Entrepreneurs and the invention of the future

Graph of the locations of water on EarthI attended the European Foundation for Management Development conference at Advancia 22-23 February 2010, to meet new colleagues as well as participate in a panel discussion on the challenges facing entrepreneurs. I organised my presentation around the question: “what sort of the future will the entrepreneur invent?”  I used two pictures to start my talk, one a 1530 Utopian painting and the other a poster of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis.

Everything around us is invented, discovered, or created by the mind of people making sense of the world, so while it may be too much to see the entrepreneur as a super-human force of nature (as some discussed at the conference), the point is that human ingenuity is behind the world we live in, and our ability to be ingenious drives the

entrepreneurial spirit. I raised these issues in my presentation:

  • crises are really opportunities, especially for entrepreneurs;
  • the growing networking and interconnectedness of the world offers amazing opportunities for entrepreneurs to look at ways to bring people, information and services together; concerns about digital divides, social exclusion etc., in my view are transitional features of the current world, and not defining features, and that in time, these will be replaced with other forms of exclusion; the point being that technologies themselves are not exclusionary, but what people do with them is;
  • rising educational attainment is upon us, and there will be a substantial decline in the percentageof the population globally with only primary education, and doubling in the next decade or so of numbers of people with tertiary education; again, this offers amazing opportunities for learning in new ways, also considering the networking of the planet;
  • agricultural innovation is seriously important as over the next 20 or so growing seasons (years), the planet’s population will rise by about 30%, per capita food consumption will rise by 50%, dietary preferences will change, water and energy demand will also rise; this points to the need to ensure that fresh water is where the people are (right now, the fresh water is located mostly where people are fewer), and that each agriculturally productive hectare can add 50% of productive capacity — in very few growing seasons; with climate change, too, factors such as what grows where comes under stress, as different areas will need to learn to grow non-traditional crops, and other areas will become unproductive;
  • I also showed pictures of intelligent machines such as an autonomous GPS-guided farm tractor, and a similarly autonomous mining truck; the autonomous military robot with its gun on top is a telling reminder of the progress in military science, while the Utopian picture of the smart city of the future offers a different sort of hope;
  • finally, I showed a map of the world 4 degrees warmer, and wondered how we were going to deal with social displacement indicated by the growing numbers of people who will come to live in unihabitable or hostile environments (at risk of flooding, heat stress, and so on).

Having said all that, I am left to wondering though how we bridge the entrepreneurial challenges facing the public sector.  In many cases the challenges entrepreneurs face are caused by governments, and by regulation, as well as by restrictive banking practices which make access to capital so very hard. While we look to the entrepreneurial spirit in the private sector, and feed and encourage creativity, we find the opposite is true in the public sector. Indeed, Martin Lukes, from Prague, presented an excellent paper, with a telling conclusion that public sector people have less organisational support for innovation and entrepreneurial activity than their private sector counterparts. In some respects the elephant in the room is the public sector, consuming huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, yet often failing in two ways, failing to ensure entrepreneurial growth through poorly thought out rules and regulations (red-tape, regulatory burden and so on), and failing to get their own house in order.  Given the current state of affairs in some the world’s major economies, I don’t think the public sector can excuse itself from the need for entrepreneurial reform and effort.

The invention of the future requires all hands on deck, and no one can be spectator any more.