The Economist and the Human Potential

By Tim Leberecht – //

If TED is about “Ideas Worth Spreading,” then the Economist’s Ideas Economy conference series is – as the title would suggest – about ideas worth monetizing. It’s the Economist, stupid! The venerable publication, a notorious late adopter, has realized that despite solid market standing it must reinvent itself to survive, both through a suite of new digital products and by branching out into the conference business. The focus on Innovation (as in “a commercialized original idea,” as the excellent moderator Vijay Vaitheeswaran defined it in his opening remarks) is a natural fit: The Economist has always stood for liberal economic policies and liberal social values – which is typically the kind of fabric that innovation thrives in.

The most recent event of the series (full disclosure: frog design was a sponsor) took place last week in New York: With the theme “Human Potential,” 250 business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians, and academics discussed for two days how to foster and tap into the creativity and intellect of their employees, stakeholders, peers, and students. The cynic could object and ask “Do we indeed have potential?,” inferring that the term “potential” implies progress and betterment – but are we, humans, even good? And if so, can we get better?

According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, the answer is a clear yes. He presented a “history of violence,” arguing that violence is on the decline, which, as he readily admitted, appears to be somewhat counter-intuitive, knowing that there has not been a single day without war in the history of mankind. Attribute this to a recording bias: The magnifying effect of mass media makes violence more visible than ever before. Yet, Pinker cited empirical studies showing that the amount of actions which cause physical harm has steadily decreased over the past centuries. Despite the many atrocities it saw, the 20th century was not the most violent century in terms of absolute numbers (compared to the total world population), and acts of terrorism, Pinker pointed out, can only be described as (statistically) “insignificant.” Clearly, Pinker commented, the US overreacted in response to the 9/11 attacks. Before you cheer about the rise of human enlightenment and moral reasoning, however, consider that the way violence is committed may have become more subliminal, and that, more pressingly, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a few rogue individuals (or states) can arguably do more harm nowadays – that is, cause ‘ultimate violence’ – than ever before. Additionally, it remains difficult to project future trends based on historical data so that an overly optimistic, non-violent concept of human potential might be flawed because of a bias of retrospective. In fact, the Rational Optimist‘s great blind spot is that it cannot look into the “heart of darkness,” that it has no means to explain or forecast truly irrational behavior.

On top of that, it is, of course, particularly hard to assess the human potential when you are human. Is human potential limited to humans? Can humans really fully unleash their own potential or will it take artificial intelligence to do so? Were the attendees in New York able to realize human potential or rather its impediment? The conference, for the most part, stayed away from such provocations. Notwithstanding the occasional excursion into macro-economic or philosophical debate, most of the program was devoted to more pragmatic topics such as employee motivation, knowledge management, institutional and non-institutional learning, and creative thinking.

Like Pinker, Richard Florida struck an optimistic tone in his opening keynote, in which he heralded creativity as the essential resource of our societies. According to Florida, one third of the US workforce is employed in the creative sector, generating 50% of the overall wages. The unemployment rate has only gone up by 5% during the economic downturn, much less so than in other market sectors. Creativity, says Florida, is the key to economic recovery and the main catalyst of the “Great Reset” that he proposes. Asked about what he would tell the citizens of Detroit, he said “harness the creativity there,” claiming that “if we could turn 60% of services jobs into creative job we would boost the economy.” While that stood uncontested, his insisting on the metropolitan region as the hub of the “creative class” provoked more audience dissent in the subsequent Q&A. In the connected age of virtual worlds and social networks, the physical density of “idea people” seems to have lost some of its relevance. This is not to argue the importance of geographical talent clusters, but increasingly, innovation overcomes boundaries of space and happens whenever, wherever people meet (online). Geography is no longer destiny, and no longer does human potential start in cities, as Florida claims.

My colleague Robert Fabricant, VP of creative at frog design, who spearheaded a “social experiment” at the conference (more about that in another post soon), offered a less class-centric view on creativity. For him, creativity does not exist so much exclusively within an individual as it does between two entities: “Because that which is created needs a response to bring it to life.” He used the analogy of the old Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons to illustrate this collaborative creative interaction that is at the center of innovation.

The relationship between creativity and well-being, values and value, social purpose and money, self-actualization and economic success was the main theme of the conference. Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup, shared some remarkable insights, based on his institute’s annual survey on “what does the whole world want?” This time, the majority of respondents said: “A job” – in stark contrast to previous years when the answers had ranged from “a happy life,”and “family,” to “health.” The responses this year shifted the focus to the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. Why is that? First of all, the inequality between the rich and the poor is growing, and it is no surprise that many living in developing countries consider “finding a job” an existential need. Secondly, the growing middle class (in India and China, and other emerging markets) has become much more aware of its possibilities and views employment as the main enabler of a brighter future for themselves and their families, one that often includes better education and increased consumerism. And then, well, there was the recession in the developed world – and its lasting implications.

So are we seeing a renaissance of materialism? Does money beat meaning? The final debate of the conference, conducted in classic Oxford-style, looked at this conflict through the veneer of employee motivation. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute and entrepreneur Lynn Tilton, CEO and principal of Patriarch Partners, contended that “money motivates more than social purpose.” The two were facing formidable opponents in Clay Shirky (author of Cognitive Surplus) and Dan Ariely (author of The Upside of Irrationality), who argued that social purpose was the more powerful motivator. The pro faction – albeit perhaps exhibiting more passion – ran out of arguments soon and could eventually only help itself by evoking the Nazis (Godwin’s Law posits that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. In other words: all discussions – regardless of topic or scope – inevitably end up being about Hitler and the Nazis.”) Brook and Tilton’s mechanistic concept of human behavior was easily rebutted by Shirky and Ariely, who insisted that money is always only a substitute of meaning,refering to Wikipedia, Lego, and other examples of meaning-driven engagements. “Money can motivate your employees to show up,” Ariely said, but if you want them to not just show up but commit with their full creative and intellectual potential, you need to motivate them with non-monetary incentives.”

This view was echoed by Cristóbal Conde, president and CEO of IT services company Sungard, who endorsed transparency and called “creating a platform for collaboration” the most important task of today’s business leader. It didn’t matter that he almost literally borrowed his own words from an interview with the New York Times earlier this year – they still rang true. “Collaboration is one of the most difficult challenges in management. I think top-down organizations got started because the bosses either knew more or they had access to more information. None of that applies now. Everybody has access to identical amounts of information.” Conde said further: “The answer is to allow employees to develop a name for themselves that is irrespective of their organizational ranking or where they sit in the org chart. And it actually is not a question about monetary incentives. They do it because recognition from their peers is, I think, an extremely strong motivating factor, and something that is broadly unused in modern management.” Conde: “Micromanagement doesn’t scale because it spirals down, and you end up with below-average employees in terms of motivation and ability.” Sungard uses enterprise micro-blogging service Yammer to enhance internal knowledge sharing: “It has given our employees a voice.”

With CEOs like him, the company is not a 20th century idea: “The more I teach, the more I learn,” Conde said. Humility, openness, and collaboration are the hallmarks of a new kind of humanistic organization, led by humane leaders. That’s an idea worth spreading – and monetizing.