In October 2017, senior executive clients from around the world convened in Los Angeles for ParadigmShift, an annual event hosted by ThoughtWorks. This year’s theme, Beyond Imagination: Building for a New Reality, focused on the future and what it means for all of us today.

ParadigmShift 2017 took guests on a journey into the unknown and back again. From a mind-bending look at The Acceleration of Technology in the 21st Century with Ray Kurzweil to Amy Webb’s interactive session that taught us how to spot signals like a futurist, there were so many great stories, ideas, and frameworks shared by our speakers this year.

Here is a brief summary of this years’ key themes:

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

To understand the future of one thing, you must pay attention to the future of many things.

ParadigmShift 2017 explored the future of many things: technology, AI, food, retail, platforms, banking, energy, storytelling, the workplace, and the next generation. Quantitative Futurist, Amy Webb, warned that in the quest to the future, many companies and executives get caught in the “vortex of doom” where they make the same mistakes over and over; that includes taking too narrow a view on emerging technology. This is why we see the same concepts and ideas repeated throughout industry sectors, even when there are brand-new innovations cropping up on the fringe.

She also empowered guests with a reminder that the future is still largely unwritten and in their hands: “There is no one, singular future. The goal is not to know the exact answer, but to arm yourself with data-driven, possible, plausible, and probable scenarios. The future is not predetermined. It is up to each of you to create your own preferred futures.”

Amy Webb
Amy Webb

AI is everything and everywhere.

AI was on everyone’s agenda at ParadigmShift: how it’s changing the way we think, plan, predict, shop, get well, work, and vote. According to Ray Kurzweil, “AI is not hype. It’s real. It really is transforming every industry, and it's only going to get greater and greater as we get closer to human intelligence. AI influences everything: supply chains, marketing, reaching your customer, inventing new ways of fabricating materials and putting them together.”

At ThoughtWorks, we think of Humanity Augmented as leveraging the best of machines with the best of humans—augmenting us with artificial intelligent machines. But if Elon Musk is fearful enough of AI to start planning a move to Mars, and Stephen Hawking has also echoed concerns, what are we to make of it? Whether or not their fear is founded, intelligence (AI and ML) is getting built into more systems everyday.

The future starts now.

It is clear that leaders need to start making cultural, organizational, and investment decisions today for the fast-approaching future. Shawn Mandel, Vice President of TELUS Digital, focused on the intersections of culture and customers with technology. He pointed out that leaders “can’t make tech decisions independently of the culture you want to create, or the people you want to hire, or the operations you need to run your team. This linkage between technology and design, or technology and process, is so ingrained that if you don’t understand platform thinking you’re going to make some decisions that really harm your team and what you are trying to do.”

He also identified the most important reason for organizations to keep pushing digital transformation: customers’ and employees’ expectations are being defined by digital-native organizations. “Customers are interacting with tools and products that are created by digital-native companies…the next generation of tech professionals does not want to work with traditional incumbent vendors. They want to work with modern tools and modern products, not big monoliths. Making the right decisions about tech is what’s going to unlock the desire for talent to come to your organization.”

Tim Grant
Tim Grant

Innovation is only worthwhile if it brings your customers closer to you.

Tim Grant, CEO of DrumG Technologies cautioned against “innovation theater”—when companies innovate for good PR, churning out products and ideas with no real business value. He called upon leaders to replace “proof-of-concept” with “proof-of-value.” Archie Mason, Head of Business Development, John Lewis Partnership, also acknowledged the role of customers in the digital strategy, prompting guests think about who their customers will be in 10 years, how their behavior will change, and how they will engage with brands differently.

Later, Miranda Hill, Director of Commerce and Innovation Strategy for ThoughtWorks, shared an ingenious, yet simple, three-part Innovation Agenda planning framework and encouraged guests to “journey to the outer limits of imagination” to see how far they might be nudged.

Melanie Redman
Melanie Redman

The workplace revolution has begun.

The way we work hasn’t changed much over the last 50, 60 years. For the most part, people still head off to work in the morning and return home in the evening, paid for productivity and efficiency, moving up gradually from entry level to managerial positions. But this industrial paradigm is changing fast, and it’s not just about employees working remotely. Technology, cultural changes, and employees’ expectations are reshaping how, when and why we work, what we do and the talent needed to do it. Companies need to rethink everything including corporate values, leadership, recruitment and retention strategies, policies, org structure, titles and roles, process, collaboration, space, incentive structures, skills, and training. Everything.

Melanie Redman, Senior Researcher for Steelcase’s Workspace Futures Group, explained: “Instead of being a director, the new leader has to be an enabler. She has to enable teams to succeed by connecting them to the right resources at the right time. By advocating for their work at the higher level. By removing roadblocks so they can move faster and by protecting them when they fail. We’re seeing a shift away from internally-focused, linear-process-oriented teams toward more complex ones, including multiple internal functions working with various external partners to test ideas in a rapid iterative cycle.”

As well, workplaces are more intergenerational, staffed by Baby Boomers, Xers, Millennials and soon, a flood of Gen Z workers. Employers need to figure out ways to adapt to get the most from these workers, many of whom don’t plan to stay more than a few years and demand increased flexibility that enables them to work in different ways.