How to Fix Civilization

Note how pervasive this is — every social structure, organization, institution, has its own immune system. Many of these are broken. Yet these are what our civilization is built on.

Salim Ismail
Salim Ismail

I’ve been saying for a few years that democracy doesn’t work anymore (see this talk if interested). On this unique day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, I thought it appropriate to paste the script of a TEDx talk I did in Toronto in October. It’s titled “Fixing Civilization”.

As you read the text or watch the video, think about two points. 1) this election was an immune system response, and 2) note that the rise of fundamentalism globally is the same response. Conservative groups in every ideology (Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian) are saying “I can’t take this pace of change — let’s go back to an older time when things were ‘better’.

===============Script of TEDx talk =============

Exactly ten years ago, I learned a central lesson in my career, which is if you attempt disruptive innovation in any large organization, its immune system will attack you. At the time I was joining Yahoo to run Brickhouse, their new incubator. The idea was to hire the best developers in the world, set up away from HQ and Fastrack great ideas back into the company. Out of thousands of technology ideas, at any given point we should be building the top five.

But literally on day 2, I was sitting with my team looking at our empty office thinking about bean bags and ping pong tables, when a furniture truck rolled up — full of cubicles and corporate colored couches. Because one of the rules at Yahoo was that a new office had to be furnished within 48 hrs. And even though I had sign off all the way up to Jerry Yang to operate independently, the facilities guy insisted on delivering the furniture.. why? Because his bonus depended on it. He said “you can get rid of it this afternoon, but I’m coming in”.

I managed to send him away, but it took an entire afternoon of phone calls to his boss and bosses boss and my boss and my bosses boss. Then, three weeks later, the same furniture truck rolled up. Because his manager had changed, noticed our office didn’t have official furniture and he wanted to fix it.

And that was just one rule. Between HR, legal, finance, it was death by a thousand cuts — by the end of my tenure, I was spending 80% of my time fighting the mothership, our ability to act differently was completely destroyed and nobody was having any fun.

I’m sure many of you can relate to this — it happens because all our organizations are built to resist change and withstand risk. They’re architected for efficiency, predictability and precision — with standardized procedures, key performance indicators and five year strategic plans.

Many companies struggle with their incubators — because the minute you try bringing a new initiative back in, the immune system rejects it.

One company that has successfully navigated this is Apple — yes, they have a great design capability and a great technology supply chain, but their real innovation is actually organizational — what they do, unlike any other company, is they’ll form a small team that’s highly disruptive, put them at the edge of the organization, keep them completely stealth and then say “go disrupt another industry”. Nobody else does this! They started with music, then phones, then tablets — and now payments, watches and healthcare. There’s no limit to their market cap. They avoid their immune system by pointing away from their core and disrupting other industries.

Now, that’s the private sector. But what I’ve learned while studying this immune system problem is that it’s much worse in our public institutions — if you try and update the education system, you battle the teachers’ unions, bitcoin is attacked by the financial sector — Uber is attacked by the taxis, quite literally in some cases.

It’s very biological, very emotional — and often violent.

Note how pervasive this is — every social structure, organization, institution, has its own immune system. Many of these are broken. Yet these are what our civilization is built on.

Take our political system — we invented representative democracies when information was scarce — if you were in Washington, DC, you had no idea what was happening in California — see the speed of a horse was as fast as information could travel. But today, we have an abundance of information and our democracies can’t cope. That abundance of information gets misinterpreted and misused.

Every major democracy today is broken. India.. broken. Brazil, broken. The UK broke in June — the US, regardless of what happens in this election, is broken. Note the difficulty to hold Canada together..

Or, take an institution as basic as marriage.. we invented marriage about 15,000 years ago [correction — it seems to be about 5000 years ago]. At the time, average lifespan was about 25. So you got married, you had kids — and you died. It wasn’t designed to last 50–60 years — And what happens when we extend human lifespan to 120, especially with changing gender norms and reproductive rights. Are we supposed to stay with the same partner for 100 years? That’s basically state-sanctioned torture!

So having examined this for several years now, today I want to invite you into a process we’re developing to fix this pervasive issue.

“Because for civilization to progress, we have to solve the immune system problem.”

Especially today, we have a forcing function — we have extreme disruption coming from technology. We’ve seen Moore’s law and the doubling of computational power for 60 years now. And right now we have about a dozen technologies doubling in the same way. It’s a unique time where we’ve just never this seen this before. In neuroscience for example, the resolution at which we can image the brain is doubling every 12 months. This doubling pattern is also occurring in biotech, AI, robotics, sensors and others.

We can find a dramatic example in solar energy. Solar cells are doubling every 22 months in their price performance and have been doing so steadily for 40 years. At this pace, we’ll hit 100% of world energy supply that can be delivered by solar in less than 2 decades. This means energy, which has been scarce for the whole of human history, is about to become abundant.

Now, each of these technologies is doubling on its own, but where they intersect adds a whole other multiplier and the aggregate effect is profound.

Say you take solar, intersect it with sensors, robotics and AI — and apply that to transportation, you get something like this — my Tesla which autonomously drove me from Miami to Toronto recently was like having a private train — I crossed the entire continent in one piece and because the charging stations are free, it cost me zero.

Back in the 15th century, we had the Gutenberg moment when the printing press changed everything. Today you could say we have about 20 such Gutenberg moments all happening at the same time. Just biotech will touch every aspect of our society — then add in drones. Then add in bitcoin or the hyperloop. The list just keeps going, and it’s all happening right now.

After I left yahoo in 2008, I had the honour of being invited by NASA to the founding conference of something we ended up calling Singularity University — they’d brought together 70 thought leaders from around silicon valley to ask if it was worth creating an educational institution solely focused on accelerating technologies and their global impact. I asked a few too many questions during that session and a few weeks later, Peter Diamandis and the board asked me to run it. I remember getting home that day and my wife asked ‘how was your day’ and I said — Honey, I think I’m a dean!

So I’ve found myself for the last eight years, leading workshops and group discussions and running entire courses on the future of all these fast-moving technologies. I feel very very privileged to be one of few people to interact with almost with all the researchers, scientists and thought leaders that come to both teach and learn about intersection and future implications of these technologies.

With this experience I published a book about how dramatically business is changing… examining a new breed of exponential organizations — companies like Uber or Airbnb that scale their organization structures as fast as we can scale technology.

What I found is that every company today wants to bridge into this digital world, but their immune system slows them down.

Last summer, I got a call from some executives at P&G who were interested in implementing ideas from my book. Having thought about this for some time, I suggested a framework and they agreed to test it — Together, we crafted and ran a 10-week process to a) generate disruptive ideas at the edge of the organization and b) block the immune system from responding. The outcome was amazing — five major initiatives were launched, all got funding approval and the immune system didn’t attack. It’s been 18 months now and they’re still going strong.

So I built a team to coach organizations through this process, which we call an ExO Sprint — and here’s how it works…

  • you gather leaders across all functions and run a workshop on the disruption that’s imminent. Very much shock and awe.
  • Then, you take a few small teams of young leaders/future lieutenants and empower them to act disruptively at the edge of the organization much like Apple does.
  • some teams look at technology opportunities and propose a new generation of disruptive ideas to be built at the edge
  • Other teams focus on preparing the existing organization for a world requiring speed and agility

They then present these new initiatives and pitch them for funding… we’ve now run this process a number of times and we’ve seen 95% of such initiatives get fully funded..

A key reason this all works is that opening workshop has the incumbents realize viscerally that staying still is not an option. It shocks them enough so that when new ideas appear, they don’t attack the way they normally might. It’s like a doctor administering drugs to suppress the immune system during a kidney transplant so the new organ can safely integrate.

So my next question became — how do we apply this to public institutions? Here the existing policies ARE the immune system. Take drones — the first reaction by the FAA is to ban them and then slowly open the tap — with this approach it’ll take 20 years to fully realize the benefits. Same with Bitcoin.

My good friend Sonal Shah, who worked at the white house and now runs the Beeck Center at Georgetown University, clarified it for me — she said “Salim, don’t forget that most public policy is determined defensively and reactively”.

But if we look at Uber, their success comes from deliberately breaking the law, leapfrog to public acceptance and just wait for policy to catch up.

So how do we adapt public policy to take advantage of these new Gutenberg moments rather than fighting them? With this thought we adapted our sprint to take public policy into account and approached the Mayor of Medellin, in Colombia, which was recently named as the most innovative city in the world.

Together, we picked four major problems facing the city — transportation — corruption — healthcare and education — raised funding from local foundations and started the process.

We run the opening workshop in much the same way, but then it looks slightly different. We cycle each problem through four layers.

  • One is a technology layer — for example in transportation, how might drones or autonomous cars transform that sector?
  • The second is a design layer — how does the solution look portrayed in society.. this includes media/narrative, design thinking and science fiction style narratives
  • The third is the money question.. do you raise taxes, is it pay per use or do you privatize?
  • And finally, the most important is the social layer. Here we look at the policy changes, regulatory challenges, public safety needs, legal and governance issues. This layer analyzes necessary policy changes so that before the technology is developed, we’ve worked out the regulatory issues to hit the ground running.

For example, to get to the airport in Medellin, which is in the next valley, you have to take a switchback road up a mountain, then down the other side into Rio Negro — takes about 45 mins. Then it rains, a truck skids out and nobody can get to the airport the rest of the day. What we’re currently proposing is to use drones to carry packages across the mountain and get rid of many of the trucks. Just this will reduce traffic by up to 40% and it will cost 1/10th of a conventional solution.

I will never forget something Tony Robbins once said to me. He said “Look Salim, there’s a group that has a good sense that the world is really changing — that’s the TED community. Then there’s a small subset of that who understand just how extensive that change is… that’s what I’d call the Singularity University crowd. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the people that have a sense of what to actually DO about it.

That conversation transformed my thinking from what I could do, to what IMUST do.

So…we’ve assembled an amazing team and formed a non-profit around this process literally called the Fastrack Institute — it’s being run by Rodrigo Arboleda, who used to run the OLPC project. Our hope is to tap into this global community, fine-tune these Sprints, document how to do it, and make it available for free. We’re going to open-source the whole thing. You can learn more at

I FORGOT TO SAY THIS LINE…. [History is littered with civilizations like the Incas, the Mayans, and the Romans… that grew to enormous size, then suddenly collapsed, unable to adapt to rapid changes. Same with the dinosaurs! ]

The crux of it is this… technology is dramatically changing our world at an accelerating pace, yet the organizations and institutions we live and work by aren’t able to adapt. Healthcare, legal, financial, political — all set up several hundred years ago and have grown bigger and bigger to operate in a globalized world — now they’ve become too big to feed and too big to fail.

I’m very clear that the only way our civilization survives this next transition is to suppress the immune systems and give life to ideas that better map to where technology is taking us.

Thank you..

This article was first published on Jan 20, 2017 on Medium.

You can find out more about Salim here.
CivilizationExponential OrganizationsCultureGlobal GovernanceGlobal Grand ChallengesImpactInstitutionsSmart CitiesSalim Ismail

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Salim's the author of Exponential Organizations. He's an XPRIZE Foundation Board member, Founding Executive Director of Singularity University; Chairman of OpenExO & ExO Works, etc