A Q&A with Brainstorm attendees
FORTUNE asks attendees about the issues, people and values that matter now.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) -- Every day, we are bombarded with urgent, must-solve problems. But with limited resources, how do we prioritize what matters today and just as important, what moves the world tomorrow?
To gain some insight, FORTUNE asked Brainstorm attendees the hot topics on their radars this year - what issues deserve attention, which people extend influence and what values remain close to heart.
Like their writers, responses ran the full gamut. Terrorism, global warming and nuclear proliferation were often cited as must-solve problems. Movers and shakers for the next decade included the presidents of the United States, China and Iraq as well as emerging entrepreneurs who would revolutionize the world, again. Age-old values such as honesty, freedom and integrity also ranked high.
Below are some insightful answers that caught FORTUNE's eye.
Carol Bartz, Executive Chairman Autodesk, Inc.
1) Most pressing problem to solve? Why? Perhaps the oldest problem in human history, and one we still haven't resolved, is how to peaceably accommodate widely differing religious views. War and terrorism often are motivated by religious convictions that not only are strongly held but absolutist. Our nation's founders escaped religious persecution to create a county that strives to balance belief and civility -- a brilliant effort enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that our courts still try to define. If the Brainstorm [might] could be channeled to mitigate religiously motivated hatred and extremism, many of the world's other problems, including terrorism, could then be addressed.
2) Your biggest fear? As I indicate in question one, I fear terrorism not only because of the horrible death and destruction it causes, but also because of the climate of fear and hostility that terrorism fosters.
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? The U.S. president, the president of China, and an individual, who perhaps might not yet be identified, who will lead Iraq to stability and peace.
4) Your most cherished value? Honesty. Absent honesty, everything else crumbles. Even ordinary conversation is impossible if we don't speak truthfully. (He says "yes" but does he mean "no?" She said "red" but is it really "green?") Within families, among friends, at the workplace, in school and in just about every context, speaking honestly is the most essential step toward genuine and fulfilling relationships, problem solving, productivity, and happiness.
Mark Cuban, Chairman and President HDNet, LLC
1) Most pressing problem to solve? Why? None. Collective answers built on compromise don't work.
2) Your biggest fear? Collective thinking dominating individual initiative
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? I have no idea.
4) Your most cherished value? Hypocrisy-free living.
William DeKruif, President and Director Sonare Technologies
1) Most pressing problem to solve? Why? With so much information, so many ways to access it, and a continuum of information quality from vulgar to profound, do enough people in our world think for themselves? Do enough people have quality mental tools to think with and to establish principles by? Are we losing the ability to discern the sensational from the meaningful? Are leaders taking advantage of this weakness by hiding in the sensational? Without discerned principles, civility passes to jingoistic factions.
2) Your biggest fear? Political correctness. Fascism by another name. The emerging political correctness is just a nicer, slower way of suppressing one's opposition.
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? Alexis de Toqueville. Yes he has been dead a while. His ideas on how the U.S. could self-destruct are as relevant today as ever, and we must acknowledge, even if it is distasteful to one's sensibilities, that the U.S. has more influence on world affairs than any other nation today. As we evolve, the world evolves. If we unravel, the world will free-for-all. A yet-unnamed Muslim leader. Someone, somewhere will stand up and lead from principles originating from values other than hate and self-loathing. China. Big, energetic, notoriously patient, and smart.
4) Your most cherished value? Liberty. An individual sense of liberty is the catalyst of all great ideas and actionable plans in the free world. Its corollary in the enslaved world is power lust, which by definition is restricted to a few.
Reed Hundt, Former Chairman Federal Communications Commission
1) Most pressing problem to solve? Why? The single biggest problem over the next 20 years is the total lack of "flatness" in the world community. Nations and societies across borders are not developing economically at the same pace; are not obtaining equivalent weaponry; are not achieving democracy at the same rate. Instead, the gap between leaders and followers, winners and losers, is widening. Inequality is the key word of the century. This is also true within nations, most obviously the United States. The subject is in my forthcoming book, "In China's Shadow: The Crisis of American Entrepreneurship" (Yale U. Press: Sept 2006).
2) Your biggest fear? As the world grows progressively less flat, the ability of nations to make wise decisions and of nations to act collectively grows weaker and weaker. There are few institutions to use to solve problems. In some large sense, societies act more foolishly even while they have more knowledge and tools to use than ever before. Very specifically, I fear not acts of terrorism but foolish reactions to those acts; not economic downturn, but foolish reactions to such downturns.
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? The unknown entrepreneur who, like Gates and Grove in the 80s, changes the terms of human action; the unknown scientist who, like Salk or Maxwell, changes the scope of human understanding; the president of the United States, who like it or not has more influence over world politics than anyone else in politics at least for the next decade.
4) Your most cherished value? The sanctity of human life. With peace and freedom from violence and fear, all else is possible.
Steve Jurvetson, Managing Director Draper Fisher Jurvetson
2) Your biggest fear? I tend to be out of touch with fear as an emotion, and so I find myself rationally processing the question and thinking of the worst near-term catastrophe that could affect all of us. At perhaps no time in recorded history has humanity been as vulnerable to viruses and biological pathogens as we are today. We are entering the golden age of natural viruses, and genetically modified and engineered pathogens dramatically compound the near-term threat. Bill Joy summarizes that, "The risk of our extinction as we pass through this time of danger has been estimated to be anywhere from 30% to 50%."
Why are we so vulnerable now? The delicate "virus-host balance" observed in nature (whereby viruses tend not to be overly lethal to their hosts) is a byproduct of biological co-evolution on a geographically segregated planet. And now, both of those limitations have changed. Organisms can be re-engineered in ways that biological evolution would not have explored, or allowed to spread widely, and modern transportation undermines natural quarantine formation.
One example: According to Preston in "The Demon in the Freezer," a single person in a typical university bio-lab can splice the IL-4 gene from the host into the corresponding pox virus. The techniques and effects are public information. The gene is available mail order. The IL-4 splice into mousepox made the virus 100% lethal to its host, and 60% lethal to mice who had been vaccinated (more than 2 weeks prior). Even with a vaccine, the IL-4 mousepox is twice as lethal as natural smallpox (which killed ~30% of unvaccinated people). The last wave of "natural" human smallpox killed over one billion people. Even if we vaccinated everyone, the next wave could be twice as lethal. And, of course, we won't have time to vaccinate everyone nor can we contain outbreaks with vaccinations. Imagine the human dynamic and policy implications if we have a purposeful IL-4 outbreak before we are better prepared....
Here is a series of implications that I fear: 1) Ring vaccinations and mass vaccinations would not work, so 2) Health care workers cannot come near these people, so 3) Victims could not be relocated (with current people and infrastructure) without spreading the virus to the people involved. 4) Quarantine would be essential, but it would be in-situ. Wherever there is an outbreak, there would need to be a hair-trigger quarantine. 5) Unlike prior quarantines, where people could hope for the best, and most would survive, this is very different: everyone in the quarantine area dies. 6) Where do you draw the boundary? Neighborhood? The entire city? With 100% lethality, the risk-reward ratio on conservatism shifts. 7) How do you enforce the quarantine? Everyone who thinks they are not yet infected will try to escape with all of the fear and cunning of someone facing certain death if they stay. It would require an armed military response with immediate deployment capabilities. 8) The ratio of those available to enforce quarantine to those contained makes this seem completely infeasible. With unplanned quarantine locations, there is no physical infrastructure to assist in the containment. 9) Once word about a lost city spreads, how long would it take for ad-hoc or planned "accelerated quarantine" to emerge? 10) Once rumor of the quarantine policy spreads, doctors would have a strong perverse incentive to not report cases until they made it out of town...
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? None of the people nominated in this book. I would bet that in 2016, when we look back on who has had the greatest impact in the prior 10 years, it will be an entrepreneur, someone new, someone unknown to us at this time. Looking forward from the present, we tend to amplify the leaders of the past. But in retrospect, it's always clear that the future belongs to a new generation. A new generation of leaders will transcend political systems that cater to the past. I would bet more on a process of empowerment than any particular person.
4) Your most cherished value? Playfulness. I cherish the child-like mind. I celebrate immaturity. I try to play every day. At work, I expect to fail early and often. From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a child-like mind. They are playful, open minded and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure. I went to a self-described "play-date" at David Kelley's house. The founder of IDEO is setting up an interdisciplinary "D-School" for design and creativity at Stanford. David and Don Norman noted that creativity is killed by fear, referencing experiments that contrast people's approach to walking along a balance beam flat on the ground (playful and expressive) and then suspended in the air (fearful and rigid). What is so great about the child-like mind? "Babies are just plain smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new.... They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments.... In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally." (Berkeley Professor Alison Gopnik, co-author of "Scientist in the Crib")
Much of the human brain's power derives from its massive synaptic interconnectivity. Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute observes that across species, synapses/neuron fan-out grows as a power law with brain mass. At the age of 2 to 3 years old, humans hit their peak with 10x the synapses and 2x the energy burn of an adult brain. And it's all downhill from there. The UCSF Memory and Aging Center has shown that our pace of cognitive decline is the same in our 40s as in our 80s. We just notice more accumulated decline as we get older, especially when we cross the threshold of forgetting most of what we try to remember. But we can affect this progression. Prof. Merzenich at UCSF has found that neural plasticity does not disappear in adults. It just requires mental exercise. Use it or lose it. We have to get out of the mental ruts that career tracks and academic "disciplines" can foster. I try to take a random walk of curiosities and child-like exploration. Photo-blogging has become a form of mental exercise for me. I try to embrace lifelong learning, to do something new. Physical exercise is repetitive; mental exercise is eclectic.
Narayana Murthy, Chairman and Chief Mentor Infosys Technologies Ltd.
1) Most pressing problem to solve? Why? We must address the critical problem of providing clean water to all inhabitants of the planet. Today, urbanization and the rapid growth of developing economies have created immense pressures on our water resources. In fact, over the last century global water consumption has grown at more than twice the rate of world population growth. This has resulted in rising water shortages in many parts of the world. According to the UN, 20% of the world's population lacks access to clean drinking water. Water tables are falling rapidly in economies such as India and China - across Indian cities, the water table has fallen by 7 to 10 feet a year. In rapidly urbanizing parts of China, the water table fell from an average depth of 25 feet to 160 feet between 1970 and 2000. The lack of effective water management - just 12% of the world's economies have a national water policy in place - has intensified the problem. Today irrigation activities alone consume 70% of the world's freshwater resources. An estimated 30 to 40% of usable water is lost annually to illegal tapping and leaks. We must develop water strategies that address issues at both the global and national level, to ensure sustainable water management and make this valuable resource accessible to all.
2) Your biggest fear? Most of all, I fear religious fundamentalism. People the world over must recognize the danger posed by fundamentalist forces that threaten the stability and identity of our societies, and attempt to redefine secular structures along religious lines. It is essential for people to move past religious divides and appreciate the common needs and aspirations that unite us - across civilizations and geographic boundaries. In the words of Amartya Sen, Our main hope for harmony lies in recognizing the plurality of our identities, and our shared humanity.
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? First, Bill Gates, who, through his vision for the role of information technology in both developed and emerging markets, will be instrumental in shaping the future of the global information economy. Second, Chinese President Hu Jintao, the leader of a country that is fast-emerging as a formidable economic power. Third, the researchers working in the field of quantum computing, such as William Phillips and Immanuel Bloch. The ability to control quantum matter for computing applications will have enormous implications for our technological future.
4) Your most cherished value? A sense of fairness and tolerance in understanding and appreciating people's views and beliefs is a value I cherish deeply. In addition, I believe that this is essential to ensure the well-being of both individuals and communities across the world.
Robert L. Nardelli, Chairman, President, and CEO The Home Depot, Inc.
1) Most pressing problem to solve? Why? It's difficult not to immediately think of nuclear proliferation and, of course, the potential for enormous devastation. However, given the Brainstorm power in this room, and the opportunity to impact a problem that is more imminent and tangible to all of us, I would say that one problem falls under the category "social unrest and complacency." There is a deep polarization that's taking place in our world - whether it be along party lines or among religions or special interest groups - that is threatening our global competitiveness.
As a backdrop, let me say that businesses have always had to be concerned with a broad range of constituents, including customers; associates; shareholders; federal, state, and local legislators; and now, at an ever-increasing rate, a number of special interest groups, who aren't really governed but merely self-appointed. These special interest groups cover a multitude of areas, from the environment and immigration to compensation and sustainability. And, frankly, there are those that use the legal system for their own personal financial advancement, as opposed to truly representing individuals who may have been harmed. As a result, a parochial viewpoint of divisiveness has grown especially aggressive in America, where the tone of the country is leaning more toward protectionism vs. innovation and excellence.
Certainly, that perspective is not what carried the country through two world wars and the Depression. In order to face the complex, global challenges of today, we will need to dig deep and rekindle those qualities that helped companies in this country thrive and create the standard of living we enjoy. Corporations can deliver financial value while having values, and our focus should be on the construction rather than the destruction of corporate America. I've said before that for all of the mischaracterization of corporate America, we must remember that corporate America is made up of corporate Americans - people just like those of us here and those with whom we work every day.
2) Your biggest fear? Cynicism and its resulting social unrest. People need to have more faith in each other and the institutions around them, from government to business to religion.
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? President George W. Bush, United States President Hu Jintao, China President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, India. All three, and those around them, represent a new epoch in economic power. But they also face a vast set of new responsibilities in global affairs beyond economic issues, and that is where their greatest challenges lie.
4) Your most cherished value? Improvement. My personal belief is that there is an infinite capacity to improve everything we touch. If you're not better today than yesterday, then you're backing up in today's environment. If you don't change and improve, you aren't shaping the future; the future is shaping you.
Mark Penn, Chief Executive Officer Worldwide Burson-Marsteller
1) Most pressing problem to solve? Why? The world is in one sense becoming more connected but in another sense more divided - censorship exists in China, there is growing skepticism of the West by the Muslim world, and there are antiglobalization forces around the world. The classic theory that increased trade would lead to similar values among economic partners is largely breaking down as leaders become more concerned with maintaining their own power and less about territorial acquisition. So nations are figuring out how to have trade and yet maintain non-democratic and even theocratic forms of government. The problem for Brainstorm to focus on is how life in the connected world can be used to defeat the separation of democratic and pluralistic values from economic values - how to make the connected life one that reduces totalitarianism and censorship.
2) Your biggest fear? A nuclear bomb being exploded at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Without doubt I wake up every day with the "Sum of All Fears" on my mind - that Washington is vulnerable to complete destruction by an unknown force in a single instant and, unlike the sacking of the White House in the War of 1812, or even what happened in Hiroshima, this would have profound effects not just on those lost but on the Constitution and our whole way of life. We might never again trust in an open world and an open political system if something as devastating as this occurred.
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? The future may be less about who the leaders are than about what they lead - right now the future of the world probably rests in the hands of the next president of the United States (I have a favorite there), the next leader of Iran, and the next leader of China. We are headed towards a new series of growing tensions and these three leaders will have enormous power that could turn the tide one way or another. These three leaders will likely tip the balance of power to either a more connected world that lives better together or one that is re-divided into factions on the verge of using nuclear weapons.
4) Your most cherished value? Tolerance - because none of the other values we cherish can flourish in the absence of tolerance. There can be no freedom if we are not tolerant of others; there can be no opportunity if it is clouded by discrimination; there can be no fair administration of justice, and there can be no freedom of religion or of thought without the basic value that those who are different have the right to exist.
Marie Wilson, Founder and President The White House Project
1) Most pressing problem to solve? Why? Last month The White House Project took a delegation to the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet as president of Chile. There we learned about her commitment to "re-encuentro," a belief that a country can institute practices and policies that heal the wounds of a violent past.
Bachelet's father died while being tortured under Pinochet, and she and her mother were imprisoned, tortured, and exiled. As a result, when she returned and served as minister of health and later as minister of defense, she prioritized policies that promote understanding and tolerance; and as president, she will continue this focus. Her use of "re-encuentro" reminded me of what two highly competent women governors in this country told us was the problem they feel must be tackled: Changing the political discourse in the U.S.
In strapped economic climates these governors confront hot issues like immigration, education, health care, and homeland security, often as the leader of a party opposite the one in power in their state legislature. I see Brainstorm as a body uniquely positioned to work on models for re-encountering or changing the political discourse in the U.S. As we discuss "Life in a Connected World" and the power of technology to connect us, we must also acknowledge how the varying and unverified sources where individuals now acquire knowledge are also a source of disconnection. (Think of a 60s U.S. with three television networks.) This lack of a shared base of information challenges our ability to have conversations across ideology and party that allow us to arrive at reasonable solutions to increasingly complex global problems.
Brainstorm could serve as a place where highly respected and diverse leaders can intentionally begin to both try out and develop ways that could be used in other venues to begin this across the U.S. All our brains will not help us if we don't find a way for our hearts to follow.
2) Your biggest fear? That at a time when we most need to use all our resources to tackle our complicated problems, we won't put a diverse and critical mass of women into leadership alongside men, not to replace them, but to transform our options alongside them.
3) Three global leaders who will set next decade's course? While it's natural to think of the leaders of countries, I believe we may not know who those leaders are, but their impact will be innovations that help us solve global problems and whose ideas percolate up. They may offer solutions for energy development, public health, and new approaches to security, but their names are not necessarily known widely at present.
4) Your most cherished value? Integrity.