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What Does the Future Of Innovation Look Like? Thought Leaders At 'The Intersection' Give Us a Glimpse

Writing and data science both involve telling stories and there are many stories to be told in Silicon Valley. In these articles, I attempt to convey a human portrait of the tech world by offering a personal account of some of the events that I attend. Recently, I went to The Intersection, a conference on innovation and social change.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – “I want you to go up to that lady in red and ask her if she knows what a maglev train is.” Josiah, an outgoing and precocious 18-year old, looks across the courtyard, hesitating.

“I’ll pay you $20 if she says yes,” prods James Sinclair, a charismatic 30-something with a British accent wearing a Yankees baseball cap. Josiah approaches cautiously, reluctant to interrupt the woman’s conversation. Eventually, she looks up, smiles, shakes her head, and Josiah is back at our table.

Sinclair, graceful in victory, resumes the role of mentor. “Forget this nonsense about compressed vacuum tubes and magnetic-levitation trains. Just say you want to build a new type of train.” Josiah nods eagerly and walks off, new pitch in hand. It is a sunny Saturday afternoon and I am at The Intersection, a one-day gathering of thought leaders on the topic of innovation and social change, held this year at Google’s Mountain View campus.

Everyone has his own pitch here (in Brooklyn, we might use the word “hustle”). Sinclair, a natural salesman, is all about the value of networks. “Your worth,” he tells me, “is determined by the quality of your social network.” Fittingly, his startup, Can We Connect, uses statistical algorithms to recommend individuals whom you should connect with at professional events.

He tells me his goal at each conference is to meet at least five people whom he would enjoy having a cup of coffee with. “The potential can be anything: friendship, professional, relationship.” What matters is that one is continually expanding and enhancing one’s social network.

After lunch, the first session I attend is entitled, “The Click Moment,” and features the engaging and utterly entertaining Frans Johansson. His argument, presented in catchy sound-bites, is deeply Talebian in nature. “Using a logical approach cannot possibly set you apart,” he insists. “We need to feel like we know what we’re doing while still introducing serendipity and randomness in our actions.” He cites the Egyptian revolution and the success of Twilight as examples of events that came into being not because of logical necessity but because of chance.

“This is the worst-written book that ever made the New York Times best-seller list!” he exclaims, to laughter. “But Stephanie Meyer did something different. She created a totally different type of vampire.”

“The world moves in unexpected ways,” he concludes. “Make sure you move with it.”

Frans then interviewed Twitter founder Evan Williams, a largely forgettable exchange, which was followed by an informercial for Google’s self-driving car. Attendees had various reactions ranging from “I was in tears!” to “It was clearly over the top.”

Steve Jurvetson, one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists, then had a session on the science of innovation. Citing typical Kurzweilian arguments about semi-conductors, he argues that the pace of innovation was expanding exponentially. “In the coming years, we’ll see remarkable progress in artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, space exploration, and 3D-printing,” he predicts.

As the conference breaks for refreshments, a young lady sitting to my left turns to me and sighs, “We’re all children of post-modernism.” I have no idea what this means so I nod in agreement.

“I agree 100%,” I exclaim. “The next conference should be called ‘The Schopenhauer Effect.’” Her eyes light up, she giggles to her friend sitting next to her, and they both introduce themselves to me. I ask them if they consider themselves hipsters. Maricarmen, a 20-something MBA student in San Francisco, chuckles and shakes her head.

“I’ve heard of SF,” I tell her. “Lots of artists and homeless people. I looked it up on Wikipedia before coming here.” Further giggling ensues and they ask me what session I learned the most from. “I come here primarily to be entertained,” I tell them. And to engage in witty banter with pretty girls. If I succeed in at least one of the two, I leave happy. “You’re funny,” she says. We exchange contact information and muse about possible collaborations on the intersection between urban renewal, stochasticity, and epistemology.

The next session is on the role of data in improving the quality of education. One of the speakers is Eric Nadelstern, former deputy chancellor of the New York City public school system, who speaks about the lack of accountability in education. As a product of the New York City public school system from K-12, I feel compelled to speak up in the question and answer session.

“I’m a data scientist and I love data,” I begin. “But I also value randomness, and I know that the best moments of my education were purely experiential. My math teacher who recognized my abilities in 6th grade and encouraged me to start learning algebra on my own; My history teacher in AP US History who taught me the value of critical inquiry and started me down the path of becoming a writer.”

This intersection, I argue, is critical to understanding the crisis in education. How can we integrate an emphasis on data and measurement with a realization that purpose of a great education is to promote abstract skills and encourage self-actualization? I’m not fully satisfied by the panel’s answers, which include abstract proposals in support of decentralization and community-based standards and decision-making.

During the next break, I spot maglev girl, whose name turns out to be Heather Mason. I make small talk with her and quickly discover that she’s a fellow Ron Paul supporter. “They were going to mint a trillion dollar coin!” she exclaims, lecturing me on monetary policy and fiscal responsibility.

I also run into Mark Weinstein, who sadly turns out not to be Harvey’s brother. He pitches his start-up to me, Sgrouples, “the world’s first private social network.” I engage him about the extent to which young people value privacy, provoking an impassioned response. "I have to be like Socrates," he says, predicting an upcoming privacy revolution that will revolutionize the industry. “Privacy,” he insists, “is a core value.”

The final session on social innovation hosts Bill Draper, one of the Valley’s first venture capitalists who started his career in 1959, and in 2002, shifted his efforts to promoting social entrepreneurship. He approvingly quotes Andrew Carnegie’s life philosophy, according to which one should spend the first third of one’s life getting educated, the second third making money, and the final third, intelligently giving away one’s money. “There’s nothing wrong with making money,” he insists. “But giving it away is much more rewarding.”

Hamdan Azhar writes about public policy and the intersection of technology and society. He lives in Palo Alto.

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