What is top of mind for the digital economy thought leaders?

That was the question posed for Thinker-Fest 2023, a live virtual event co-sponsored by Thinkers50 and the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) held in Boston on February 23, 2023.

With a line-up of elite business innovators, including several Thinkers50 Ranked Thinkers and Distinguished Achievement Award recipients, Thinker-Fest examined the biggest issues in technology and society today.

Thinker-Fest 2023 is about finding new ways to provide access to the very best new research and thinking, which is at the core of Thinkers50’s work. We are thrilled to partner with MIT IDE to provide a live platform for some of the leading minds in digital thinking.’ – Des Dearlove, co-founder, Thinkers50


How to Fix the ‘Splinternet’

The first session addressed the ‘splinternet’ and the problem of online misinformation and fake news that has splintered society into numerous, often hostile factions – contrary to the original design of the internet to bring everyone closer together. Exploring the rise of the splinternet and ways to ‘fix the splinternet,’ platform expert Marshall Van Alstyne proposed a more decentralized online environment where users’ rights would reduce the need for government regulations. The first right, he explained, should be to receive information based on the criteria of a user’s own choosing, instead of information selected by a platform’s algorithms. The second right should be the right to be heard and to influence the decisions that affect you.

Also on the panel was digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush, who addressed the rise of conspiracy-theory communities, fuelled by the ubiquity of the internet, which have begun to form larger, more influential ecosystems with ‘super-mutant conspiracies.’

Branding neuroscientist Martin Lindstrom emphasized that fundamental questions should have been asked when social media first emerged and that now is the time to ask those questions about the metaverse and our online future.


The Future of Hybrid Work and Remote Leadership

In the second Thinker-Fest session, Jerry Carter of Dell Technologies, John Horton of MIT, and Geoff Parker of Dartmouth College discussed the mega shift to remote working and what this means for management. The best remote leaders of the future, Carter contended, will be cross-functional: one part manager, one part organizational psychologist, and one part engineer.

Although remote work comes with disadvantages, Horton argued, there are substantial benefits to be gained from being able to recruit from a much wider geographical net, and so many additional values. Parker raised the topic of remote learning, with many schools and colleges having adopted hybrid learning, and how some courses suit online, whereas others require a re-consideration of the whole student experience.


Can AI Put Humans First?

The third session featured Renée Richardson Gosline of MIT and Sanjeev Vohra of Accenture, who tackled the subject of ‘human-first AI’: helping AI put humans first. Gosline explained her theory of ‘good friction,’ emphasizing the importance of human interaction in making AI systems more reliable.

Vohra shared some compelling findings from a recent Accenture survey that revealed only 12% of executives (out of 1,600 respondents from 20 different industries) reported having the necessary skills and technology infrastructure to implement AI in their businesses. This suggests that 88% of companies are unprepared for the changes AI will bring, opening up vast opportunities for transformation in how organizations operate and how people work.


For Job Seekers, Do Weak Ties Still Bind?

The final keynote of Thinker-Fest 2023 asked ‘Do Weak Ties Still Bind Job Seekers?’ and was given by the Director of MIT IDE, Sinan Aral, who addressed a famous 50-year old paper ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’ by sociologist Mark Granovetter and asked how its findings – that job seekers should turn not to their closest friends, family and colleagues for help but to their ‘weak ties,’ people they know, but not so well – stood up in the light of today’s digital social networks. In short, Aral’s new research, based on millions of data points from LinkedIn (20 million people worldwide, 2 billion ties and 600,000 job changes), found that weak ties are still important for those hunting for jobs in digital industries, but strong ties were more beneficial to those in more analogue industries.


Closing Remarks

In his closing speech, Aral concluded that while digital platforms provide an opportunity to study human relationships and how economies evolve, they are also their own socio-technical systems and humans have a responsibility to understand how they shape the digital economy and how they shape digital society.

Rewatch the Thinkers50 MIT IDE Thinker-Fest 2023 event here

Access the Thinker-Fest 2023 Report


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