What we learned at our 2021 Leadership Summit

From David Benigson / 7 min read

Thank you to everyone who attended our Signal AI Leadership Summit 2021, and to our event partners Prosek Partners and Heyman Associates.

The pandemic, changing international trade relations between the biggest markets, social protest over equality and race, and the shocking events on Capitol Hill have impacted society. In this pivotal moment in history, now more than ever, companies and their executives are in a vital leadership role.

We convene our Summits to gather leading minds on the most pressing issues of the day, to assess how leaders can make the best decisions, how we can build for resilience and manage new risks, and to look at the wider challenges of leadership in this tumultuous and fast-moving environment.

The Summit certainly provided some answers, and also surfaced some new challenges.

We were honoured to be joined by leading lights from business, the media, government, technology, finance and communications, including such luminaries as the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology Fabrizio Hochschild, Megan Smith, CEO & Founder shift7 and former U.S. Chief Technology Officer serving under President Obama, Facebook’s Oversight Board’s Dex Hunter-Torricke, FINRA’s Chair Eileen Murray, and Edelman’s and Signal AI Advisory Board Member Chuka Umunna.

I found the discussion both thought-provoking and inspiring and have expanded on my takeaways from the event below, for those that are interested to read more about the discussion. In summary, however, and after having reflected on the topics covered yesterday, there were three main points that have stuck with me:

  • There is an urgent need to accelerate inclusion: All humans need to learn coding, AI and digital empathy, in the same way we learn reading and writing.
  • Technology doesn’t drive progress, technology is the tool to drive progress: It is by augmenting our own human knowledge and experience with technology that will drive progress.
  • If we don’t reskill people, this will be the next pandemic.

If you would like to hear more about what we do at Signal AI or be kept in the loop with our next leadership summit, please do get in touch with us, and join our “Signal AI Summit Series” group on LinkedIn.

Many thanks,

David

Signal AI Leadership Summit 2021

In our first discussion, with Rob Cox from Reuters Breakingnews, Chuka Umunna, Edelman’s ESG Lead and Signal AI Advisory Board Member, and Dr Andrea Bonime-Blan, from GEC Risk Advisory, sought to discuss How leaders can stay agile and innovative during turbulent times. The panel covered the challenges facing business leaders across the world at the moment through an ESG lens, from healthcare and the pandemic, to diversity, stakeholder capitalism and the greening of economies.

The panel set out the situation leaders are currently facing, with Andrea’s observation that “The geopolitical tectonic shift – not only with countries with populist movements, but also the fake news piece – is creating a whole new churn when it comes to country and international politics.”

Panelists examined how the pandemic has impacted the Environment, Social and Governance(ESG) landscape, asking, “Does the pandemic mean more conversations re: ESG at DAVOS etc, or do you think the world has thrown ESG to the side, or has it become front and center?” Andrea gave us a poignant insight around how ESG challenges are being approached.

“By paying attention to ESG risks, you get to make the most of the opportunities. We have to face greenwashing, but it’s momentum that’s not going to change. It was a wave and now it’s a tsunami.”

Referencing the opportunities and challenges surfaced in ESG, Chuka noted that broadly speaking most companies with a good ESG agenda perform better, and that your ESG rating will become as important as your credit rating. ESG is not a fad, it is here to stay, he added.

Chuka noted that he has observed “the more profitable you are, the more investors are going to expect in terms of your ESG performance.” He added that, “A strong ESG profile is a good proxy for prudent risk management” and that a company that is well set out to deal with these things takes a long term view and is therefore more resilient to external shocks. Chuka also made the point that the “S” in ESG has been brought to the front of investors minds with “the disgraceful events surrounding the murder of George Floyd last year.”

Looking into the future, we’ve seen various pledges to reach net zero targets. Thinking ahead, and holding people accountable to these pledges, is one of the greatest challenges now facing us around ESG. Chuka summed it up perfectly: “If 2020 was the year of net zero pledges, 2021 is the year of asking how are you actually going to get there? This ESG thing is not a fad, it’s not a moment, it’s here to stay.”

The panel came to a close by setting out take home learnings for leaders. Andrea commented that investors are knocking on the doors of boards, saying boards need to have more folks who are looking at ESG issues. The panel agreed there needs to be a broader footprint of gender, race and diversity at a board level.

The second panel looked at the The Tech Disruption, and asked when will it strike, and who are the pioneers and radicals driving the change?

Deftly moderated by economist, Director of Tortoise Media and Founder of The Global AI Index Alexandra Mousavizadeh, the panel brought together some of the greatest global leaders in technology. I was lucky enough to join this panel alongside Megan Smith, Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer serving under President Obama, UN’s Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, Fabrizio Hochschild and Dex Hunter-Torricke, from Facebook’s Oversight Board.

The panel opened with a discussion on the promises versus reality of applied AI, and the idea that there is generally a perception challenge with every tech innovation to overestimate short term capabilities, and underestimate transformative properties. I shared my belief that we’re on the precipice of the age of true augmentation, where tech allows us to achieve truly transformative things, with human intelligence being augmented by artificial intelligence. This has been our experience at Signal AI where our platform and technology works as a partner with our clients.

The panel moved on to discuss the work of the Oversight Board, highly timely with the board’s first “Case Decisions” being announced imminently. Dex Hunter-Torricke from Facebook’s Oversight Board, who previously ran comms at Facebook and worked as a speechwriter for Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt and the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, spoke on the role of trust in overcoming the scaremongering around AI and the imperative need of having decision makers from diverse sectors and backgrounds, as they have on the Oversight Board.

The UN’s Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, Fabrizio Hochschild, discussed the need to embrace the open border nature of technology and how regulation must innovate at the same speed. He noted that technology has become a battlefield for political disagreement, and that “Tech innovation by nature ignores borders, with clients in one country and HQ in another. How do regulatory frameworks, legal frameworks, deal with a totally transnational approach?”

“If we are to embrace the internet’s ideal of no borders, we need a more determined effort to work on this common ground and a more inclusive process in terms of developing countries.” Fabrizio Hochschild

Megan Smith, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer serving under President Obama, spoke passionately about the need to accelerate inclusion, with the clear message that, “All humans need to learn coding, AI and digital empathy, in the same way we learn reading and writing” Megan made the point that “we can get a package the next day, but we can’t deliver school lunch to kids in need?” She went on to say that Covid has been a wake up call for how reliant we are on digital, and that “Digital” is rapidly becoming a new face of inequality. This is a moral and ethical issue, and is already a big driver of conflict, undermining social cohesion.

The panel concluded that tech doesn’t drive progress, it’s only the tool to drive progress, that we must de-silo, especially in non-tech sectors, and it is imperative to open op collaborations in a meaningfully accessible way for all, including the youth. It is true that every organization of scale is thinking “How can i connect everything I’ve been doing with AI?” Finally the panel concluded that AI is not the future. It is happening right now. It was a truly fantastic session raising some of the most crucial questions in technology today.

Our final session featured our partner for this event, Jennifer Prosek from Prosek Partners, and Eileen Murray, Chair of FINRA, in conversation on the role of leadership, reputation and how organizations can take on the issue of reskilling workers. We heard about Eileen’s incredible career and personal story that took her to co lead one of the world’s largest institutional asset managers, co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates,

Elieen warned, “There is a tsunami coming, and if we don’t reskill people this will be the next pandemic.” Elieen noted that she was a “big advocate of AI” and that this tech can give people more information and knowledge than before.

They spoke passionately about the importance of employees as stakeholders in any business, the risks of not upskilling workers and how diversity of thought produces business models that are beneficial to investors, employees and clients alike. It was a deeply inspiring fireside, with much learning for us all.