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IDE Leaders Top Thinker-Fest Lineup

MIT Thinker-Fest on February 23 examines the biggest issues in technology and society today

February 21, 2023

By Paula Klein

“What the global pandemic has demonstrated is both the opportunity and necessity presented by the virtual economy… [We will] see new icons, influencers and entrepreneurs within virtual worlds. They will come to prominence at a time when people question the fundamental usefulness of… traditional institutions, protocols, and the social contract.”

So writes Rahaf Harfoush,strategist, digital anthropologist, and author in a recent report on the Virtual Economy. Harfoush isn’t the only pundit examining the intersection of technology and society. At transformational times like these, we need to think critically about the world around us. We need Big Thinkers to challenge, upend, and question the status quo; to spur us to reconsider long-held ideas.

At this week’s MIT Thinker-Fest 2023, critical analysis will predominate as a lineup of elite business innovators — including Harfoush — discuss emerging technologies including AI and social media platforms — and their far-reaching impact.

Rahaf Harfoush

A Melding of the Minds

The February 23 event, held for the first time, melds the academic resources of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) — notably, large-scale, data-driven studies and analysis — with the thought leadership represented by the Thinkers50 community. IDE leaders, Sinan Aral, John Horton, Renee Richardson Gosline, and visiting scholars, Geoff Parker and Marshall Van Alstyne, will also offer insights and supporting research.

Harfoush is executive Director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture and teaches Innovation & Emerging Business Models” at Sciences Politique’s school of Management and Innovation in Paris. She is currently working on her fourth book.

At MIT she will join Des Dearlove, Cofounder of Thinkers50who will moderate the session; Martin Lindstrom, author, speaker and Founder and Chairman, Lindstrom Co., andMarshall Van AlstyneProfessor of Information Systems, Boston University, to discuss How to Fix the Splinternet. These experts are sure to offer lots of solutions to the ills that have emerged — like from Pandora’s box — with the rise of the Internet and social media. Misinformation, social media trolls, and fake news have splintered online users into numerous, often-hostile factions — and perhaps, Dearlove suggests, the divisiveness is by design, not by accident. Do platform business models and algorithms actually fuel the anger and thrive as a result? How can that be mitigated?

For answers, Dearlove will turn to Van Alstyne, an MIT IDE visiting scholar, who is an expert on the rise of platforms. He recently wrote about the need for a“Platform Magna Carta” of seven principles that balance the rights of individuals and duties of core platforms.

Also offering solutions will be Lindstrom, who is highly regarded for his expertise in business transformation, culture, and branding “seen through the lens of the consumer.” He’s one of the first brand experts to understand the biology and neuroscience of consumer desire. “As a generation grows up online, the tools of persuasion will have to be as measurable as the medium,” he has said. His most recent book is The Ministry of Common Sense.

Building Community

Dearlove notes that “after 20 years of ranking the best and brightest business leaders, the emphasis [of Thinkers50] now is on community-building. “The participants themselves [are] about learning from each other and sharing experiences,” he said. The Thinker-Fest event is an example of this type of collaboration. “We are always looking for new ways to provide access to the very best new research and thinking, and are thrilled to partner with MIT IDE on the first Thinker-Fest that includes several Thinkers50 Distinguished Achievement winners.”

The event is free of charge and will be held virtually. Nearly one thousand global attendees are expected to register.

Several more outstanding discussions are also featured for the day:

  • Human-first AI will take a deep dive into the behavioral science approaches to understanding the interplay of humans and algorithmic bias for optimal decision-making and responsible Innovation. In our rush to develop artificial intelligence, has the human element been overlooked?

Renée Richardson Gosline, Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management, and Research Group Lead, MIT IDE, will talk with Sanjeev Vohra, Senior Managing Director & Global Lead, at Accenture, about the boundaries that need to be established so that AI serves humans responsibly. Gosline is writing a book on the topic to be published this year.

In his current role, Vohra helps clients across industries evaluate, maximize, and achieve business value through the strategic use of data, advanced analytics, AI and automation.

  • Hybrid work and leading remotely. One hugely disruptive result of the global pandemic has been the rapid acceptance of remote working (often from home), the overnight adoption of Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms, and the urgent need for new approaches to managing today’s widely dispersed workers. Dearlove notes that “the genie is now truly out of the bottle — or, in this case, the worker is well and truly out of the office cubicle — despite some companies trying to put it back. What does that mean for how we lead and work going forward?

John Horton

Enormous opportunities, as well as challenges, continue for remote workers and their leadership. What’s ahead for the digitization of labor markets and work? Jerry Carter, VP of Engineering, Dell Technologies; John Horton, MIT Sloan School of Management, and Research Group Lead, MIT IDE, and Geoff Parker, Dartmouth College Professor and Visiting Scholar at MIT IDE, will dissect this complex global phenomenon and offer solutions that leaders can adopt.

  • Do Weak Ties Still Bind? MIT IDE Director, Sinan Aral,will offer high-level insights into his recent, ground-breaking megastudy on The Strength of Weak Ties. This research included 20 million people and over two billion new relationships on LinkedIn to understand the intricacies of social networks and their impact on job-seekers and hiring managers.

“We have no idea what the labor market will look like in 2050, but we can already foresee major changes like the boom of the gig economy and the possibility of mass automation brought on by AI and robotics. This will undoubtedly change access to revenues and bring systemic change to our lives and will have ripple effects on every business we interact with: banking, housing, leisure, education, and more.” — Rahaf Harfoush