Building Community in the Age of Exponential Change

March 23, 2018

Case categories include: Founder’s Insights   Leadership   Trends   

When I founded the Alliance of Chief Executives in 1996, the Internet was just beginning, and Northern California was at the epicenter of creating technologies that would change the world forever. I’ve always believed in the power of bringing people with diverse experiences together to share ideas, and the Alliance helped CEOs better understand the breadth and depth of the changes and generate innovative new approaches.

In 2005, Thomas Friedman published The World is Flat, which helped us understand the forces driving change: the growth of the Internet, the fall of communism and, as a result, the opening of the global economy.

Friedman’s latest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, helps us understand how the world hit an inflection point in 2007, resulting in an accelerating pace of change that surpasses our human ability to adapt. In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and it is no coincidence that around the same time period:

  • The Internet surpassed 1 billion users.
  • Intel developed new technology (high-K/metal gates) enabling Moore’s Law to continue.
  • Storage capacity exploded with Hadoop making Big Data available to all.
  • Google launched Android as an open platform to bring smartphones to more people.
  • AT&T developed network technology enabling mobile traffic to grow 100,000% in the next 7 years!
  • Companies such as Facebook, VMware, Twitter, Airbnb, and others were founded.

Friedman observed that “the exponential growth in micro-processing chips, storage chips, networking, software and sensors all hit tipping points together. When all those technologies merged, there was an energy release into the hands of humans and machines the likes we have never seen and are only beginning to understand.”

John Kelly, SVP of Cognitive Solutions for IBM, said “we live as human beings in a linear world – where distance, time and velocity are linear. But the growth of technology today is on an exponential curve. The only exponential we ever experience is when something is accelerating, like a car, or decelerating really suddenly with a hard braking. And when that happens you feel very uncertain and uncomfortable for a short period of time.”

To deal with extreme change, Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, says we must pause and reflect rather than panic or withdraw. “You start to reflect, rethink your assumptions, and reimagine what is possible. Most importantly, you start to reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs. Once you’ve done that, you can begin to reimagine a better path.”

Friedman has travelled the world and seen the rise of terrorism, poverty, climate change and social polarization resulting from the accelerating pace of change. It would be natural for Friedman to be pessimistic regarding our future. Instead, he shares his thoughts on the value of local communities to provide a solid foundation that helps people adapt to inevitable progress. As world problems become too complex for world leaders to “fix” with top-down approaches, Friedman advocates a local, bottoms-up, community-by-community approach.

Friedman believes that “the ideal adaptive political unit for producing resilience and propulsion in the age of accelerations is the healthy community. That’s because it is much easier to generate trust at the community level, and trust enhances flexibility and experimentation.” Healthy communities of the future will need to not only foster trust but also life-long learning, as well as be socially and economically inclusive.

Shortly after founding the Alliance, I met Cynthia Typaldos who built the first commercially successful web community, which she later sold to CBS. She was teaching “Developing Web Communities” at UC Berkeley, and as someone intrigued by the subject matter, I took her course. To my surprise, she did not teach us about web technology, but instead took an anthropological approach and asked, “what is a community?” I soon came to realize that the Alliance of CEOs was not a program, but a community of leaders who built trust and respect through open, candid and confidential discussions to help each member address challenges and create compelling visions for the future.