Robots, leadership and the future: Insights from the 2016 Media Learning Seminar

Communities / Article

Above: Teresa Pike Tomlinson, mayor of Columbus, Georgia, at the 2016 Media Learning Seminar. Photos by Patrick Farrell.

In a world where one of the biggest rock stars is computer animated, and world leaders appear at town halls via hologram, we find ourselves still struggling to adjust to the new norms of the digital age.You can watch all the panels from the Media Learning Seminar on Knight Foundation’s Vimeo channel. Save the date: The 2017 Media Learning Seminar is scheduled for Feb. 12-14 in Miami.

“The battle we fight tends to be yesterday’s battle,” author and futurist Alec Ross told the crowd at Knight Foundation’s 2016 Media Learning Seminar earlier this month. Instead, he said, leaders need to look beyond the present to anticipate what is next and help prepare their communities.

That theme was ever-present throughout the two-day seminar, a gathering of leaders in philanthropy, media and technology exploring ways to promote more informed and engaged communities. With the rapid pace of innovation, more disruptive change is a given. What’s next? What does it mean for our society? And how can community leaders prepare? Here are some of the insights on the future from panelists at the seminar:

Data is the raw material of the information age

If land was the raw material of the agricultural age, iron of the industrial age, data is the basis for the information age, Ross said. With 90 percent of the world’s information created in the last three years alone, Ross said:

These “Pacific Oceans’” worth of data are “going to tear down business models and processes and create entirely new ones,” Ross said.

And as a corollary…

Robots will fundamentally change the way we work

Soon the robots of 1970s-era cartoons will be the reality of 2020 – artificial intelligence-enabled machines with increasing cognitive abilities taking over working- and middle-class jobs.

“This is what I think is going to be the real stone in your shoe sooner rather than later,” Ross said.

Futurist Amy Webb calls this transformation the Industrial Evolution: where the economy goes from mechanized manufacturing to widespread automated transactions and services, hitting the point where it becomes more expensive for people to do some jobs than machines. Hotel clerks, bank tellers, emergency room nurses – these types of jobs will be machine-based, she said.

“You’re going to wind up with a whole group of people in your communities who are very skilled but don’t necessarily have anything to do,” Webb, of the Future Today Institute, said, deepening divides between the working and middle class and the wealthy.

Preparing for that shift is important for community leaders: The future doesn’t happen to us passively. It is something we set the trajectory for today, she said.

Leaders need to live in the future

As community foundations have evolved in the past decade, with many going beyond traditional grantmaking to becoming leaders on important issues, several leaders offered their advice on the qualities it takes to look ahead.

“A CEO who is going to lead change has got to live in the future,” said Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas.

 “Transformational leaders are not only comfortable with change, they crave it, seek it out and drive the leading edge of change in their fields,” said Lisa Adkins, president and CEO of the Blue Grass Community Foundation.

“They see opportunities and possibilities and connections that other people do not see.”

Betsy Covington, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley in Columbus, Georgia, agreed.

There, Covington and the foundation are working with residents, city government and the renowned Gehl Studio New York to use the principles of people-first design to connect the city’s riverfront to MidTown. Connectivity, and making the city walkable and bikeable, is a tremendous opportunity, Covington said. Leadership takes having the vision to see that kind of opportunity and leverage it for the greater good.

“A community foundation president needs to be entrepreneurial … to take what is already happening, and engage donors and leverage what might happen,” Covington said. 

Journalism is as important as ever, but business models continue to evolve

The seminar kicked off with a showing of the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” followed by a conversation with journalists who led the Boston Globe investigation into priest sexual abuse. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of investigative journalism.

But legacy newsrooms today get by with fewer reporters than they did a decade ago, while news startups seek their market niche. All continue to struggle with finding their own models for financial sustainability.

Certainly in Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Media Network is now owned by a nonprofit institute under the auspices of the Philadelphia Foundation, a new model is emerging. That doesn’t mean the search for revenue has stopped: The network, which includes The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, will continue to earn money to sustain its operation, and innovate to reach and engage readers, said Terry Egger, CEO of the Philadelphia Media Network.

Meanwhile, some of the smaller outlets are seeking what New Jersey-based Brick City Live calls revenue independence – or divorcing revenue from page views. The outlet, for example, is experimenting with Brick City Live, a customer loyalty app that offers deals at local businesses. And BillyPenn, a mobile news site in Philly, makes the majority of its money – 84 percent – off events, said Jim Brady, CEO of the company that owns the site. Doing so, Brady said, frees you up from having to make money from different publishing platforms.

You can watch all the panels from the Media Learning Seminar on Knight Foundation’s Vimeo channel. Save the date: The 2017 Media Learning Seminar is scheduled for Feb. 12-14 in Miami.

Marika Lynch is a communications consultant for Knight Foundation.

Above: Journalism Program Director Shazna Nessa at the 2016 Media Learning Seminar.