Salim Ismail Keynote Lecture

Cities, the future of civilisation

On 4 February, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the Master Conference "Cities, the future of civilisation", to be given by Salim Ismail.

Salim Ismail is an entrepreneur, strategist and renowned speaker based in Silicon Valley who discusses issues related to disruptive technologies and their impact on industry and society. He is a regular contributor to media outlets such as the New York Times, Bloomberg, Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, Wired, Vogue and the BBC.

He was instrumental in founding Singularity University at NASA Ames Research Center. He has served as CEO and global ambassador for this institution. Previously, as a vice president at Yahoo, he built and developed Brickhouse, its internal incubator. His company, Angstro, was acquired by Google in August 2010. He has founded and operated seven companies including PubSub search systems. In 2003 he was recognised as one of the top 40 entrepreneurs by the conglomerate Crain Communications. In 2014 he published his book "Exponential Organizations", an Amazon Business Management Best Seller and considered the book of the year on growth, innovation and leadership by Frost & Sullivan.


On 4 February 2020, Salim Ismail, President and co-founder of OpenExO & ExO Works, ED founder of Singularity University and Partner of Rokk3r Fuel ExO, gave a conference at the Rafael del Pino Foundation entitled "Cities, the future of civilisation". Ismail began his speech by asking what we can do about the tremendous disruption that is taking place, how it is going to change society. He said that when he worked at Yahoo! he learned something very important, and that is that when disruption arises, the immune system of institutions attacks these changes to try to prevent them. To understand disruption, the fundamental picture is Moore's law, which states that the processing power of computers doubles every two years. In fact, society's information processing capacity has been doubling for a hundred years. Why do we know that this evolution is so predictable and will continue to be so in the future? Because the exponential profile of this curve has not been affected by economic crises, wars or any other event. Because when industry is combined with information technology, the latter acquires the properties of flow. This is when duplication begins. When this process starts, it does not stop. It goes on and on because when the curve seems to reach a limit, something else comes along to prolong the trend. That role is currently played by innovations such as three-dimensional printing or quantum computing, among others. Moore's law is therefore here to stay, and we are entering the world of infinite computing and storage. In the same way, thanks to technological change, we will have abundant resources a decade from now, such as water, energy or the possibilities of using space, as opposed to the scarcity that has dominated human existence until now. The current disruption is the most important transition our society has ever undergone. Civilisation as we know it is breaking down. Never before have we seen that the pattern of duplication, the paradigm that drives everything, is appearing not in one but in several technologies at the same time, for example, neuroscience, drones. This used to happen with one technology, but now twelve technologies are accelerating simultaneously. This is a process that is difficult for us to understand, because our view of the world leads us to a linear extrapolation. The universe, however, works in curves. In this transition, marginal cost plummets to zero and, as a consequence, the sector or industry concerned explodes. The nature of the problems facing societies has consequently changed. It used to be how to cope with scarcity. Now we are moving into an era of abundance and the problem is how to filter the trillions of data that are or will be generated. This, of course, affects the business world because traditional businesses no longer make money. That is because, until now, every business was based on scarcity. Digitalisation and technology, on the other hand, give us abundance. We see this, for example, in the plummeting cost of lighting a house, DNA sequencing or solar energy. In the past, advanced technologies cost a lot of money and only real economic giants had the resources to generate and use them. Now, however, advanced technologies are cheap, and increasingly so. This creates a different world because, because they are cheap, anyone can use them. Blockchain, for example, is open source. The same goes for drones, their cost, their payload capacity and their range. So this is a big paradigm shift and we have to start thinking about how we take advantage of it. The most important disruption is the transformation of solar energy. Its generation capacity is doubling every eighteen months and has been doubling for forty years. As a result, we can guarantee energy for the whole world by 2031 and, by 2050, we can guarantee generation eight times the planet's needs. Of course, this will have tremendous geopolitical consequences. So solar energy, which has been scarce for thousands of years, is going to become abundant. The difficult part is storage, but here too progress is being made and a lithium battery now costs 90% less than it did ten years ago. Autonomous vehicles are also affected by Moore's law, because they now carry many more sensors and the software is better. When you digitise, things get more complicated because the implications of that are very high because of the cost drop. That is the change that is happening in this society. There are actually twenty transformations that are happening simultaneously, like solar energy, drones, neuroscience, biotechnology, autonomous cars. This is really affecting our companies and institutions. None of them are going to overcome this, because revenues plummet with digitisation, for example, newspapers, or because you go from selling something that has value to an activity, for example, from cd to iTunes or Spotify. The problem is that when we have exponential change the experts in that field don't see it because their view is linear. Change, however, is unstoppable because the cost is falling and that is a disruption of the status quo. So you can't beat that process, so you have to leverage technology to be disruptive. Thousands of entrepreneurs are operating with that mindset and it's changing the world. There are twenty impressive technological breakthroughs that affect every institution, whether it's healthcare, education, journalism, intellectual property. But our intellectuals and our leaders cannot cope with it because they are not prepared for it. Much of the implementation of these new ideas is happening at the level of cities, not countries, because it is too complex for countries because they are too big to manage it. Cities, on the other hand, are bigger and more complex today than they were a hundred years ago, so we are going back to the Greek model of seeing the world at the city level. Our economic systems are going to break down because we are managing the world on the level of debt. We also don't know what jobs are going to look like in five years' time, so we don't know what we are going to teach students. Technology is advancing faster than we can teach it. Democracy is also affected because today we have an overabundance of information, which is misinterpreted. As a result, all the democracies in the world are broken because their metabolism is too slow for the changes that technology is introducing. The same is true of marriage, due to the increase in life expectancy, which we will double in twenty years. The institution of marriage, however, was made for shorter lives, not for living that long. And the UN has also become obsolete. It was born to resolve conflicts between countries, but today 80% of the world's wars are civil wars. So all our institutions are breaking down. Technology opens up very interesting possibilities, but that requires a very different mindset. Society has to start thinking exponentially, because the linear vision is generating a lot of uncertainties and, with it, a lot of resistance. The only thing, however, that is driving progress in the world is technology.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.