Given his advocacy of a flat world, it came as no surprise when Tom Friedman was asked to moderate a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos event in China, deliberating what forces may shape our futures.
The assembled panel included Otto Scharmer who teaches at MIT, Kai-Fu Lee, a Chinese entrepreneur, and Dov Siedman, an American CEO – it needs to be said that whilst I hadn’t heard of the latter two, they stole the show as far as I was concerned.
Kai-Fu’s remarks on innovation were clever, but must have gone down like a lead balloon in China. After learning more about the guy, it comes as no surprise that he may have used the platform to score a political point with the Chinese authorities. Since the event, I learnt of his influence in China as a result of his previous roles as Microsoft and Google in China. His following on Twitter clearly shows he’s hot property.
He put forward a view that the next decade or so would be characterized by micro innovation – where entrepreneurs build on other peoples ideas, launch imperfect products, which they quickly refine and add value to. He explained that a Google or Apple come around once in a generation, and in all likelihoods regardless of the hype surrounding China’s emergence, the likelihood of successful innovative products coming from the mainland were almost non-existent.
To raised eyebrows and a growing sense of dismay, he spoke about the deficiencies of the Chinese education system, which he said didn’t allow for ‘out of the box’ thinking, thus holding back breakthroughs and progress that China so craves. Of course, he explained as a result of his own American education, he saw that America was better placed to deliver the next BIG discovery – thi in particular would have hit the nationalist nerve in China.
What he said made absolute sense, but to say it on home-turf in such an open manner must have been part of some plan in his head. Whatever game he’s playing (if any), I’m sure he’s likely to emerge victorious regardless of the type of reaction he received from the assembled Chinese media fraternity in the room that afternoon.
On the other hand, what Dov Siedman said chimed with everyone. He specializes in advising companies on ethics, and one his comments left an indelible mark on me.
He explained that in today’s world, whilst we’re able to exercise our judgment about what’s right or wrong, the clarity that a corporation needs to find should centre on how they’ll scale, not the company, but the values that we cherish the most. By doing so, the probabilities of building a sustainable and successful organization would, he suggests, increase dramatically.
By putting thought leaders like, Friedman, Kai-Fu and Siedman in the mix for a concluding session at a meeting like this, I believe that a strong signal has been transmitted by the WEF, marking a departure from one in which, not bankers, but genuine strategists were able to articulate their visions for what the future holds for us.