Point of View

Experience the exponential age at the intersection of technology and society

August 13, 2021

Azeem Azhar moves a mile a minute. He is a serial entrepreneur, investor in over 40 companies, strategist, analyst, influential host of the podcast and newsletter Exponential View, and author of the forthcoming book, The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society. At the HFS OneOffice™ Digital Symposium, he recently joined HFS CEO and Chief Analyst Phil Fersht for a Digi-side Chat to explore all things exponential at the intersection of technology and society.

We are entering a new phase of society

Azeem shared an interesting perspective about the time it takes for technologies to create an impact in our direct environments, underscoring the historical lag between expectation and actual impact in the initial phases of their adoption. Historically, technologies eventually catch up with our expectations as they evolve but are rapidly transforming in today’s era.

According to Azeem, “Technologies take a long time to have an impact, …and we know core technologies fundamentally change the way companies work… The key challenge we face [today] is the rapidity with which things are improving—and that’s the whole mark of the exponential age.”

“The case of the rich getting richer”—why some grasp change while others are paralyzed by their legacy

While it may seem obvious that those already investing in automation had a clear and present advantage compared to others, Azeem stresses the mentality that comes alongside earlier investments, adding, “leadership that understandsautomation; it means new processes, new respect for data helping to drive decisions. They were incredibly well positioned….”

As to the mentality for those companies unable to grasp change, it may be a matter of prioritizing legacy resources or a matter of fear, but for those ready to take on the task at hand, “The only way to get started was to get started. And you get into a virtuous cycle of leadership, of process discipline, of changes you needed to make internally. And that’s what benefited the firms that did well.”

Exhibit 1: Phil chats with Azeem

Source: HFS Digital Symposium, June 8-9, 2021

“In other words,” Azeem continues, “there’s no quick way to go quickly in this except to start today, or yesterday, ideally.”

The business of creating the hybrid workforce

Phil initiated the “work from home” (WFH) topic, referring to newly released HFS data from the Global 2000 that 60% of the global workforce will return to the office over the next 12 months. What remains to be seen is the best way forward for companies to operate effectively with a hybrid workforce in the future.

Azeem presents several examples of what he sees as the tensions at hand, between independence and monitoring, the ability to experiment with new collaborative technologies, WFH environments between older employees vs. younger ones, and even the tension between employer and employee on creating the hybrid solution.

“Employees have been part of the solution in the last 18 months—we are the ones who have had to change our work patterns, find a desk at home, make space. We have created that solution for our employers, and we want to continue to have a say as we move forward.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) will dominate the future

The last topic of the discussion was about the technologies that will gain prominence in the future. To this, Azeem was very clear that he believes AI is the ringer, adding an interesting view that AI and computation are “the harbinger” for other technologies. “Within the AI domain, I’m expecting to see a more machine-learning stack of emerging companies so that data scientists can operationalize their systems much more seamlessly.”

He also added that machine-learning (ML) oriented technologies will improve the reliability of engineering systems.Azeem referred to Zymogen as an example when discussing AI and its benefits. Zymogen, a material sciences firm, has become adept as using data for complex modeling. For instance, with terabytes of data on microbes, genes, and their traits, Zymogen uses AI to predict how to combine specific microbes to “brew” smartphone films, turning what was an “industrial production process into a process which is basically a machine learning and robotics challenge, attached to a genomics genetics biology challenge.”

We can certainly agree with Azeem that these areas are “really, really exciting.”

The Bottom Line: Let’s round up our discussion points—It comes down to speed and scale

In the discussion between Phil and Azeem, we heard multiple examples of how companies evolved during the pandemic, which were largely based on focus, embracing technology, and doubling down on the role AI can play in generating products and revenues while also ensuring environmental friendliness. How fast business leaders invest in the right technologies and how soon companies can adopt them at scale will largely decide the success of the businesses in the global ecosystem.

And for the sustainable future, if we look at the trend for decarbonizing our economies with multi-million-dollar multi-year projects, Azeem Azhar predicts,I think that’s a pretty exciting area. And it will be done with the application of machine learning and automation, but as applied to material science, as applied to biologics, as applied to energy.”

Watch the Phil Fersht/Azeem Azhar Digi-side Chat

You can read other POVs and a comprehensive ebook about the Symposium, plus watch video highlights of the two-day event, here.

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