Problems, problems: What we learned from Microsoft’s Future Decoded conference

LondonlovesBusiness.com attended Microsoft’s Future Decoded conference on Monday, and it was a fairly unconventional event.

The speakers included Jeremy Paxman, Bob Geldof, and former MI5 boss Dame Stella Rimington as well as Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella.

The event’s remit was broad – it wasn’t a cosy love-in for tech fans. Instead, the purpose was to discuss problems.

These included the problems we face with a growing population and inadequate economic models. This was cast alongside the rise of a globally connected society and what this means for businesses across the planet.

“As the world grows beyond seven billion people and our societies and economies shift against a backdrop of ever more powerful technology all we really know for sure today is that we cannot continue as we have for many decades,” the Future Decoded website says.

Given Microsoft is the world’s largest software manufacturers and one of the biggest tech firms in existence, its immediate future and prospects look good. It wouldn’t be a major surprise to see it celebrating a growing, more interconnected world population. This surely means more customers and more businesses will use their services.

But that’s not what the company is concerned about today. The firm’s enthusiasm to address an issue which governments will barely countenance is laudable. It demonstrates a seldom seen long-term view of global affairs.

Jeremy Paxman was the first speaker of the morning, and he delivered a characteristically provocative lecture that ranged from Brief Encounter and an exploration of divorce rates in Britain, to railing against children’s exposure to screens, which he described as “utterly corrosive” to learning. “Children are not learning to be social animals,” he said. “If everything’s available online, then why bother learning anything?”

But there is a future in learning, he conceded, though it exists “not in learning information, but learning to think.”

WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell followed Paxman, and warned of companies’ and corporate management’s reluctance to take risks, a trait, he said that was stifling innovation. He also highlighted the huge discrepancy between the demand for talent and the number of people who will be able to fill future roles in the technology sector. “If you think the war for talent is tough now, stand by.”

In between the speakers, Dave Coplin, Microsoft’s chief envisioning officer, a man bursting with positivity, came on as compere. He struggled to sum up Paxman’s broad-ranging lecture, but did a good job of maintaining focus on the broader picture throughout the morning.

Dame Stella Rimington gave a fascinating insight into how the leadership in MI5, which was once made up of old-boys networks, had struggled to keep-up with changes in society and working practices. In a secret organisation you can rarely claim credit for success, she said, and the key to good leadership was generating a real sense of satisfaction for employees.

Next up was professional loose-cannon Sir Bob Geldof, who spoke for at least 15 minutes without notes, and described the internet as something “which sucks the individuality out of people,” and slammed tech firms’ inability to create durable products. “What’s shocking is that we make them at 9, and they fall apart by 5.”

But his overall message was clear, “we should not be over-dependent on these gizmos in [our] pockets…We need to change what and how we teach,” he said.

“It’s a dangerous world coming down the track – I don’t envy our children.

“It’s going to need a different kind of education.

“And we will still need teachers. If the teacher is shit, the lesson is shit. It doesn’t matter what shiny toys you have.”

The event was rounded off with a very gentle Q&A between Coplin and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Nadella touched on the UK’s suitability as a testing ground for new technology and some of the businesses Microsoft worked with.

Unfortunately he didn’t address any global problems on the horizon with as much vigour as some of the other speakers, but instead offered Microsoft’s role in society. “The technology exists for one prime reason – to help human potential, and that’s what we’ve tried to do,” he summed up.

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