How policy entrepreneurs are tackling pressing problems caused by tech
Contributed by Trevor Cornwell, President and Co-Founder of Forum 280
Many conferences are built around the idea of creating a consensus and issuing a paper that captures the thinking of the group. These events are important because we need tough leaders to have a clear statement of purpose — and for that statement to be shared amongst those who can effect change. Often, these groups of experts share strong rooting in relatively homogeneous university and work experiences. The people who attend are usually made up of the many wonderful people who have made the commitment to join an N.G.O., a university, or think tank. This is the first circle of actors who formulate thinking and take researched positions that can drive important results, albeit indirect ones too. Indirect in the sense that the activities which will emanate from the conference are inspired from the work but not the explicit aim of the conference.
The power of direct action is important. When we are inspired by something and we take consequential action, it produces impactful results. When we see an injustice, whether that is someone struggling with hunger, or a friend who is hurting, or a piece of legislation that we don’t like, and we take the responsibility upon ourselves to take an active role, real change is made.
But when the problem is known and the solution isn’t — and even if it has been thought of in some form, rough or otherwise — something different has to happen. This context combined with the thundering change being brought to fore by Brexit and then Trump, made it clear that getting up off the couch and acting was in order.
Tethering the perceived problem — a political polarization that was manifesting a deep sense of disenfranchisement — to what we could do about it didn’t have an obvious prescription. And the more I thought about it using my voice and hearing the voices of others (who share my socioeconomic background most of the time), the more it was clear to me that a solution was likely not one sitting on an existing shelf. Summit.Ahead’s antidote to the homogenisation built in to speaking with only like minds was to reach out to people with different backgrounds by inviting Members of Congress and Parliament to recommend Fellows and to leverage our own networks as best we could. The effort at seeking out different backgrounds helped us approach this not simply as a policy challenge but also one of language and perspective. This was not to say that the solution would be bespoke. Indeed it may be an obvious idea but no merchant — to continue the shelf metaphor — was displaying it.
Executing an idea is not simple or obvious either because it takes different hands and minds to do it. You need the bold visionary alongside those with a more cautious relationship to risk. You need someone driven by perfection balanced by the person humble enough to know that perfecting an untested idea may be less important than getting the idea to market.
With a sense in mind that Brexit and Trump meant that at the very least the U.S. and the U.K. were sharing some similar political attributes, we decided to convene SUMMIT.AHEAD., a conference of policy entrepreneurs — defined as those caring enough and with a pent up urgency to act — that would come to take place in Reykjavik, Iceland at the historic Hofdi House, home to other grand meetings including the Reagan Gorbachev Summit. We had three months and no money except a spotty credit account that hadn’t given up hope and was still producing necessary funds in the clutch. However, we managed to bring together a small collection of Britons and Americans to take on various aspects of the future of work — which seemed by a rough consensus to be at the root of the political upheaval.
That “rough consensus” around political versus technological origins was one that was, indeed, truly “rough”. Some in our organizing group thought it better to leave to the side because it muddied the clear technological advances that were clearly going to affect how we worked and the jobs that would be available. But whether one views politics as the cause or the effect of technological change, politics was clearly involved with not only what we would do about the future of work but also whether we would even listen to the discussion at all. The exploitation of the issue of the future work informed the kinds of people we wanted to bring in to the Summit. We wanted our work to be cross disciplinary and we wanted to keep firmly in mind that we were going to need to bridge divides using the projects that we developed.
With that in mind, we set out to recruit the best and the brightest by mailing to Members of Parliament and Members of Congress; writing to a carefully curated list of movers and thinkers and asking them to commend someone they thought could help us. With all of that, then SUMMIT.AHEAD. which was going to be three days of intense work to identify and then develop actionable pilot programs to address the fear and loathing which was driving our politics, then started to see a small coalition of people unsatisfied by standing by and that felt compelled to do.
We created a website and forms to capture applications and deposits, and managed to bring together a group of for profit and NGO founders, publishers, technologists and policy, social and startup entrepreneurs.
When the Summit happened, it worked. We went from problem statement to idea, to a presentation of the plan that we intended to execute in our home constituency over the coming 12 months, which, in the morning, would be presented to the Fellows of the Summit, along with representatives from the University of Iceland and the Mayor’s Office.
One innovative idea that came to life thanks to the Summit was centered around building an education platform for Truckers called Rolling Education to address fear of displacement by autonomous vehicles and replace it by hope and excitement about the possibility of new paths. The second project was formed around a moveable feast of new technologies to be showcased in local communities at the advent of the shutdown of a factory with citizens looking for what could be the next new opportunities.
We left from the Summit inspired and moved. I have a tingle as I write this because the Summit was intense and it worked. The planning, the advance, the outreach and the concept itself worked. But what made it work like a long ride, or run, or Outward Bound, was that each person had to summon up things inside themselves to make the Summit and the projects that we would create succeed and even exist at all.
We are now in the harder part of making these projects a reality because we have all returned to life, work and families, but this intrepid group of charter Fellows is determined to make our new initiatives happen. With more of that determination and focus, the job gets done. Next, we will need to see whether Rolling Education and #UpSkill, as the projects are titled, will work and if they do make a difference. We are just now at the point where Rolling Education, a curriculum built into an app will be tested amongst a group of truckers and #UpSkill is getting final tweaks to its web-based knowledge hub. We are testing for success by creating demonstrable and measurable pilot programs.
These initiatives are being done leveraging the Fellows expertise along with free web tools. The variety of talents that SummitAhead brought together are fashioning these ideas into working programs. We are using little bits of money to test our ideas with things like Facebook ads and then redepositing those learnings into improving the pilots. The projects have much more riches in thinking and spirit than they do in funding, but that forces the teams to focus on minimally viable projects rather than trying to boil the ocean with massive endeavours that often are not fully realised, or even started.
The future of work is, itself, a work in progress. It is a new idea, a developing set of hypotheses with sometimes diverging points of view. There is expertise but few experts. And while it is fair to say that one person is not qualified to solve for a problem outside of their realm of expertise, so it is also fair to say that only the willing are going to have a voice on issues that are having a profound effect not only on work but on our politics and the very nature of a civil society.
We talk about our low rates of voter participation but a precursor to anemic electoral engagement is low civic participation. And when issues are critical, like a fear of not having work due to profound shifts in the very nature of work, we all have an obligation to lean in and lend our talents. The net effect of not doing so is to create vacuums that allow for contempt and distrust and racism to take hold. People in tech should lead people outside of tech into how we can all participate and benefit from the benefits of more productive ways to work. With a little thought and facilitation, we can see how with a little time we can collectively work to contribute ideas and put them into action. That is a lot better than sitting back and waiting for someone else to do it. We have seen what happens when we do.
The change that is taking place at work may happen today or not for a few tomorrows, but the perception of the change is posing a clear and present threat to workers. The time to act then is now. Every demonstration project that addresses the future of work creates, to paraphrase the late Robert Kennedy, a tiny ripple of hope. That was the aim of SummitAhead. to bring people together and create new pathways and bridges for workers who are trying to decipher what the future of work means for themselves and their families.
I am quite convinced that the idea of SummitAhead and its focus on engaging a cross-section of thinkers and doers is right because it summons up an extraordinary group of people to forge programs that don’t and likely wouldn’t otherwise exist. It is service in shorter form than the Peace Corps or in government or as a career in an N.G.O., but it stands alongside and may serve as an outstanding practice of going from problem statement to action, in record time.
Trevor Cornwell, is the President and Co-founder of Forum280, Inc, which developed SUMMIT.AHEAD. His career has been spent developing and growing new enterprises in media and technology-based businesses deploying Internet technologies to provide content and streamline customer offerings. Earlier in his career, he founded the National Service League, Inc., to aid in the transition of emerging democracies in Eastern Europe. Cornwell has also served in positions of responsibility for political organizations, and has also has held leadership positions with several U.S. political campaigns.
SUMMIT.AHEAD. website: https://summitahead.org
Forum280 website: https://forum280.org
SUMMIT.AHEAD. Fellow Projects:
Rolling Education: https://rollingeducation.org