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‘Our survival depends on telling new stories’ – messages from Future State 2024

If there was a key message to come out of Future State 2024, it was that all of us of have a role in creating a future that uses tech safely, and is safe for our planet.

The one-day conference, held at Auckland’s Spark Arena, heard from local and international speakers in the technology and sustainability space.

Kicking proceedings off in an ‘I love AI’ T-shirt, US data scientist Noelle Russell gave an empowering talk titled ‘HumAIn: Empowering inclusion with technology’, about her career journey with AI.

It all started when her first child was born with Down syndrome 19 years ago and she was inspired to use her tech skills to change his life.

For ten years at Amazon Web Services, including working on the development of virtual assistant Alexa, she used her perspective as a Hispanic woman and a parent to ask  how this technology could help a wider group than its “double income couples with no kids” target market.

“I gained a reputation for always putting my hand to ask ‘what if…’ and whether we had considered kids with special needs or people living in aged care facilities.”

There’s a fear culture around AI but with the right safety systems put in place, it can truly be life-changing, says Noelle.

“AI will influence everything, and with great power, comes great responsibility.”

Step one to beat the fear is to define the core values of your organisation. “AI amplifies core values – if you are not intentional with this, it will give you unintended behaviours,” she adds.

Noelle Russell with MC Jack Tame

“If you say please and thank you to an AI, then it will give you more optimistic responses, the same way if you’re talking to a human.”

Step two is ask what risk looks like for your organisation, and then step three, determine how hard is your AI project to put into action.

Future State’s second speaker, Professor of Marketing Steven Galloway, agreed – encouraging attendees not to be frightened of AI.

“AI is not going to take your job, but someone who understands it will,” he says, speaking via video link.

He jokes that the best use case for AI is the Netflix home screen, with its personalised list of “to-watch” suggestions: “If you’re ever dating someone, make sure to ask to see their Netflix home screen.”

Galloway believes AI has the opportunity to be an absolute game-changer, especially when it comes to health and education.

There are apps that have an 85% accuracy of diagnosing type II diabetes from a user’s basic health information and their voice recordings; and replacing expensive tutors with free bots would totally level the education playing field for low-income families.

Read more: Future State gives a glimpse into the unknown

Galloway ended his talk with a resounding message: don’t spend too much time focused on the past or the future, instead be present in your own life as much as possible with the friends and whānau who love you.

After morning tea, Ethan Eismann shared productivity lessons from Slack, where the company message is: “Work hard, go home.”

“Working hard doesn’t mean working long,” says Eismann, “and making sure employees work smart and then can go home and recharge is key.”

Company-wide rules like ‘focus Fridays’ and ‘focus weeks’ – giving staff time to get work done uninterrupted by meetings – have been a major success.

So too, has transparent communication – not just sharing what decisions have been made, but why. “Build a culture that is based on collaboration and humility,” says Eismann.

After this reporter had her first visit to Ikea while in the US recently, I was particuarly interested to hear from Hakan Nordkvist, former head of sustainability at Ikea Group.

Nordkvist, who travelled to New Zealand from Sweden a little over a week ago, got straight into sharing Ikea’s sustainability journey, which began back in the 1990s.

It was a path that forced the business to examine what sort of force it wanted to be in the world, he says.

The group settled on three main challenges: climate change, unjust consumption of resources and inequality. Then it set about making a difference in each area.

New products came out of it – curtains now remove pollutants from the air, the iconic Ikea meatballs became plant based, and LED lightbulbs are cheaper and more efficient than their predecessors.

The sustainability theme continued with a panel discussion from Rachel Brown of the Sustainable Business Network along with Jayden Klinac of Anew, a company making plant-based water bottles, and Sara Smeath of Circlr, who describes her company as Tindr for trash.

The panel talked through the circular revolution and moving to a circular economy that recycles and reuses, rather than a linear one that takes, makes and wastes.

Australian film director Damon Gameau closed the day on a sombre, yet optimistic note.

The state of the world in terms of climate change and resource consumption has wreaked havoc and it’s time to change how we operate, he said.

Society’s survival depends on us telling new stories, he told the audience, and that responsibility falls to all of us to work together. 

“Our current system is coming to an end, and the world is forcing us to create a new one, more befitting of the times we’re in now.”

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