Salim Ismail at AUT

By Sam Jaffe

I had never heard of Salim Ismail before today. A quick Google will tell you that he’s a pretty impressive guy – a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur who’s company was acquired by Google, and the former head of Yahoo’s innovation lab, Brickhouse. What those search results didn’t convey, however, was the sheer energy of the man – he’s a relentless optimist who is itching to discuss every facet of the ‘moonshot’ innovations he’s involved in fostering.

Right at the start of his talk it was made clear that this presentation was about seeing things that you could not unsee – ‘permanent one-way learning’. Ismail then introduced us to Singularity University – a part think-tank, part college, part innovation lab launched by Ray Kurzweil & Peter Diamandis with NASA and Google in 2008, for which he is currently their global ambassador. This institution is unashamedly focused on exponential learning and innovation. Why? Well, according to Ismail, Moore’s law is about 5x too slow in some cases and the vast majority of technologically-driven social change is ahead of us – we’ve only just scratched the surface.

After zipping through his case studies about the areas Singularity hopes to help disrupt, Ismail paused to discuss what I took away as a key insight – modern societies aren’t as modern as we’d like to think they are. In fact, when you take a closer look, 21st-century societies are unquestionably geared towards 20th-century modes of production and existence. We value incremental changes to the status quo more so than disruption because, individually and collectively, humans have an innate fear of the unknown. Society simply isn’t positioned to manage the scale and pace of change that’s coming – we need to move beyond a linear mentality towards a more exponential one.

Salim Ismail’s perspective sounds incredible and it made for an energised audience, but we had to question how individuals, organisations and governments can effect these changes. Ismail had this advice for large companies:

  • Transform your leadership approach with a TED-esque mantra, an inspirational purpose.
  • Inspire exponential organisations (ExOs) at the edge of your own one – change is challenging to manage across whole organisations, so starting on the fringes is more natural.
  • Invest and partner with adjacent ExOs, as Apple does, to disrupt other markets.
  • Leverage and expose data – don’t hide from it.
  • Take notice and act, rather than ignore, when industries and technologies demonstrate exponential patterns.

Lastly, another memorable idea was to implement an ‘institutional yes’ policy, whereby the default answer for any request to managers around innovation/new initiatives is yes, and if the manager wants to say no they have to write a 2 page summary about why and post it publicly.

All of these changes, in Ismail’s view, will ultimately amount to a reorientation of the way business and innovation is done: no longer will they be about packaging and selling scarcity (think diamonds). Rather, real, exponential innovation will leverage abundance (think AirBnB or Uber) and seek to capitalise on the scale and power afforded by universal, free and open access.

–Sam Jaffe is a 5th-year BA/BCom (Hons.) student at the University of Auckland studying Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Information Systems and History.