I had the honor and privilege of attending a regional TEDx East NYC talk here in New York City on Tuesday evening. The talk was on trade and innovation. There were three accomplished speakers on the roster and a room of professionals from various industries, walks of life and of which were almost completely monochromatic figuratively and physically speaking.
I was one of two people of color in the room. None of which precluded me from taking in the experience and meeting people, but it was intriguing and a moment-of-reflection kind of occurrence.
The first speaker was Nathan Eagle, CEO of Jana. His work involves connecting major corporations to customer bases in emerging markets for the purposes of marketing their products and services. In exchange, for the customer opting in to share their demographic information along with consumer preferences- he reimburses them money for towards their mobile airtime in their currency. Since people in these emerging markets spend 10% of their daily wages on mobile usage it is a valuable incentive to receive money to defray the costs.
In essence, by implementing something as simple as redirecting how corporations capture and utilize consumer data- he is putting the control as to how it is shared in the consumer’s hands- and creating wealth for people in emerging markets.
He piloted this in Kenya and the first year he did this, he paid out of pocket to these consumers. You know what it cost him? $240 dollars was the cost to reimburse these consumers. That is a negligible amount of money on his part for something with profound economic and human impact.
I’ll come back to Nathan in a second, but let’s examine the next speaker, Timothy Wu. His talk was about a scarcity and surplus and what innovators need to know from a societal perspective about solving problems for a society conditioned by surplus.
In his talk, he suggested that we have been a society of scarcity for several centuries whereby many needs were unmet and the ultimate goal of citizens was to achieve more- whether that was a better life, more money or possessions. Tim went on to suggest that we are no longer a society of unmet needs. He purports that we now have the resources, the money, knowledge and all other things that generations of the past worked towards. His feeling is that we are now a post-scarcity society entering the era of surplus.
The era of surplus is comprised of the notion that we are in abundance of information, knowledge, resources, money and all basic needs are met or overly met. This being the case, Timothy made the case that today’s innovators will have to solve the problem of surplus in the variety that it presents itself.
I took that to mean that innovators will have to simplify what was made complex by previous generations in their pursuit of having more. Those businesses that can seemingly give people more time in the day or provide a service or product that makes a complex process easier will be widely sought after.
How does this connect with Nathan’s talk?
Nathan is the product of a post-scarcity society. He could easily cater to helping big corporations extrapolate big data that lead to sales and make his millions, but instead he has decided to create and distribute wealth in countries where post-scarcity is laughable, because for all intents and purposes- they are still living in the nightmare of scarcity. Timothy’s perspective of an overall post-scarcity society is superficially intriguing until you realize that it isn’t true for the majority for emerging countries farless first-world countries like the U.S.
Scarcity of proper education, adequate wages to sustain a family, and access to food supply is still in abundance during what may appear to be an era of surplus in the U.S and even globally. Essentially, we are at a point where we have everything and nothing at the same time. As a society, the goal has become achieving equilibrium, because neither the extreme of scarcity or surplus works for us as a whole.
The last speaker was Simon Winchester. He is a newly branded citizen of the U.S. and rather educated on the fundamental reasons why the U.S. is a great place to live. His anecdotes and historical references are too vast to recall here, but what resonated was his pride in our past, present and future as a global innovator. He loves the U.S. and presented it in a way that left me with a renewed sense of enlightenment and pride in our country.
In summary, it was an amazing event with mind-bending concepts. To circle back to my observation about the lack of diversity in the crowd- I must say this- you don’t begin to truly level the playing ground until knowledge is shared consistently and abundantly with everyone. I am unique in that my entire life has been spent in search of answers and learning and I was brought up to seek that out. People that don’t do what I do are not less important, intelligent or innovative- it simply comes down to not being made aware of possibilities. Information is hoarded and cloaked in our society and it is shared sparingly to restrict certain groups of people from knowing and becoming more. Having a discussion with those that are already “in-the-know” doesn’t begin to solve society’s issues of fair and equitable knowledge transfer. A part of me left there feeling like the depth and importance of this particular conversation was limited to 70 people that it doesn’t adversely affect or have an effect at all.
On the bright side of things, these gentleman are asking life’s fundamental and human questions, creating the answers and sharing it. It is rare and if many more did what they are doing- we could all agree that we are truly in an era of surplus.
I asked myself some questions based on what I heard and I have to soul search for the answers:
1) As an HR practitioner, entrepreneur and citizen, how can I find a way to create and distribute wealth? Wealth in my terms could mean money but it could be in many forms of currency ( i.e. knowledge)
2) Am I living in scarcity or surplus and if it is the latter- how do I find a common ground where I live in neither extreme?
3) I’m always eternally thankful for what I have, but how can I fully appreciate the resources that I have?
The answers to these questions are emerging in my head and I’m glad I attended theTEDx talk to start the conversation.
The Aristocracy of HR