Salim Ismail: How Do You Fix Civilization? | Singularity Hub

Salim Ismail: How Do You Fix Civilization? | Singularity Hub

– And we’re back at Singularity
Hub, here at the Expo Hall at the Global Summit with a very very special guest Salim Ismail. Salim was the founding executive director of Singularity University,
was here from day one, built most of our programs
in the early days. You also founded Brick
House, which was Yahoo’s incubator program here in
San Francisco, have done a whole bunch of other
stuff and today you are the Chairman and the
Co-founder of ExO Works, Fastrack Institute, and a
whole bunch of other stuff and you are traveling
the world giving speeches to the most important
people on the planet. Pretty much. – Some of that is true. – Some of that is true! So you’ve been talking
on stage here quite a bit and you’re actually going
to be on stage again. – Yeah – What’s the, I’m curious,
what’s the main message today? – So I think we understand
that exponential technologies are disrupting us. I get that. I think the question is,
now how do you apply it? How do you manage that
transition into the world? We are in a freakin mess,
as technology is a forcing function that is causing
massive disruption in all of our institutions and all of
our societal structures. We need to figure that out. And our existing leaders,
my thesis is our existing leadership can’t do it. They’re too stuck in the
way they did things before. If you’re in the leadership
position in a big automotive company it’s because
you’ve been doing things for 30 years in that particular way. And you have deep insight into that world and now we have autonomous cars coming, we have other mechanisms coming. None of your experience applies. The same thing is happening in government. And so I’m thinking about
okay we can talk about how you change leaders but we
actually need to change all of our institutions as
our focus today now on more how do you update our
institutions like education, voting systems, democracy is
broken I would even argue. So how do we do all of that? – Wow, no small undertaking. – The title of the talk is
“How Do you Fix Civilization.” – And you actually did
a TED Talk about this. – I did. – So how are we doing this? Because it’s a really
tough thing to do, right? It’s one thing to say
hey here’s the recipe to become an exponential
organization, which by the way you’ve got an amazing book called “Exponential Organizations”
it’s a best seller book recommended by top CEO’s today. A lot of, I heard. – Seems to be required reading
at Fortune 1000 board level. – Right, inclusive of some of
the largest consulting firms which basically make this
total required reading for everyone in the organization right? – Yeah. – So I think it’s one thing to do this on a company level right? – Yes. – And that’s complex
enough, but how do you do it on more of a societal level? – So I’ve got kind of three buckets in my world right now. I’ve got ExO Works which
runs ten week sprints inside big companies to
solve their immune system problem and if you tried
disruptive innovation in a big company, the rest
of the company attacks you because they’re so architected
to doing things the old way. So we’ve solved that
problem, we find we run this ten week process framework
and we can move a leadership culture management
thinking two and a half years ahead in ten weeks. And the opportunity cost of
that is huge and so we’ve done that, we piloted
with Procter & Gamble a couple years ago. We’ve done it now seven times and we’ve got a company that does that. Then I’ve said okay let’s
take that and apply it to public sects. Because then in the public
sector our existing policies are the immune system. Right, you try and update transportation, the taxis fight you. You try and update education, the teachers unions fight
you and so dealing with that as we’ve kind of applied
it at a city level, and so we’ve created something
called the Fastrack Institute which runs this and applies
this at a city level and the value propositions we
find we can solve a problem facing a city for about
one tenth the current cost. And so we’ve done it three
times in Metagene, Columbia and we’re just starting this
week with the Mayor of Miami on the future of transportation in Miami. – Let me stay there for a
second, I find cities really interesting because they’re
this linchpin for change in my world right? We have this one trend like
this, for the first time ever in human history we’re living
more in urban context than in rural context globally. And then cities become more
powerful as, in a weirdly weakening federal context right? – Yeah, very clear. – So where do you see
that future play out? – So we think that at a local
level, if you look at the big cities like San Paulo,
Mexico City, Tokyo, Shanghai they’re bigger and more complex than any country was 100 years ago. So they’re graining and
sizing complexity, they have low access to resources of their own. And now, we find the world
is being run by these city- states rather than nation states. The whole Brexit, Trump, etc.
all of that is not a left versus right issue, it’s
a rural verus urban issue. That’s the voting lines there. And so as we look at that,
Banning Garrett, one of our fellow faculty here, who works
for the Atlantic Council, made a really profound comment to me. He goes, “you guys are
interested in solving grand challenges, if you solve
grand challenges in cities then you solve the grand challenge. If you don’t solve them in
cities, you don’t solve it.” And that really hit me. And then Paul Saffo talks
a lot about the rise of the city-state and the de-emphasis
of the nation-state and so we operate at city level because we can get things done. Nothing happens at the
federal level now for a decade or two, certainly not in
the U.S. and certainly not in Europe and so we need to
operate and we need to act fast, so we’re operating at city level. – How do you think the
tension between the city level becoming more powerful and
the federal level probably weakening in power but exerting
a lot of weird stuff on… – They’re holding, so I’m
Canadian, you have federal, provincial, or a state, and then city. The provinces can veto funding
down to the city levels. So they’re basically
holding the cities hostage. So right now you have to pay
homage to the etc. but it’s like when you think about
middle management, there’s always the stressor in big companies, we need less and less of it today. In the same way we need
less intermediary levels of government and they won’t
go quietly into the night. So we see massive tension
globally around it and this is the challenge, you can’t
change that system easily. It’s a log jam, so you
have to re-architect it from the bottom up and that’s
what we’re looking to do. – That’s amazing. Is there anything that scares you today? In terms of the technology,
the change we’re seeing? – So the technology does not
scare me, because we’ve seen, I have a great little
anecdote from ebay, there’s an interesting question about
we worry about technology because people might do
bad things with them. Well if you look at ebay
and craigslist you can just as easily do good things or bad things. I can just as easily mass
my email address, pretend to send you a macbook, collect
the money and then vanish. So you have several of these
open systems where you can do good or bad. So anthropologists and
sociologists have looked at these systems and they’ve said
“okay, what’s the actual ratio” well it turns out it’s something
like ten thousand to one. So there’s ten thousand
positive transactions on ebay, same with Craigslist,
to every negative one. So if that’s the case,
something like drones, our first instinct is just ban the drones and then slowly open that tap. What we should be saying
is let anybody do whatever the hell they want, the Minnesota
ice fisherman go to town. Drones can plant trees, go
to town and then police the negative use cases as they surface. So we’re taking way too
long to take the advantage of what technology is
offering today in all of our institutions and
that stressing point is what we’re seeing globally. – That’s interesting. I was at ebay in the
early days and I remember, we had these company beliefs. On the back of our badge
they were printed, and the first one is “we believe
people are basically good.” – Yeah. – And the basically is
an important part right? Because we don’t, we are not naive. We don’t think people are
all good, but we believe that their first and foremost
intention is good. – And we see that in the
data, and this is what Peter and Steven identified this
in abundance, where your amygdala is clocked looking
for bad news and you’re ten times more likely to listen
to bad news than good news. This is why Fox News does very well. – How do you deal though
with, some of the new technologies have so much
more destructive potential, destructive power right? So it’s one thing to have a
gun in your hand and be able to fire a bullet, but I think
it’s a whole different game if you’re engineering a
deadly virus or something. – Yeah, so certainly the
amplitude is increasing so the way I entered SU, is that I did
give a talk at NASA just before the founding conference
where I said the amount, the damage that one person
could do with technology is growing exponentially. Our ability to limit
information from that person is dropping exponentially,
that’s not a great place for it to cross. So that’s how they said hey
come to the founding conference, etc. and then Peter said you
want to run it and there ya go, here I am. Eight years in, nine years
in now and I’m actually profoundly more optimistic
than I was then. Way more optimistic, because
of that comment that people fundamentally do good things
and because the upside potential of these new
technologies is so profound, that we have awesome possibilities ahead. The abundance that we’ll
see in solar and water, and in healthcare, and in education. This is going to be unbelievable
what happens in this next ten, twenty years,
but our existing leadership fundamentally don’t get it. And that’s a problem. – So do you think there’s
hope for educating those? – No. – Wow (laughs) okay! – No you cannot. It’s like teaching an old dog
new tricks, they’re too stuck in their old patterns and what
you have to do is actually create new leaders. – So it’s a bit like a French Revolution? – Yeah you actually totally
need to, but it doesn’t need to be violent. At the very least we
have generational change. But you look at somebody
like Vitalik Buterin right? This is a guy re-architecting
the world from the bottom up, using completely new
technologies, and if you’re a fifty year old banker at
the world bank you cannot get your head around what’s going on. I think there’s some bylaw
by the way, that says you have to be under 25 to
deal with the blockchain, it’s written in some code somewhere. (laughing) Right, like none of us
freakin get it. I can barely spell it, so as we see this
new world order I think what we should be doing
is finding those people and just turn the goddamn
world over to them. I mean they’ll figure it out. Most of the time we’re the problem. We’re kind of stuck, we’re
going oh that’s dangerous, that’s careful, the world is too different today to deal with it. – It’s fascinating today
to see some bit companies, Fortune 500’s now have
very young people in very strong positions working
directly with the CEO exactly for that reason
right because the CEO is 50+ and so he’s like
“I don’t know”, “I barely know how to use my phone.” – That’s right, going back
to ebay, I love the story about the CEO realizing
2011, 2012 that the company is in deep trouble, hiring
the young kid and saying “go to australia, go off
to the edge, come back and then we’ll implement
whatever you do” and to think about the courage
that that takes, and they’re marker in webcap
went up 50 billion dollars in six months. That’s an amazing story and
we see more and more of that. But we need to see 1,000
times more, not like a little story here and there. – In terms of technology,
so you have an incredibly broad overview of what’s
happening in the world, I’ve seen you speak many
times, we chat a lot. Is there a particular set
or a particular technology, set of technologies or technology that you get truly excited
about in terms of it’s disruptive power? – I think the three that
hit me directly would be solar energy, because we
will rapidly turn solar. The poorest countries in
the world are the sunniest countries in the world so
that’s, solar is one of them. I think CRISPR and what’s
possible in Biotech is another unbelievable capability. We have on of our GSP15
alumni that sequences a cancer tumor and then goes
and sequences a normal cell and you can just clip out
the difference with CRISPR. If he’s correct we’ll be able
to cure cancer in anybody in about two weeks for
about 8,000 dollars. That’s kind of like
mind-boggling and so you see things like that, that
becomes really powerful and I think the third one
would be the blockchain. Because we have finally,
the internet has been an open communication protocol
and we’ve tried with massive difficulty to secure transactions
and have authentication but now we have the
authentican layer and the possibilities of that are very profound. – Yeah that’s really
interesting, as you know I was at Mozilla back in the
day and Brendan Eich, the guy who invented JavaScript and built a Firefox Web Browser, he
and I always talked about how we screwed up the web by not building transactions into the
browser as a secure layer. – Yeah, that’s right.
Actually when he originally designed it he had a
get and a put function. We implemented the get, we
didn’t implement the put and that’s caused a lot of hassle. – Right, absolutely. Let
me change track for the last five minutes or so. You’re doing an amazing
talk which is legendary, which I think is not typical
on your talk list, which is called “The Meaning of Life.” You did this at our Global
Solutions Program GSP this year and I think it ran for a
record-breaking 11 hours. It started with post-dinner. – Yeah ten o’clock I’ll go home mandatory, here’s the thesis, we
have these blockchain, CRISPR, Biotech, solar, AI, it radically changes the notion of life itself. Why are we here? What’s the purpose of life? Plato or Socrates asked
this question, how should we conduct ourselves? We don’t have a clear answer
for that and this started in GSP9 where we had the
students say go through the first month, learn about
their technologies, and their mind is blown, and they
can’t actually practically apply their thinking to
the billion person problem because their mind is scattered
asking these big questions. So we thought okay they’re
totally useless right now. Let’s have this session
and at least give them a framing around this. It’s been some stuff I’ve been
looking at for a long time, just an amalgamation of
looking at western philosophy versus eastern philosophy. How did, for example, we
live in a world that’s completely predicated on
growth, progress, evolution, or improvement. Completely. We have almost no idea on
what is the actual process by which growth happens. So we, what we do in the session
is we analyze a little bit relay a bit of background and
then say here’s the steps, now let’s apply to life areas. And then we find you get
kind of instant wisdom when you do that and it all
was a lively discussion, I threw up a diagram on
the human condition, we discussed it for an hour. And then we throw up a diagram on truth and we discussed it for
an hour and we go totally as long as anybody wants to go. The terrible promise I
make, cause I’ll be the last person to leave, which is
a really bad thing to say with 25 year old people
that don’t need sleep. – Yeah so what happened
this year was I bumped into a bunch of our students,
participants probably at 9 o’clock or so and I’m just like “hey
how was the session with Salim “and they were like
“well we just finished, we’re just going to bed for like
an hour or so” and yes. – Yeah it was pretty epic. – And then I asked them a
second question I was like “so, you did the meaning of
life, what is the meaning of life?” and the blank
stares I got and the only answer I got was, I think
the best answer I got was 42. – Yes. – So what is the meaning of life? – Well I think the purpose
of life is to grow. And if you can kind of see
that exponential, I had a discussion with Ray, and
I said isn’t all growth exponential? By definition? You have these little s curves
in everything that we do. And he was like “ah, let
me think about that” and we’ve got this kind of
fundamental paradigm driving us. I’m fascinated by that, I’m fascinated by what is the nature and
structure of reality. For interestingly, as big as
you want to go in the universe or small as you want to go you have infinity in either direction. So really if that’s the
case then it’s really just the process and how you’re operating. And so if we can understand
the process around some of this, it basically
breaks down into two things. It’s either a dramatically
uncertain growth process and then we have a consolidation process. And we see this archetypally
in everything that we do. You study a topic and
then you take an exam. You try and learn a driver’s
license, you take an exam. You’d have sales and marketing and then you have accounting and fulfillment. So we find that most life
functions can bifurcate one of those two and is
useful to see that in play. You fall in love and then
you get married, right? That’s the consolidation,
and so that kind of racheting, cyclical,
fractal pattern is fairly archetypal on how we do things. – So do you think that we are… – So that was that whole
talk right there so you don’t need eleven hours. – I think the 11 hour version
sounds pretty fun though. – It was pretty fun. – And you actually did one here, right? – On the first night, yeah. – Sunday night. – Because some of the alumni
said where… so I do it on demand and we do it now,
I’ve probably done it 30 times and what’s great is
I learn something every single time so that’s so fun. – I think that’s what I love
most about this community is it’s just such a privilege
to be in a community because I learn all the time. It’s just phenomenal. – I mean I’ve had the privilege
of leading the Executive Program for 7 years, so
having heard every single one of our speakers 15, 20, 60 times. Autonomous car discussion,
done it 60 times. After hearing that discussion
60 times, I can pretend to speak about that. I can pretend to speak
about the blockchain. As my wife says I can pretend
to speak about anything now so there we go. – That’s fantastic. I’m curious, with all you’re up to now, what is next for you? Where do you see Salim in five, ten years? – I actually want to fix civilization. – Oh. – I think we need to re-archetype
it from the bottom up. What was exciting when
Peter said coming around singularity was how often
do you get to create an institution at a University? That never happens, right? How can you say no to that? So, having gone through that
process and now understanding, we’ve understood how do you
solve the immune system problem in both private and public
sectors, I’m thinking let’s just go for broke because we
need to fix the world and re-architect it and
it’s got to be done. And it’s got to be done soon
because, I mean let me be really provocative. If you look at what’s
happening in the world today you could argue that we have failed. If we had really educated
the world’s leadership then you should not see
Brexit, you should not see the Presidential races
the way they’re being run. And so we’re moving too slowly. It’s great that we have
20,000 alumni but we should have 200,000, 2 million out there. And so we really need to get
our act together and I think we’re starting to get there. The new President in
Argentina is an alumni and Matt Haggman, who is one
of our repeat alumnis is now running for Congress. And so we’re starting to
see really the model bite but I think we need to
re-architect the underlying institutions and create
mechanisms for that and that’s what my talk will be about. – Love it. With that being said, I
actually don’t want to keep you from the talk because
I know there’s a whole bunch of people sitting there. – I’ve gotta finish my slides. – Yeah right, exactly. In typical Salim style. One very last question,
if people are interested in your work, the amazing
things you’re doing, where do they find that information? What is the best way
for people to wrap their head around Salim? – Look up, my
website is, and we have the Fastrack Institute
and I’ve done two TED Talks one is called “Occupy
Mailstreet” and the other one is called “Fixing Civilization.” – Perfect, so two TED Talks,
three websites, we put this into our show notes,
Salim it was an incredible honor and pleasure to have you here. – Great to have you.

5 thoughts on “Salim Ismail: How Do You Fix Civilization? | Singularity Hub

  1. LOL internet is causing disruptipn? or folks finally have a voice, and your still not willing to listen because your still not willing to understand…

  2. 14:09 "We have almost no idea on what is the actual process by which growth happens."

    This is completely false. We know exactly how growth happens. The problem is that the truth is thought to belong to an ideology, and most people reject the ideology of freedom, individualism, free market and property, within which that knowledge resides. Growth happens when people produce more than they consume. It is literally that simple.

  3. While I'm generally in agreement with most of what Ismail says, did I /really/ just hear him say "New World Order"!?

  4. Wow! Accepted in this year’s incubator, didn’t get the funding for tuition… but I need a role! lol I actually was just turned down for SU’s Senior Director in Content Creation. ExO sounds great, I actually have some business models that intertwine! I’ll be reaching out!

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