The great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” This phrase represented a challenge to Lord John Browne, who has made a career of predicting global business trends. In his book, Connect: How Companies Succeed by Engaging Radically with Society, Browne examines three current trends and how they predict our global economic future.
First is artificial intelligence: will automation increase to the point where companies themselves behave robotically? And what will the impact of automation be on workers and their communities? Browne argues that companies are members of human communities and must therefore not act robotically, and he shares an interesting conversation with Tim Berners Lee, creator of the Internet itself.
Two, the center of economic gravity shifts between continents. At the moment, says Browne, it is shifting from the west to the east. That’s a good thing as shifting economies means resources reach areas that are relatively poor. And it provides an opportunity for companies to engage with entirely new communities.
Finally, the world faces existential problems like never before. From obesity to climate change, businesses have more opportunities — and more obligations — than ever before to earn their keep. Ultimately, says Browne, companies must benefit the societies who charter their existence in the first place.
Lord John Browne: When we looked at our book we wrote it with something in mind, which was to defy what the great philosopher Hagel said, which is he said, "That if there's one thing history teaches us is that history doesn't teach us anything. People don't learn from history." So we decided we'd try and learn from history from China a hundred years before the common era. But then when we finished the book we said well there is actually something about the future and we'd like to think about three trends that are really important for corporations to think through, and in particular how their relationship with society is going to work. And they were first, the ever increasing possibility that artificial intelligence will change the way in which labor works: how do we communicate with companies? What actually do they do? Can they do things more perfectly or will they become less human?
We started the discussion by speaking to Tim Berners-Lee. And Tim, rather surprisingly, said to me well, " Well John, the thing about artificial intelligence is that corporations are already robots. They're ready robots so there's nothing new here. They behave robotically and maybe they shouldn't." So I said, "Well I contend that they absolutely shouldn't because they are part of the human fabric of society." So that was the first thing we talked about. The second we worried about was the change in the economic center of gravity in the world. If we go back to the first year after in the common era, 1 A.D., you'd find that the center of economic gravity in the world was somewhere in the Middle East. And over the last couple of thousand years it's moved from there to the middle of the Atlantic and now it's moving back to somewhere in the East. So it moves as countries become more comparatively advantaged, more educated and things move and therefore values, the way in which companies work, move again.
And we wanted to make the point that our book is not about pure moral values, it's about practical attempts to include people into this great endeavor, which is business, which makes the world better. Because it actually makes people more prosperous; brings people out of poverty and so forth. So we wanted to do that. And the third thing we said was that business actually doesn't have a right to be in the world, but it has to solve some of the very big problems that are facing the world: obesity and the ingestion of too much sugar; climate change; diseases, chronic diseases that exist; water shortage; pollution. The list goes on. And we gave a dozen examples of where we thought 30, in order to have the right to be a company, companies should be focused on, at least in some part of their brain, solving some of these problems for the future. And it just maybe that artificial intelligence, the ability to think more broadly, to gain access to more data, to understand more about it might just lead us to a better solution to some of these extraordinary problems that have been around a long time, it's just that we now see them with the greater clarity and indeed they are becoming more and more dangerous, climate change being a prime example of something becoming more dangerous.