I’ve just returned from my second session at THNK: The Amsterdam School for Creative Leadership. There I joined 29 other ‘creative leaders’ and faculty team to explore the big ideas emerging in the world and how our own passions and projects might create transformational change. The program is split into 4 parts and run over 14 hour+ days whilst in Amsterdam as well as remote learning:

Quest: Personal development through professional and peer-to-peer coaching.

Forum: Debates and discussions with creative leaders.

Challenge: A partner to THNK sets the question, and you and your team go through a ‘creation flow’ process to provide a solution that can be used. Our challenge was from Vodafone NL and the brief was: What do we do with big data?

Accelerator: Applying THNK learning & resources to your start-up or big idea.

At the start of the session we were asked to think about what we wanted to achieve from the next 10 days. I wrote down: 5 big insights that I can apply.

Insight #1: Amazon has replaced The Amazon.

‘What do you think children today would say when they hear the word Amazon?’

Werner Vogels, the Chief Technology Officer of Amazon Ltd responded instinctively to my question: ‘Where you go to find whatever you need.’

A pedantic question maybe but the point here is that in putting the consumer at the heart of everything, companies like Amazon have simply empowered us to become expert gatherers of ‘anything that’s legal’. That’s impressive as a service but it’s also changing the narrative of the world rapidly away from something more authentic. Is that what we really want as ‘customers’?

 Werner’s pure business innovation insights, however, were very valuable:

  • Make mistakes with small number of customers first
  • You can experiment more if your cost of failure is low
  • Don’t build a business pan, build a business
  • Lean start-ups: reducing waste is anything that’s not delivering value for the customer
  • Get product into hands of customer ASAP
  • Start with a press release (theory) and work back to product

Insight #2: Transparency of data is a big wave coming

As we began to transform the THNK work-space into a post-it note apocalypse some clear patterns began to emerge around our challenge topic of ‘big data’:

  • Data used in the right way can economically empower people
  • Data is a potential currency for positive user-commerce
  • Data has potential to prevent conflict and increase well-being
  • Data is abundant, a renewable resource that is not scarce.
  • Data owners (telecoms etc..) are not trusted.
  • Data will be in the hands of a further 3bn young, innovative & motivated people in emerging markets within the next 10 years.

The challenge or opportunity for telecoms and other mass data hoarders is to somehow hand-back control and ownership of data to the producers of it: us.

The first movers in this field will be the biggest winners. We started to prototype what a transparent data service might look like and called it Splash.

Insight #3: Nature has the answers we’re looking for but artificial intelligence could undermine this opportunity

By mid-week we had a trio of inspirational forums:

  1. Anthropologist and migration philosopher Wayne Modest asked us ‘how can people live together’ and suggests the solution is a smarter re-distribution of resources so that our movement between places becomes more efficient. When asked if national boundaries barely exist anymore, Wayne said: ‘Try traveling on a Jamaican passport.’
  2. Biomimicry expert Saskia van den Muijsenberg resonated with me and asked; ‘What is the function of our concepts/work? And how might nature deal with this?’ Asknature.org for some amazing answers.
  3. Artificial Intelligence guru Prof Anders Sandberg exploded our minds and challenged us to realize that AI is happening and how should we use it responsibly.

What stuck with me from these three sessions is that playing God may lead to a ‘smarter version of me’ but that we would sacrifice our humanity in the process at a time when we’ve only just started to learn from 3.5bn years of evolution. In other words, look back to go forward.

Insight #4: Your ‘sweet-spot’ is at the meeting of your passion, talent & value.

Tech software entrepreneur Mark Randall dropped in to share his story. Draw three circles and label them as:

  1. Things that you like
  2. Things that you’re good at
  3. Things that people pay/value you for

Where all three overlap is what is meaningful to you. Everything else follows from there. 

Insight #5: Megacities (10m + inhabitants) will become the bright resilient islands of the world but not sustainable unless our culture changes.

Rem Koolhaas Architect Reiner de Graaf outlined a dramatic version of the future of where we will live: Over half the world’s population now lives in cities and this will only increase as agriculture as we know it declines into a map of megacities.

The challenges are clearly enormous but the biggest question is what a progressive and sustainable megacity might look like when it holds more power than it’s surround nation states?

Sustainable Construction expert Livia Tirone argued that the big barrier is not technology or economics but culture. We will be resistant because our instinct is to survive but to thrive and sustain we have to change our behaviour. Decentralizing wealth into a circular economy is the first step.

 And we also fitted in the best canal party in the world… all I can say is Queen’s Day Amsterdam is something I’d recommend to everyone.