Welcome 2021: Building a Better Next!

Jan 08 2021

A Moment of Transformation

As challenging as 2020 was, it made really visible the things that were working … and those that are not! It opened the doorway to an era of huge change and radical invention. As we sit on the front edge of a technology fueled “productivity revolution”, we are being granted this extraordinary once in a generation opportunity to redesign, rethink and reimagine every institution, industry, organization and societal norm - from how we’ll live, work, innovate, coordinate… and be.

When we envision a “better next”, we imagine it provides a stronger sense of wellbeing, connection, accessibility and sustainability, don’t we? But what does that actually look like? Who is leading this kind of work? What motivates them? And how can we all we navigate this scale of change safely and compassionately?? In my upcoming book, Leadering (out Feb 14th!), I point to loads of examples of bold thinkers… but what are we all building toward?

Rather than just champion the idea of being “visionary”, my co-host, Marcus Whitney, a successful entrepreneur, investor, author and visionary in his own right, and I introduced the work of ten of them, centered around five themes: Better Life, Better AI, Better Work, Better Humans… and a better prepared Us.

Better LIFE

Forecasts of our future often point to things like drone delivery at your doorstep and smart refrigerators that ensure we have fresh milk (whatever kind we’re drinking at the moment). Some imagine sturdy but shockingly affordable 3D printed houses, made with sustainable materials. And encouragingly, many around the world are becoming champions of the“:15min city” in which all our needs—like work, school, entertainment, shopping, medical care and recreational activities—are accessible via a :15min walk or bike ride.

So what if we were able to combine all these ideas and reimagine the notion of community and regenerative infrastructure altogether? In our first session, Geci Karuri-Sebina, a Johannesburg-based scholar-practitioner who works on urban planning and governance issues with a rich background in comp sci, sociology, architecture and urban planning chatted with fellow Singularity University lecturer and visionary founder James Ehrlich about what he is currently championing around the world.  RegenVillages is a Stanford University spin-off company realizing the future of living in regenerative and resilient communities, James often describes RegenVillages as the “Tesla of eco-villages” in which there is a village operating system that optimizes sustainable energy, waste, water usage and supports hyper-local, hydroponic agriculture. Investors around the world are interested, government leaders are curious and over 27,000 folks have already signed up to be early residents (including me!) as this points to a much more thoughtful and sophisticated way to build our lives.  

Better AI

So given that almost every aspect of our world will be touched by applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the big question is how do we advance this safely?

I am big believer in all that is possible as we gather and analyze data to tackle big issues, usher in the era of precision medicine, vertical farming, personalized education, on-demand shopping, autonomous vehicles, the creation of new materials, an entirely new approach to our work… and sooooo much more! But having joined an AI start-up years ago and as an advisor to thoughtful AI services company, Kungfu.AI now, I’m very focused on how we build and deploy this potent technology as responsibly as possible. Which is why i was so excited to learn about the work of AI Global!

Yesterday, spatial computing expert (and Top Ten Tech voices on LinkedIn I highly recommend you follow), Cathy Hackl spoke with the former Director of Data and Digital for Canada and now Executive Director of AI Global, Ashley Casovan, about their much needed mission to create a global certification for the safe and responsible use of AI. Working in coordination with entities around the world from WEF to IEEE and ISO, this will take couple of years to fully take shape. But right now AI Global offers an “AI Design Assistant” free on their site that helps engineers and project managers assess /address unintentioned blindspots in five key areas of AI development: Accountability, Explainability, Bias + Fairness, Quality Data, Robustness and - all vital to better understand as we develop our own AI literacy.

Better WORK

While the subject of “work” has gotten a whole lot of our attention this past year as we reconsidered what is essential, who has flexibility and support, where we ideally want to sit and how to address long standing, deeply systemic biases, but clearly there are many more issues we need to be preparing for. While the pandemic furloughed many and put industries like travel in upheaval, technological displacement is well underway and has been accelerated this past year, with increasing studies pointing to the huge shift in skills that will take place in just the next few years. Large organizations such as PwC, AT&T and Walmart have been driving the wave to upskill/reskill, and recently Harvard Business School wrote a case study on Unilever’s very thoughtful, purpose-led response to the future of work.

As we witnessed yesterday, FOW (future of work) expert, educator and happily my new soul-sister, Elatia Abate spoke with 15 year Unilever veteran and Director of Industry Relations and Sustainable Living, Alison Castillo, about what this feels like on the inside and how this jives with Elatia’s and my counsel to think about talent in radically different ways. Though it’s behind a paywall, I found this 12 page read worth the price, as it explains in detail not only the steps Unilever is taking to navigate a significant shift in upskilling and talent “transition” but what it means to “change the way one changes”. Key points: putting folks at the center leads to more innovative and relevant solutions. And including those directly involved in the decision-making leads to much more successful outcomes.

This, however, all raises an even bigger question of what we do when not everyone is able to cross the digital skills divide quickly enough or is even offered the opportunity? Solutions such as UBI or demanding a “digital dividend” for the data we create are two concepts on the table to ensure a more equitable distribution of this technology enabled productivity revolution we are headed toward. We should expect many more to be conceived, discussed and tested as we can now much more clearly see the need to build a more solid societal scaffold to the era ahead.


How far are we willing to let technology permeate our lives… and our bodies? We can edit genes, use an exoskeleton to walk again and eventually decide whether to embed a computer in our brains. Advances in robotics, sensors, virtual reality, augmented reality and yes, again, machine learning, can be empathetically designed to vastly improve our day-to-day existence.

In our fourth session, two of my favorite humans, and Wikipedia-worthy badasses, Elliot Kotek (co-founder of Not Impossible Labs, multi-award winner and CEO of Nation of Artists whose body of work has amassed more than 1.5 billion media impressions and is archived in MOMA) and his long time buddy Chris Denson (creator and host of Innovation Crush, a series with over 750,000 subscribers around the globe, author of best-selling Crushing the Box and newly appointed SVP, US Director of Innovation for agency MullenLowe), discussed applying human centric design to very human problems… like how to support kids going through chemotherapy. Part of the team that brought the Aflac Duck—a highly sophisticated “toy”with four pending patents—to kids across the country, Elliot shared how this TIME Invention of the year and CES Tech for Good award winner is giving kids back a sense of agency, helping them communicate their feelings and encouraging them to stay connected to others versus isolated – all of which are driving improved health outcomes. Impressed, Chris counted with an experience he created that empowered folks to eat 3D printed scans of their brain patterns … on the path to better understanding the value of mindfulness practices. ;)  Key takeaway here: designing with (vs for) all stakeholders creates breakthrough, literally world changing ideas

As wearables and biometric readers permeate our bodies inside and out, we have barely scratched the surface (ha!) of the innovation that lays just around the corner. And we need to ensure these advances are available to all.  

A Better Prepared Us

So game on! The future needs us all to step up and step in right now and become caring visionaries, willing to rethink, reimagine and redesign much better solutions. Ones that are safe, sustainable, inclusive and hold us all well.

I hope you gift yourself a view of this entire event. The conversations above were only 7-8 min long each (we packed a lot in!) with some commentary before and after. Half way through you’ll find a beautiful, created-on-the-spot performance by beatbox artist + singer, Butterscotch, who reminded us that “we are all we have”. Damn straight!   

What does it take to prepare for this work? We ended the experience in way in which I hope you start your year: zen buddhist teacher (and former psychotherapist), Flint Sparks, led us in a meditation, encouraging us to “mind the gap” by holding space for Grounding, Awareness and Presence. Cultivating these practices are essential for being able to take good care of ourselves as we work hard to take better care of each other.

In case you are wondering if you’re ready to take this on, here is one a minute lift provided by eleven changemakers I adore as they share the words that guide me forward each day.  

… A Better Next

I am grateful for all who participated in our first event of the year, and for all you each do to make this world work better. We loved the way this event felt, so as my book launches in a few short weeks, we hope to offer similarly inspiring experiences that make this journey feel less daunting, quite doable and irresistibly inspiring! So stay tuned and let's use this extraordinary moment to put love and imagination into action as we work together to transform a very dark year into a brighter and so much better era. It's high time for Leadering! 

xox Nancy