Technology, a language not an industry: Discovery Invest Leadership Summit

“We have technology that not even the wildest science fiction writers could have believed,” said Adrian Gore, opening the Discovery Invest Leadership in South Africa yesterday.

Al Gore’s comment that the iPhone version is due for release next month generated headlines across the web, but the context of the summit contained some far bigger themes: notably the rise of technology and emerging markets.

The environmental crusader and former US Vice-President (who is also on the board of Apple), joined economist Nouriel Roubini and Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson along with five other internationally renowned speakers who spent the day talking trends in leadership for the future.

What’s clear is that interest in technology is heading into the mainstream. Gone are the days when it was assessed as an industry on its own. Like profit, technology has become a universal language for businesses.

“I have tried my best to prove through rational measures that our potential is better than what we perceive. And so this is what the summit is about. We need to push forward and expose leading thinkers to the best intellect,” remarked Adrian Gore, CEO of the healthcare insurer Discovery, itself a major emerging market success story.

Maria Ramos, vice president at Barclays, described Asia’s rise, suggesting that it would take 50 percent of the world’s markets in not the too distant future. Africa would take a smaller chunk, she said, but would likely enjoy the fastest rates of economic growth.

Technology, however, remains a critical differentiator. Ramos pointed to World Economic Forum reports showing Switzerland and Singapore maintained their high levels of competitiveness, while a country like Nigeria underperformed massively, largely due to its failure to enhance technology despite its massive market size. She described public-private partnerships as a key to addressing the gaps.

Impatient tech entrepreneurs may shudder at this thought, but there is evidence to back it: Perhaps it’s time tech companies sought some collaboration with government leaders in rolling out technology? How many are making an attempt?

After Ramos’ address, specific business practice came under the spotlight. “In the world of abundance — the internet — free takes on a different nature. Free becomes a viable business model,” said Wired Editor-in-chief Chris Anderson discussing Freemium, which he describes as the world’s “only 21st century business model.”

“Products and services on the internet are going to fall to the price of zero. If you don’t do it, someone else will. It’s a race to zero.”

That is not to say everything would be priced at zero. Companies just have to offer some online products and services at no cost to generate potential customers he said, pointing out that the minority who do become actual paying customers will be the money source that subsidise the rest.

He added that “when people convert, the great thing is they are doing so for the right reason — and that means price loyalty.”

Author and business tycoon Ricardo Semler, was amongst the first speakers to kick off the summit. The Vice President of Brazil’s Federation of Industries and author of The Seven Day Weekend provided a snapshot of new ways of doing business in the corporate world that notably would have been familiar to any startup entrepreneur.

He explained that companies have been focused on building businesses for a world that no long exists — job titles, unnecessary structures and dress codes. A two-time winner of the Brazilian Business Leader of the year award, his focus on innovation was indicative not only of how startups generally behave — but how larger companies will increasingly need to: A continued focus on outcomes and adaptability in a market where uncertainty the only sure environment companies will know.

A remarkable aspect of both Semler’s talk on innovation and Anderson’s remarks on Freemium is that those heavily immersing themselves in the tech space would have been less surprised by some of the comments and analysis offered at the summit than those ignoring tech under the assumption that it’s an industry on its own as opposed a reality cutting into all aspects of business and leadership.

The language of technology was also ever-present, even when not discussed. Al Gore’s slip on Apple happened in the context of his passionate case for urgent action on climate change, not an analysis on tech.

Desperate to make a case for a massive alternative energy market, he drew what seemed to be the best, if not the only, analogy available: The rise of the personal computer, once predicted as having a total global market of six buyers.

“Look at how that industry has grown. It’s grown because the cost of information processing on those chips was cut.”

The Discovery Invest Leadership Summit was by no means targeted at technology professionals, nor did it seek to educate the non-techies on innovation. It was all about leadership. What’s clear is that leadership and business have become integrally connected and dependent on technology. Whether it’s bottom-line profit models or analogies for inspiration, in a world of recession and some doom and gloom, tech remains the shining star on just about every conceivable front.



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