Overheard at WIRED Smarter

By Ryan Weeks on Friday 12 October 2018

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Speakers at the event tackled some of the big political questions posed by rapid digitisation.

Overheard at WIRED Smarter
Image source: AltFi

I attended WIRED Smarter at Kings Place earlier this week, a future-gazing festival split into three tracks: Retail, Energy and Money.

The day began, however, with the audience unified to watch a succession of big-name tech evangelists share their two cents on organisational change.

It was a decent balance of suits and hoodies and indeed of male and female speakers – a 50 per cent split, I’m told. There was real variety in the audience too. I was sat next to somebody from YO! Sushi – a fact I discovered after being ordered to know thy neighbour by WIRED editor Greg Williams before the talks began.

The shadow of Amazon

Amazon seemed present in every pocket of the event, not an overt presence at first but something more like a series of whispers. From the row behind me, on Jeff Bezos: ‘He’s definitely built dangerous robots, he might even be a robot!’. Soon after, YOOX Net-a-Porter Group founder Federico Marchetti would describe how he veered away from Amazon’s e-commerce blueprint with the design of his high fashion website way-back-when, while assuring the audience he meant no offence to the company. Marchetti has met Bezos many times, and likes him a lot.

Later, Amazon’s chief technology officer Werner Vogels took to the stage. The tech veteran shared a heap of insights on how Amazon has been able to grow into the megalith business it is today. Here are my key takeaways from the speech: 

  • Amazon believes it would be out of business within 10 to 15 years if it were to stop innovating, suffering what Vogels called ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
  • Amazon sells Kindles at cost. It didn’t build Kindles because it wanted to get into hardware, it built them to prime a market in e-books.
  • Amazon only takes ‘really big bets’ on things which, if they work out, have the potential for massive scale. I guess Amazon has that luxury.
  • A key message to listeners was that disruptive firms must be willing to be misunderstood. It sounds an obvious point but ‘competitor disbelief’, as Vogels called it, can be a surprisingly big barrier to innovation.
  • He emphasised the importance of working in small teams, effectively creating entrepreneurs within the business. This reminds me somewhat of digital bank Revolut’s online hiring spiel, in which it describes its personnel as ‘like special forces’.
  • He closed by talking about ‘the institutional yes’. If you want to object to a new idea at Amazon, you have to do the work – meaning you have to produce a ‘six pager’ on why the idea won’t work/shouldn’t be implemented. This creates a culture that fosters innovation.
  • Every Amazon meeting starts with a half-hour period in which all attendees read a six-page summary document in silence.

All tech is political

The event’s big-name speakers tackled some of the political questions posed by rapid technology adoption.

As Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, put it: ‘all tech is political’. Her presentation focused on past periods of intense innovation, such as the switch from steam to electricity, and the societal shifts that have been necessary to accommodate them. In her example, it took 30-50 years for factories to be restructured to suit emerging methods of production.

The opening keynote speaker Sam Gyimah MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, spoke of a disconnect between the level of optimism in the technology sector and the problems of politics. He concluded that changes in tech will come to affect the world in a far more meaningful way than such matters as Brexit and populism, and called for government to put innovation ‘at the heart’ of industrial strategy. Gyimah also emphasised the importance of focused public investment in the digital economy – a message that is very much in line with recent Treasury overtures.

Deliveroo co-founder and CEO Will Shu discussed the gig economy in a fireside chat with Greg Williams. He's of the opinion that regular Deliveroo riders – say, those that work 40-50 hours a week – should benefit from more rights than those who work only occasionally. Shu would also welcome clearer guidance from government on the gig economy, and wants to be a part of shaping policy.

YOOX boss Marchetti predicted that in the future luxury products will bear the tag ‘made by humans’. He said that nurturing human talent is a choice that all companies can make, although he admitted it might make more sense in luxury fashion than elsewhere. It should be noted, however, that YOOX is a highly automated business, with over 600 engineers based in London alone.                                                                                                                            

Bits and bobs

  • A woman who declined the chance of becoming Deliveroo’s employee number one did so perhaps partially because Shu chose to interview her in a KFC.
  • Mark Hughes, CEO of Security at BT, revealed that the firm endures around 4,000 attempted cyberattacks a day.
  • Cathy Mulligan from the Imperial College Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering gave three examples of things that a blockchain could help to prove the provenance of: university degrees, diamonds, and ham sandwiches.
  • Raman Bhatia, head of digital bank UK at HSBC, spoke of the conundrums thrown up by Artificial Intelligence (AI) in finance. These include explainability, unintended bias and the risk of job cuts. Bhatia sees the risk to jobs as overstated, but that doesn’t mean the bank isn’t thinking about it.


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