people across the world regret most when they look back on their lives from their death beds: “I wish I hadn’t worked so much” is top of the list.
Jessica Orkin (President of SY Partners, participating in the conference in the role of a “business-obsessed humanist”) and her colleague Thomas Winkelmann took the insights from Ware’s work to heart. They derived five fundamental elements from her work: Time, Identity, Freedom, Connection and Growth. They worked on these topics together with us in touching workshop. How do we currently approach these elements in our professional lives? How do we have to shape our companies so that we can deal with them in a more humane and responsible way?
A small vision task delivered inspiring results, such as on the element Time: “Rest and relaxation are priorities in our organisation and are not the necessary the result of too much work.”
PRINCIPLE 4 – We put ethics at the soul of our business
„Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us.”
The Cyborg Manifesto
“Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us.”
The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna J. Haraway, University of California, Santa Cruz (1984)
- We always look at our responsibility within the larger context and are aware of even the indirect consequences of our decisions.
- We create the necessary conditions for responsible and meaningful work.
- All of our major decisions comply with the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). We constantly measure our products, services and technologies, especially the underlying algorithms, against ethical criteria.
- We know that technology shapes our behaviour and , by consequence, shapes our culture as well.
- We call on our stakeholders to take active responsibility for our planet. We acknowledge the political relevance of our actions.
GOOD NEWS: A useful instrument
Even as far back as 1980, futurist and global citizen activist Hazel Henderson started thinking about the “Reasonable Questions for Technology” during the conference “Technology – Over the Visible Line”. These questions were developed further at subsequent conferences and also served as the basis for a number of discussions in the “House of Beautiful Business”. Their aim is to place technological developments in a significantly broader context than has previously been typical. The questions can not only be applied to technologies, but to any product or service. They focus on the effects of social, ecological and commercial environment systems. This means that every organisation can – and should – ask these questions.
The final handbook “Reasonable Questions for Technology” was edited by Stephanie Mills, author and editor of works including the Millennium Whole Earth Catalogue, and was published in the book The Book of Beautiful Business.
In total, Mills compiled 78 “reasonable questions”. Here are a few examples:
- What effects will our technology have on users’ relationships? Will it serve the community? Will it support diversity of opinions and dialogue between them?
- What values will be strengthened or undermined through this?
- What could the possible side effects be?
- What will our product replace or what will be lost when people use it?
- What influence will our service have on human creativity?
- What influence will it have on the quality of life?
- What risk of addiction does it pose to users?
- What additional costs will it entail for the community?
- Does our technology distribute or concentrate power?
- What effects will our technology have on human health and our planet? How much and what kind of waste will it produce?
How do these thoughts make you feel? Can you imagine restructuring your organisation in line with these principles? What would be different if you did?
Where have you already had positive experiences in this direction?
Send me your thoughts and experiences! Thomas Schöller (firstname.lastname@example.org)