Kaila Colbin: Forget preparing for the future, we need to create it

Originally published in The Press, 26 July 2018

Understanding exponential change will help us make more intelligent decisions about New Zealand's future. Kaila Colbin explains.

In Shanghai, China, there lives a factory belonging to JD.com. It's an e-commerce outfit, competitor to the likes of Amazon and Alibaba, and this factory is one of their fulfilment centres. It encompasses 10,000 square metres and processes 200,000 orders per day with 99.99 per cent accuracy.

It has four staff.

In May in North America, a company called eXp Realty joined the Nasdaq stock exchange. They have more than 12,000 property brokers operating in more than 300 markets in the US and Canada, selling real property in the real world.

They don't have a single office, operating instead exclusively on a virtual campus along the lines of a Second Life.

Their market cap is in excess of NZ$1 billion.

These are just two examples of the way exponentially accelerating technologies are transforming our world.

Exponential technologies are technologies where the price-performance – how much performance you get for your dollar – doubles on a consistent basis. In computing, for example, "price-performance" refers to the number of instructions per second you can buy for $1000.

In genetic engineering, "price-performance" refers to the cost to sequence a genome. We're seeing doubling in artificial intelligence, energy, biotechnology and more.

The difference between linear progress and exponential progress is hard to wrap your head around. Take 30 linear steps, and you've gone 30 metres; take 30 doubling steps, and you're 26 times around the planet. 

Exponential technological progress is why the artificial intelligence AlphaGo was able to beat world champion Lee Sedol at the immensely complex game of Go, fully a decade before researchers expected it to happen.

It's why self-driving cars have gone from being a flight of Google's fancy to an inevitable future of transport in just a few years. It's why plant-based protein has suddenly become price-competitive.

These technologies affect every aspect of our lives, from the economy to government to education to health care and beyond. But the disruptions coming our way go well beyond technology. We're also experiencing geopolitical change, economic change, social change, climate change. And all of these vectors of change are converging to create a future that is highly uncertain and ambiguous.

We'd be foolish to try to respond to these dramatic changes using yesterday's thinking. And yet often our first response to disruption is to ask, "How can we adapt so that we can keep doing what we've been doing?"

Kaila Colbin is well known in Christchurch as a co-founder of the Ministry of Awesome and the curator of TedxChristchurch. She's now co-founder of Boma Global and the CEO of Boma New Zealand.

If we have a big company, how can we adapt so we can keep having a big company? If we run a school, how can we adapt so that students keep coming to learn from us?

But we need to be smarter about this. We need to ask questions from first principles: What is the purpose of the corporation? What is the purpose of education? Is this the best way to structure society? How should we define success?

These are difficult questions with no correct answer, but they are among the most critical questions of our time. 

When Air New Zealand offers Impossible Foods burgers, instead of saying, "How dare you? This is an insult to our beef and lamb industry", we should be saying, "Wow! The Impossible burger is now so well accepted that Air New Zealand is offering it to its premium customers".

"What does this mean for our beef and lamb industry? Is this the best industry for us to be in? If so, how can we maintain a premium position in a world where vegan alternatives to meat are starting to gain mainstream traction? If not, how can we transition so that our farmers have viable and profitable pathways to continue to thrive? And how do our ethical and environmental responsibilities and aspirations factor into this?"

These are not technological questions. These are questions that require us to think hard about who we are, who we want to be, and what we're willing to do to get there.

Along with a group of my international colleagues and counterparts, we've launched a new venture, Boma, to tackle these questions. But these questions are bigger than any one organisation or institution. This is about our shared future. We should all be involved in the conversation.

People often ask me whether I'm optimistic or pessimistic about the future. To me, the question fundamentally mischaracterises the future. The future isn't some static thing, out there waiting to happen to us. The future is created by us, by the sum of the choices we make every day. It's time for all of us to come together and make more intentional, intelligent decisions about the future we're creating.

What kind of future do you want?

❑ Kaila Colbin is the co-founder of Boma Global and the CEO of Boma New Zealand. She is based in Christchurch. 

 - Stuff