The legacy we pass on to future generations will inevitably involve challenges, but must not be founded in hopelessness. The least we can do is track a road forward, most of all when the decisions of leaders seem to signal a dead end.
Interviewing former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other prominent leaders as MC for the Professional Convention Managers Association (PCMA) in San Francisco this month, we discussed how to move forward when the stakes are high and the path is unclear. Ultimately, she said, “you have to keep your wits about you, you have to trust your instincts and your gut, and those around you. You have to make the decisions, because not making a decision is making a decision.”
As the youth of today see the news of devastating bush fires in Australia, read the twitter trail of a global leader spreading divisive ideology across the world, experience underemployment even in the most developed countries, we can understand why statistics show an estimated 10–20% of adolescents globally experience mental health conditions (World Health Organisation, 2019). Add to this, almost half of all millennials think it’s more likely than not there will be a third world war in their lifetime, a new Red Cross surveyfinds. Are we going to let history write the future?
As a leader of today, Rice is clearly focused on empowering the leaders of tomorrow. She emphasises the need for those in charge to demonstrate trust in their people by delegating and investing in training. ‘We must allow them to colour outside the lines’ she says.
Can we imagine a democracy wherein the government actively comes to the youth for ideas, for better questions, even for solutions? I have been fortunate to have seen the success of initiatives such as the G20 Youth Summit in action. I believe there is so much to be gained in bringing different voices together to explore collaborative policy design and development. So long as we are clear on who our decisions are serving…
How does our democracy serve us?
“We are only as strong as our weakest link” says Rice. And I wonder, what if our weakest link is in fact, a democratically elected leader? Democracy operates at its best when functioning as a platform for ideas, dialogue and debate. Democracy is founded not on consensus, but contention. As famously penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (and often mis-attributed to Voltaire!), ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ (1906).
When uncertainty is not met with curiosity but fear, democracy dies just a little. When injustice is met with depression and apathy rather than anger and outcry, democracy dies a little more. When our very existence is threatened by convenience and we continue on in indifference, then ‘democracy grief’ is real. The question is not how democracy is serving us, but how we are serving our democracy. “You can get through difficult times, but it doesn’t happen magically,” Rice says. She claims she doesn’t look to Washington or state government to take responsibility, but asks herself daily: “What am I doing to take responsibility?”
Like the air we breathe.
For those of us living in western countries, it is too easy to take liberal democracy for granted. Just as we are accustomed to each intake of clean air, each glass of pure drinking water, each child off to school and each purchase of the morning paper, the convenient assumption that we are free to express ourselves and steer our own course is pervasive. But is it true?
Democracy brings us convenience. But it’s a convenience built on consumption. And while we are consumed with consuming, we can’t step back with the objectivity, awareness and space to change our behaviour- our addiction to this convenient life.
What the young leaders of today are calling for is a new kind of democracy. One far more agile, active and connected at grass roots level. One typified by leadership that exhibits empathy and compassion, and is prepared to pioneer new policies and new ways of evaluating democratic health, like the government Jacinda Ardern is leading in New Zealand. One that is less lumbering, less strung out on political puppetry, one that doesn’t rely on never-ending growth to achieve the votes that will drive it forward. But globally, where is the alternative to growth? What is the political paradigm that will support this democracy of the future?
‘Democracy is like a muscle’ writes Carol Rose in the Boston Globe this month. ‘The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.’ (Carol Rose, Boston Globe, 2019). As we move into 2020 and our own inconvenient truth becomes harder to ignore, I wonder, when was the last time many of us felt the energy of youth to fight against what has gone before? Where is the will to dismiss the diary appointments for today and instead dial up the challenge to the status quo – even when this status quo is paying down the credit card? Where does the will for activism come from?
Rice’s experience has given her perspective on the difficulties the nation faces today. In our interview she says, “I know it is a tough time, but we have been through tougher.” To be open when the inclination is to shut off, to take a risk when a calculated decision is impossible and to hope against despair – that is the legacy we need to leave the future generations.
Linguistically, democracy contains the idea of demonstration. So if nothing else, let us shake off the shackles of convenience and demonstrate our hope for the future.
Tech-optimist? Tech-pessimist? Tech-pragmatist? …Where do you sit?
Every day, we read about mind-bending new technologies
or innovative workplace practices on one hand, and stories of mismatched skills
being taught to young people or significant workforce retrenchments on the
other. So how do we separate the theatre from the threats and chart a path
forward? What are the major considerations we need to be turning our attention
to when it comes to the ‘nature’ of technology?
This was exactly the focus of my conversation when I interviewed former US Ambassador to Australia (and namesake of the Jeff Bleich Centre for Digital Technologies, Security and Governance) Jeffrey Bleich. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by his pragmatism, his awareness of the complex implications of technology and his willingness to act. This, I believe, is the substance we need from our leaders – courageous individuals who are prepared to take it in, take it on, and take the best of humanity with them.
How do we think, truly broadly about the digital ecosystem?… We haven’t really thought about the fact that digital technology is changing the way people live, breathe, work, eat and think about their lives …Thinking of it as an ecosystem that is particularly challenging to democracies.
Here are four of the big ideas from our conversation:
Conversation #1: AI has arrived. Ethical guidelines
Scientists and AI experts agree that we are in a race
against time: we need to establish ethicalguidelines
to catch up to technology’s irreversible integration into our lives. In January
2019, Gartner reported that AI adoption tripled in the last year alone, with
an estimated 37% of firms now implementing AI in some form. In a recent Deloitte
survey, 76% of
executives said they expected AI to “substantially transform” their companies
within three years. Since 2017, more than two dozen national governments have
strategies or plans to
develop ethics standards, policies, and regulations.
The problem? No two strategies are alike. While some Principles may correspond, the context of issues such as ethics, privacy and bias all shift dramatically between countries and cultures. Major technology companies are ahead in the global race to develop ethical guidelines and AI governance teams. We see new partnerships between Facebook and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) forming The Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence, with an initial investment of $7.5 million. Amazon and the National Science Foundation recently earmarked $10 million for AI fairness research. Unless governments can get ahead of rapid change, the rule-breakers will become the rule-makers.
In theory, global bodies such as the OECD have
gathered support for overarching Principles on AI. However,
in practice, governments,
corporations, academic and science communities pursue AI strategies that do not
relate to each other. So how can we
possibly figure out how they relate to us?
Jeffrey Bleich stressed the need for systems-thinking – to understand that nothing happens in isolation from this point on. Just as international laws around space or the oceans exist, global AI ethical standards are surely achievable?
Conversation #2: We need to see technology through a
Every single choice you make, every thought you have, every aspect of how you move through the world is being gathered in these devices and it’s being constantly updated in ways that can’t really be controlled by our current cyber security technologies… The fact that we’re not thinking in those terms, should concern all of us.
The next generation will need to see their world as a
whole system – a seamless interface, perhaps. This is true of digital
technology’s impact in our governance systems, our workplaces, our homes, our
own brains. We are hyper-connected and every day, less able to switch off. AI
is becoming so integrated in our world that we lose sight of where it starts
and stops. How many hours in your day are completely free from technological
interruption or influence? Even when you sleep, it’s likely your behaviour is
being tracked simply because you didn’t update your phone settings. When you
wake, do you take a moment to think ‘how do I feel?’ Or do you reach for a device
to find out? As we move through our days, are our choices arising internally
from a desire or an idea? Or are we behaving according to predictive (and
prescriptive) behaviour models?
And what exactly is an AI? There is no precise
and accepted definition of AI. Is it machine learning? If so, how developed? In
movies we know AI to be non-biological consciousness. Usually portrayed as a
single connected entity. But as we move incrementally along the journey we
struggle as citizens to understand what is going on behind the laboratory doors
of big tech companies. Let alone how our governments are regulating to protect
us. If AI poses a threat, it moves behind a cover of normalised convenience.
Conversation #3: We need to adjust our governance. In
our homes, workplaces and democracies.
When we think about governance, we think about what the government does… but governance is the set of norms that we all live by… some of it is training ourselves to be more aware of threats and to adjust our own behaviour.
Whether we think about privacy, security or
surveillance, we need to understand that the changes technology brings run
deep, and currently, largely run free. As we’re already seeing, digital
technology has the potential to fundamentally shift our trust in each other,
which gets to the core of relationships and the bedrock of our communities.
This new domain requires a rethink of governance and of leadership throughout
In our conversation, Jeff discusses the urgency with
which leaders need to be having more mature conversations. We need to be across
AI, automation, mobility, blockchain and education. Leaders need to get out
ahead of issues, developing policy for 3-5 years’ time, rather than arguing
about 5G or autonomous vehicles like we still have a choice.
Leadership is needed to ensure we don’t let digital
divide. The poorest communities stand to be most at risk from job loss, information
exclusion and limited connectivity. In parallel, autocratic countries are
finding technology a useful means to exert more control over citizens. Will we
have a cold war in cyber? Is technology borderless? Or will it create new
Conversation #4: Human agency is being impacted
I think humanity is going to be very different at the end of this century than it is right now. It’s a hard thing to contemplate but we will. We will be augmented by tools that we’ve developed… technologies that we’re already using, we are changing the way our brains are wired, the way we think about the world.
For most of us, in all our humanness at this time in
history, AI represents a mechanism by which our behaviours are grouped, sorted,
targeted and modulated by data intelligence. Technology was born to enhance our
lives and advance our impact, but conversely, as its influence on us grows, we
find ourselves ring fenced and judged by its learned assumptions. Who is dictating behaviour now?
Algorithms tend to move us iteratively toward our own
extremes. Here’s an example Jeff gave in the interview: When we decide to watch
a youtube video, the experience becomes mediated by the algorithm, showing us
options of further videos to watch. When we click on something, the technology
pigeon-holes us and begins to show us slightly more extreme versions of what it
thinks we may like. If you click on a dog, your next set of options will be
different sets of dogs. If you click on a small dog, pretty soon you’ll be
looking at those handbag-sized pooches. In this way, the human brain is guided
further down a path or our own bias. The internet (un)naturally tends towards
extremes, with a capacity to fool humanity into the worst of itself.
Finally, here’s some food for thought from the
inspiring Jeff Bleich that I’d love to challenge you to discuss with a friend
or colleague: “At what point do we lose our wonderful, messy humanity, our
story-telling, our mistakes, our illogical tears and become rational,
predictable, superficial versions of ourselves?”
Holly Ransom was a very active outdoors kind of kid, which is hardly surprising for someone who grew up in Perth. She went surfing whenever she could and played lots of sport. When she was eight, she wrote in her school scrapbook that she wanted to be a Brownlow Medallist. So it came as a shock a couple of years later to be told that girls weren’t allowed to play football any more – as far as she was concerned, she was a ten-year-old Auskicker looking for the next level.
‘I remember bursting into tears – I was devastated,’ Holly says. ‘It struck me as so weird that I wasn’t allowed to do something that my brothers could do.’
That was Holly’s first real experience of inequality, and it happened to be in relation to gender. In her adult working life, she has made it her business to be influential in ensuring that equality is on the agenda of decision makers, world-wide. In sport, for example, at 27 she was the youngest board member ever appointed by an AFL club (Port Adelaide) and she was on the advisory board for the launch of the AFL Women’s League.
Holly recalls a defining moment at school, something that really got her thinking about how our ideas of gender equality are formed. Her Year 5 teacher loved giving the students logic problems. They would finish the day with brain benders, like this:
A father and son are driving home from school, and just as they’re turning into a road near home, they’re hit by a reckless driver. The car spins. The boy is thrown out of the car, and his dad is trapped inside. Fortunately, a bystander sees it happen, calls an ambulance, and the kid is rushed to hospital. When they arrive, the surgeon swings open the doors, and declares, ‘That’s my son.’ How is that possible?
‘There were thirty-four of us in the class, with 15 minutes on the clock,’ Holly says. ‘Our best guess was that the boy must have had two dads. Not one of us thought that the surgeon was the boy’s mum. That’s such an interesting thing to look back on, that shift in thinking between ages 8 and 10, from believing I could be a Brownlow Medallist, to unconsciously self-selecting out mine and my gender’s ability to be in that sort of role.’
Holly had leadership roles on the sporting field at school, and naturally gravitated towards positions of responsibility, yet it took her a while to recognise her own potential to really make a difference. ‘I found I could rally the troops, and I’ve always been quite mature for my age,’ Holly says
‘The big change was when one of my teachers sent me on a leadership program that really challenged my idea of what a leader could look like. I thought you had to be older to have a real impact, yet there I was with these unbelievable 14 and 15 year olds for a week, and they were volunteer firefighters and running amazing aid projects; they were making a real difference in their communities and schools. I was the runt of that pack – not in a competitive sense, purely because I genuinely had no idea that this sort of thing was possible at our age.
‘At 15, the trajectory of my life was changed. I thought, I’m going to get out there and have a crack at some of the things I’ve been thinking about. I discovered that you can be a leader at any age, if you choose to take that word and own it.’ .
“At 15, the trajectory of my life was changed … I discovered that you can be a leader at any age, if you choose to take that word and own it.”
After school, Holly ended up with a Law degree and BA (Economics) with a minor in political science. ‘I always describe my life as having a really strong sense of direction but loose hold of the reins,’ she says. She couldn’t ever have predicted the roles and opportunities that have come her way.
Underlying those opportunities is the fact that Holly has known what she’s passionate about for a very long time. She is driven to:
improve the lives of those less fortunate in our community, and generally raise the standard of living in our society
provide a voice for people who are voiceless in our current systems
engage other people in their ability to be agents of change.
But it’s all very well to have big aspirations. It’s much harder to actually make things happen. ‘I worked out early on that what you’re capable of doing as one person won’t even scratch the surface of what you can achieve if you mobilise a group of people. Very quickly, my focus became wanting to unlock other people’s capacity to believe in themselves as part of the change and the solution.’
“I worked out early on that what you’re capable of doing as one person won’t even scratch the surface of what you can achieve if you can mobilise a group of people.”
Holly’s impressive achievements, including her current role as CEO of her own company, Emergent, can be found here. Hers is an inspiring story of finding mentors and taking chances and learning from corporate stints at NAB and Rio Tinto, then choosing her own path. Her keynote speaking portfolio has taken her to six continents. She’s had many pinch-yourself moments with world leaders: she’s delivered a Peace Charter to the Dalai Lama, has chatted with Barack Obama about her work chairing the G20 Youth Summit, and hangs out with Richard Branson.
And yet behind the highlights reel, by 2013 Holly Ransom was struggling. She couldn’t sit still – she had to be constantly doing things, stuck on the hamster wheel. There were warning signs – little things, cracks appearing – but she was too busy bouncing off walls to notice them. Luckily, friends and a good GP told her she needed to take better care of herself, that she needed help. She was diagnosed with depression.
Like many people, at first Holly wondered why she couldn’t just push through. Then she approached the diagnosis with her typical tenacity. ‘I knew I wanted to come out the other side stronger than I’d ever been. I wanted to use the diagnosis as an opportunity to reset. I sought advice from people who had my best interests at heart and made significant changes to the way I lived and worked. I exercised more control over who I was surrounded by – who I was listening to and being influenced by. ‘That journey from depression is the hardest thing I’ve done and what I’m proudest of. I was terrified of talking out loud about it, because of the stigma attached to mental illness, but it was the story behind my first Ironman in December 2015, and I wanted to let people to know they’re not alone.’
“It can hurt you and upset you to hear people saying you can’t do something, but you have to believe in yourself.”
Ironman is a gruelling triathlon: a 3.8-kilometre swim in open water, a 180-kilomtre cycle and a 42-kilometre marathon. To build endurance fitness, you need to train around 20 hours a week. Holly wanted to set herself a big physical and mental challenge, to show herself that anything is possible. As ‘a prolific goal setter’, she was looking for something that would really test her, and with Ironman, she found a bottomless learning pit. ‘Every time I train, I learn something new about myself. So it has massive flow-on effects for the way I work. It energises me, and I’ve learnt to put training into my week as a priority.’
Holly doesn’t spend time reflecting on her past achievements – there’s far too much forward thinking to be done. And with a second Ironman under her belt, she knows anything is possible.