Leadbeater at Innovation in Mind: “both efficiency and empathy are needed”

16 September 2011

Charles Leadbeater

“Systempathy”. This is what we need today – cities, workplaces, healthcare organisations, schools, etc. that combine efficient systems with empathy. This is the view of one of the speakers at the Innovation in Mind conference, Charles Leadbeater.

Charles Leadbeater is an author and consultant in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship. Among other things, he has written a report on social entrepreneurship and been an advisor to the British Government.

At Innovation in Mind he took his starting point in the question of why so many people in Western society are not particularly happy, despite today’s high standards of living. In his view, it is because we have become prisoners of the systems.

Technical, financial and administrative systems are responsible for our prosperity, but they also control us, and it is not them which make us happy.

“We get happiness from other people: from trust, care and good relationships. You can’t buy trust on eBay, or order good relationships with a pizza”, he said.

What we want are organisations that combine efficiency with good human relations, but what we usually get is either one or the other.

“In Silicon Valley there are loads of companies and people who are really good at systems thinking but not good at empathy. At the other extreme, there are phenomena such as farmers’ markets. They have good contact with their customers, but no large-scale operations”, said Charles Leadbeater.

However, there are some good examples. Among cities, he thinks Seattle, Barcelona and Copenhagen have succeeded in combining efficiency and a humane environment, and among organisations he also looks to Barcelona.

“Barcelona Football Club has well-developed systems thinking that is entirely based on relationships and empathy. They play so well because they all cooperate and make the most of one another’s opportunities. That’s ‘systempathy’!”

Innovation in Mind is an annual conference arranged by Lund University, Vinnova and Region Skåne. One of the opening speakers was the famous inventor Ray Kurzweil, who spoke via video link and whose main theme was exponential growth. We have seen it in the IT sector, with the increasing speed and power of computers and falling prices, but via IT this also affects other areas. In medicine, for example, very rapid development is expected now that the human genome has been mapped.

The mapping of the human genome also happened at exponential speeds.

“After seven years, one per cent of the genome had been completed, and the pessimists saw 700 years of work ahead of them. But by then, the speed had already been doubling every year. Therefore, it only had to double seven more times to meet the goal of 100 per cent”, explained Ray Kurzweil.

In the same way, progress will become faster and faster in other areas. Solar power, for example, currently only represents half a percentage point of the world’s energy consumption, which seems deplorably little.

“However, its growth is exponential, so progress will be very rapid”, predicted Ray Kurzweil. Other technology he believes will be big in the future includes stem cells developed from our own skin cells to repair damaged organs, virtual reality built into glasses, and animal-free meat manufactured from cell culture.

The audience at the conference had been encouraged to write Twitter comments, which were projected onto screens at the sides of the speakers’ podium. The responses were positive: “Really inspiring presentation. But the conversation I had in the break was even better. That’s the sign of a good event”, wrote one delegate.