Google’s former chief executive and chair Eric Schmidt has launched a new foundation – Schmidt Futures – to support social advances through technology in both the US and UK. He says that, to deliver the changes we need, we must take a more positive and entrepreneurial outlook.
At a moment when Britain faces big changes and challenges, remember that you’ve made it before.
The fundamental strengths that made Britain great haven’t vanished – but neither are they guaranteed. With each new generation of technology, we must reinvest in those strengths, and reinvent them. One of the keys to this must be entrepreneurship.
The industrial revolution didn’t happen inevitably or by accident. It was driven by people with transformative ideas, skills, organisations and networks for change were empowered to create the change they wanted to create in the world.
Britain can do it again, this time in an age of far greater complexity and interconnectedness, with far more powerful technology. How can Britain raise a new generation of entrepreneurs who can lead the world again through the next great economic and technological revolution?
Imagine if a job seeker in this country had access to a Google Maps for jobs – a tool for finding every job and educational opportunity available to them, while getting personalised recommendations on the cost and availability of new training that could specifically help them achieve higher wages.
If every student, regardless of income, could have their own personal tutor. If we could use techniques from astronomy to detect cancer in the human body, saving more lives and reducing the need for invasive and unnecessary surgery.
If we could model the future of natural ecosystems and environments with enough precision that we could respond in time to preserve them – saving our most precious resources from the advance of climate change.
Imagine if we could harness the power of science and technology to take on issues such as refugees, homelessness and the battle for open democracies.
In the next couple of decades, science and technology will make help us make big advancements in each of these areas:
If we can harness the positive power of each of these technologies – while understanding and mitigating the side effects and challenges that will naturally accompany them – then we can take on the hardest challenges facing Britain and the world in entirely new ways.
But for that to happen, we also need to rethink our definition of entrepreneurship. When you think of an entrepreneur, who do you picture? A lot of people immediately think of a trendy hipster in a glamorous co-working space in Shoreditch. The modern assumption of entrepreneurship gravitates towards this idea of a singular iconic founder – leaders like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson.
These assumptions might apply to some entrepreneurs. But the truth is, they leave out so many more. Entrepreneurs can be found anywhere and everywhere.
They are change-makers, risk-takers, long-term thinkers and doers who exist in many different roles, organisations and communities, in the private and public sectors. A business leader can be an entrepreneur, but so can a scientist, an artist, an educator or a civil servant.
And even in a future that will be shaped by powerful emerging technologies – especially in that future – we need leaders in every field and industry to step up and embrace the spirit of entrepreneurship.
Instead of fixating on who we think entrepreneurs should be, we should focus on what they do.
Real entrepreneurs set an audacious vision that is ambitious and personal. Something that solves an important problem in the world, and that working towards drives them every day – and motivates other great people to come and join them on that journey.
Entrepreneurs don’t just have incredible commitment, they also have the technical, people and business skills to turn an idea into a reality – to pursue their vision every day, one step at a time. Even if it takes years to achieve.
And entrepreneurs are foolish enough to think they can achieve their vision, but smart enough to know how hard it will be. And yet they try.
That’s what makes entrepreneurs so powerful and essential for our society. They are the people who take what we can only imagine today, and turn it into a reality.
Supporting these entrepreneurs, and their ambitious visions, is something that my wife Wendy and I are working to do through our new philanthropic effort. This something that we started last year called Schmidt Futures, which we think of as a venture facility for public benefit.
Our vision is to support breakthrough discoveries in science and technology, which can help us to go on and solve the biggest challenges facing our society. We’ve been working on this for about a year now, and we’re discovering some interesting things about what it takes for breakthrough ideas to achieve both success and scale.
Today, I believe there has been a market failure in the way we support entrepreneurship as a society – a set of major obstacles that have emerged, and are preventing the best ideas for human progress from coming to scale. There are three big failures that I see around the world – including here in Britain.
The first is people. Far too often, we invest mostly in people we already know, who are working in very narrow disciplines. London is a big city, but a small community. People get known here, and once they’re known, they tend to enjoy all the benefits that come from being part of a tight and intricate network. Money, attention and promotions tend to flow mostly to the known quantities who are doing great work in a very specific field.
But for every great scientist, artist, educator you think you know, there’s probably a dozen more doing equally valuable work. Until they get recognition and funding you probably won’t help them. But they won’t get recognition and funding without your help.
The second is platforms. We frequently don’t build the best technology platforms to tackle big social challenges, because often there is no immediate promise of commercial return. For example, there are a million e-commerce apps but not enough specialty platforms for safely sharing and analysing data on homelessness, climate change or refugees.
The third is partnerships, and the way different players work together in the same ecosystem and industry. Today we live in an interconnected world, with globalisation and technology driving greater complexity across our society. That means it’s impossible to think about any major challenge for society in a silo.
This means the most valuable way of thinking about problems as entrepreneurs is to adopt systems thinking – thinking about how we can connect contributors within a system so they can work together on a common and interconnected set of solutions, in an organised and data-driven manner. But how often does that happen? Clearly we need new models for working together and new incentives.
Based on the work we’ve been doing with Schmidt Futures, I believe there is a way for industry, government, academia, and organisations exactly like the Centre for Entrepreneurs to work together and find new solutions.
Correcting the failures of the market has many dimensions. But perhaps the most urgent task is to support the next generation of entrepreneurs – and changing the way we think about talent.
The most valuable thing that all of us can do to support entrepreneurs, in our organisations and in our society, is to rethink the way we approach people – hiring, developing, supporting a new and more diverse community of entrepreneurial talent.
We need to support and invest in world-class talent with the imagination and creativity to apply their work in interesting ways across disciplines.
Think about the human genome project. Major contributions were needed from biology and genetics. But for the effort to succeed, expertise was needed from across engineering, mathematics and computer science as well. The difficulty of the problem made everyone involved push the limits of their own fields and pioneer new ones.
There are many other types of challenges today, that need talented people doing great work across disciplines. But the very nature of the work makes it harder for people to get funding. They don’t fit in the standard silos.
My ask for all of you is to take an open mind to the people you’re reaching out to. So as you’re looking for your next hire, or your next potential investment, ask yourself this. How could you look to tap entrepreneurial talent and ideas in fields and industries outside of your own? How could you work with scientists as well as tech startups? How could you work with innovators in non-technical roles, and people who are doing valuable work on solving the social challenges of technology?
Does this person really need to have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge? Does it matter if they’ve had two years of experience or 10 years, if they have the attitude, imagination and ideas to make a difference?
These are all the questions we must ask ourselves as a society if we want to get the right people to fuel a new Renaissance moment for Britain – because it always starts with getting great people.
This is exactly what we’re working to achieve through Schmidt Futures – finding and betting on talented people from diverse backgrounds who are working across disciplines, but have yet to be recognised.
I’m excited that we’ve engaged the presidents, heads of research, and science departments at 60 leading universities – on every continent worldwide except Antarctica – to help find this talent as part of our Schmidt Science Fellows.
But we’re just getting started, and there’s a lot more that all of us can be doing here to promote truly interdisciplinary talent.
We need to do a much better job with harnessing technology platforms to solve the biggest challenges facing society. Talent and money tend to flow to areas where there are obvious financial returns, but not to other societal challenges where advanced computing could make a difference.
Part of my objective at Schmidt Futures is to invest the risk capital – in the form of people, expertise, and money – to develop these platforms for use by scientists and others. We’ll evaluate success of these platforms over time, and publish the results.
We also need an agenda for promoting systems level thinking across industries and sectors, not just an endless march toward piece-part specialisation.
The problems of an age of complexity cannot be solved by any one industry or set of people alone, so the future we want to achieve will be built by encouraging more partnerships. You cannot invent an algorithm that will solve the global refugee crisis, and there’s no magic bullet policy that will solve the challenge of job creation in a post-automation society.
When you combine social, political and technological solutions together, and when developers work together with scientists, policymakers and the public sector, researchers and philanthropists, that’s when our society will make the greatest progress.
But it all begins and ends with people. If we can encourage interdisciplinary thinking, and get away from the tunnel vision academic and professional specialisations that waste so much of people’s creativity and imagination.
If we can overcome our conscious, unconscious and institutional biases towards a narrow archetype of what an entrepreneur should be – a person of the right age, or with the right connections or academic background – we will unleash a new generation of talent with fresh ideas, insights and inventions that will lead Britain and the world into the future.
What if we can develop educational software that is as effective as a personal tutor and engaging as the best video games – and that proves the biggest boost for students from low-income backgrounds who are often left behind?
What if we can double our capacity to use intermittent, renewable energy without compromising the reliability of the grid? What if we can shorten the time to develop new drugs for treating emerging infectious diseases from years to weeks – mitigating one of the biggest existential risks to the future of humanity?
What if we can use advanced computing to improve health care diagnostics and decision making, to lower costs and improve outcomes?
All these things are possible. But not all are achievable, unless we help entrepreneurs in all these fields confront and correct the market failures standing in the way of the best minds and the best ideas that are key to inventing our future.
We can’t wait. The work we all do together is important for peace and prosperity; it is important for justice; and it is also important for the long-term future of liberal democracy. But none of these efforts are taking place in a vacuum.
If we fail to encourage more diverse and interdisciplinary thinking, and partnerships between science and technology, industry, policymakers and the rest of society, then we are sleepwalking into the future.
But if we choose to work together, we can do incredible things.
This is an edited version of Eric Schmidt’s inaugural Centre for Entrepreneurs annual lecture, delivered this week at London’s Royal Institution.