woman in leather jacket
sally dominguez

News from the front desk Issue 470: This week we have the coronavirus (COVID-19), or “Rona” as the kids in California have dubbed it, starting to do its termite work on our house of cards economy. There are downgrades on some of the real estate investment trusts because people are working from home and not filling offices, disrupted supply chains preventing apartment completions, and the sharemarket doing its whacky gyrations it likes to do now and then. Sadly, there is also another prefab builder falling over, Archiblox, with the loss of 30 staff going into voluntary administration on Friday.

And on top of that, there is the disappearance of toilet paper, “wiped off the shelves”, as one supplier eloquently put it. 

With three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse making their rounds, in Australia at least (fire, flood, pestilence), you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all a bit bleak out there. And uncomfortable. And a little scary.

Then again, that’s exactly when some people get excited.

It’s right in the midst of the great toilet paper crisis (that we’re pretty sure will go down in the annals of satire history), that we hook up a Zoom conversation with Sally Dominguez in California on Thursday morning. This Aussie futurist/exponential mindset catalyst/disrupter now based in the US is dumbstruck – by the toilet paper, the cancellation of several events that she was scheduled to speak at, and by her kids’ friends warning her to not go to the shops lest she catch “Rona”.

It’s disrupting and discomforting sure, and generally that is exactly where Dominguez is most at home. It’s the crux of her work with Singularity University, where until recently she headed up its innovation strategy, and in her private consulting where she’s taken on clients like Ikea, the Berlin Secret Police and the NSW secondary teachers. Others she is forbidden to mention.

But today’s “Rona” is plain frustrating and looking like a massive overreaction, for now at least. Especially in the face of so many more endemic issues that plague our future.

Singularity University’s mission is precisely to help corporate leaders understand how to navigate the changes and challenges they will face.

Its patch is “artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital biology areas of health, environment, security, education, energy, food, prosperity, water, space, disaster resilience, shelter, and governance”. Its mission is to use “exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges and build a better future for all”. No less.

Highest now on Dominguez’ personal mission is optimism. It’s the legacy she wants to leave. Finding ways to “make people feel more optimistic when they feel powerless”.

She uses what she called “adventurous thinking” and ways to develop ethical resilience to help.

A big step forward for the people she mentors and coaches is to show that no matter how clever the technology, how sophisticated the artificial intelligence, human ingenuity is not replicable.

Sure, she says, expertise has been replaced by AI that can think faster than we mortals, but human ingenuity is ours alone.

What her program puts people through is “bearable discomfort”.

If you can make yourself uncomfortable and “throw yourself outside of what you’d normally be thinking – the default – as she puts it – you enter that moonshot range of massive thinking”.

Which is something we need right now.

Around us, she says, corporates are bleeding with low productivity, small-to-diminishing profit margins, five year plans that aren’t working. Historical data is no longer helping to predict the future.

A typical reaction by corporates is to cut human capital. Cisco Systems does it periodically, she says, “they uberise their workforce. No one has security, productivity drops, there is no loyalty.”

An alternative action would be to trust, and instead of controlling the workforce, try to enable them.

So what does 2030 look like?

Dominguez wrote a new strategy for the IKEA parent company on the subject, and it reconfigured its direction.

Details are confidential but they include touchstones like a gig economy with no security, a “different form” of productivity and “an expectation to time manage that most people don’t have”.

“It’s a massive epic change.” What we need is a fundamental shift in mindset in how we value every single person and realise their ability to innovate in what they do and let them be heard.”

To get through the coming challenges you need to tap into the kind of thinking that Indigenous people such as Aboriginal people have been using for thousands of years.

“Board rooms should be paying top dollar to beg people like Aboriginal people, that are able to think in this way  who are able to conceive of things in ways we can’t imagine, to advise them”

“Aboriginal people have the type of thinking that I believe is going to be the next massive way of navigating the future.

“Board rooms should be paying top dollar to beg people like Aboriginal people that are able to think in this way, who are able to conceive of things in ways we can’t imagine, to advise them.”

Where does sustainability and climate change fit in?

Sustainability needs to be a default to everything we do, she says. “It’s not even a layer – it should be doing the most with the least, the best you can and upcycling because recycling is never good enough.”

From closer to home, some other thoughts

Closer to home, the ructions in the industry are starting to look wobbly for some, with at least one REIT downgraded because of the impact of the coronavirus as more people work from home and tenants scale back on commitments to office space.

Adam Beck, executive director, Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand, is another person who thinks the coronavirus will be short lived, unlike some of the other endemic problems facing our nation.

Beck’s organisation has been working to gather momentum for more evidence-based decision making using data … and wonders why it’s not considered part of critical national infrastructure.

For instance, he says, the government is the custodian of taxpayer dollars, but how is it that its decisions can so often misfire?

Alan Tudge, for instance, “our distinguished minister for cities”, also known as the “congestion buster”, allocated half a billion dollars last year “for concrete stacked car parks, that the private sector could build in their sleep,” Beck says.

“And the data shows that majority that drive to commuter car parks live 400 metres away.”

Another example is the audit released last year by Infrastructure Australia. Beck describes the document as “amazing”. “A blueprint for the future of this country.”

“I loved it. It was the best document I’ve read for a long time that came out of government. A national infrastructure pipeline that is future focused and forward looking and digitally enabled.”

But then the priority list came out (recently) with its modest targets and absence of the ambition evident in the audit document.

Beck’s got a long way to go to get things to change.

There is little to no evidence that the majority of government use evidence to make their decisions and there is every indication it would be an inconvenience. What we have, in our view, is politically based decision making, where the push and pull of the lobby groups can easily shove aside any data, no matter how brilliant.

Meanwhile, Beck is not giving up. There is a horde of work his organisation has been developing, through its own groups in partnerships with outfits such as the Green Building Council of Australia.

Most recent is the council’s 2020 strategic plan released two weeks ago with four big programs to focus on. One is for local government and the potential for peer to peer learning.

“Cities want to help other cities build a global platform to build cities all over the world.”

Another the Centre for Data Leadership to raise awareness of the role of data in generating insights for cities, A third is a Smart Cities Activator, which is a collaborative platform for enhancing liveability, workability and sustainability outcomes in cities that allows cities to connect with their peers; and fourth is the annual Smart Cities Week event in August.

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  1. As always, Sally puts things in clear perspective. Although I have no idea why toilet paper had to become the biggest hoarding target in response to “rona”…. Haven’t yet even heard a credible psychological reason! I like that Sally focuses on optimism. It’s the hardest for me. I have studied climate science for some 30 years and each morning I review feeds from the world’s top climatologists. Depression and hopelessness over the lack of action to even consider climate change an emergency, soon well up inside me. I have to bring my grandchildren into mind and get over to UQ and mix with the students. There I see optimism and uplift. Although I do worry that some of that may be built on a misplaced faith in future technology advances. We cannot give up… yet!