The world is getting smaller and smaller. And we are connected in ways that are more innovative, more varied and more efficient than ever before. From sustainable urban planning and artificial intelligence to improving communication at the workplace: nine individuals whose visions are changing daily life as we know it.
- Juliane Schöndube
- Marc Deckert, Lars Gaede, Hendrik Lakeberg
The urban planner
“Bringing about lasting change to a huge city is a mammoth challenge. We set up the C40 organization, a worldwide alliance of 85 megacities, with the goal of pooling knowledge – and improving life in these cities. I’m responsible for Europe. We conduct research, collect and analyze data, and advise the cities on strategies for the future. One of our roles is to provide support in implementing the terms of the Paris Agreement that resulted from the COP21 International Climate Conference. Digital solutions are of enormous benefit here – and their potential is huge. Connectivity helps us organize transportation more efficiently and drives economic development. In my home city of Barcelona, urban planners have been making use of digital technologies for many years – for smart traffic management, lighting and mobility improvement planning. In Rio de Janeiro, the city was able to use C40 expertise to pinpoint areas at risk of flooding and improve disaster management. But this is just the start of the process. The smart city is a long-term vision for greater efficiency and improved collaboration between private investors and the public sector. But our goal now is to lay the foundations – in a way that is both intelligent and responsible.”
The diary organizer
If you want to arrange a meeting with Dennis Mortensen, you have to go through his assistant, Amy. “Hi, I wanted to get in touch with Dennis about our appointment. How about Wednesday, October 5th at 4pm?” Amy is charming, responds at the speed of light and is extremely well organized. This is obvious to anyone who has email dealings with her. What is not so obvious, however, is that Amy is not a human being. She is a machine and Dennis Mortensen is her master. After he sold his last company, Mortensen counted the number of meetings he had set up the previous year: 1,019 in total. “And when you consider how many emails it can take just to get one appointment in your calendar, that’s sheer torture.” Today, the 70 employees at Mortensen’s New York-based company, X.ai, are working to ensure that no one will ever need to write more than one email to set up an appointment. Instead, you just let your virtual assistant, Amy (or Andrew), know who you want to meet or contact, and this smart assistant checks the calendar, writes emails, sends reminders, cancels and postpones appointments, as needed, until all parties are satisfied. Mortensen is amazed at how people develop a relationship with their assistant. Even customers at X.ai tend to refer to Amy and Andrew as “she” or “he.” “In other words, even people who are fully aware that Amy and Andrew are machines prefer to treat them as human beings.”
“Good social networks don’t just establish digital connections – they create friendships for life.”
Mike Curtis, Airbnb
The night owl
Mike Curtis brings people together – in the truest sense of the term: by getting people to knock on the doors of complete strangers, who quite willingly open them up to them. Airbnb needs little introduction: it is the tech startup that puts overnight guests in touch with people seeking to rent out their private living spaces, all over the world, and with great success. “What I like most about my work is that it’s all about people. The service creates connections and, in some cases, friendships for life,” says Curtis, who is VP, Engineering at Airbnb. “For us, the most important thing is to establish an environment of trust.” Simplifying communication will be the key to even more success, moving forward. So-called chatbots may be a solution. “Guests often ask property owners the same questions. What’s the Wi-Fi password? Where do I find the key? How do I turn the heat on? It would make things a lot easier if they could get the answers to these questions automatically.” But as Curtis points out, chatbots should not replace real exchanges or a personal welcome to a new town or city. His focus is on improving translation skills, since Airbnb now has a presence in more than 190 countries. And that means overcoming a lot of language barriers. Mike Curtis predicts that speech recognition will make major advances in the years ahead, thanks to machine learning and artificial intelligence. This will make communication work even more seamlessly on digital platforms.
Leila Janah is well connected in the technology scene. But unlike most start-up founders in San Francisco, she is not concerned solely with the growth of her organization, Samasource. She wants to give as many people as possible a chance to participate in the digital economy. Her idea is a simple one: there is still a lot of data processing that cannot be handled by computers alone. Keyword tagging of pictures for large photo databases, for example. But who can train people with no formal education to do this? That’s where Samasource comes in. What started out as a small project in Nairobi, Kenya, is now a successful global model. Samasource has provided jobs and micro jobs for some 7,000 workers in Kenya, Uganda, Haiti and India. Janah is concerned with more than just reducing costs for her clients in Silicon Valley. “Many companies say they want to do something for social justice by hiring people from poor countries,” she says. “But for me it was important to operate this business in a way that allows us to track incomes continuously. We find people living below the poverty line, and raise them above it.” The idea works. Studies have shown that even in the medium term, the average income among their employees in Africa and Asia has increased dramatically.
The space maker
Exchanges via digital media and automated communication offer a host of opportunities to make our working routines easier. Sean Behr, founder and CEO of the mobility platform Stratim in Silicon Valley, has redefined an entire series of car-related services – from valeting to parking the vehicle or taking it in for service. Stratim – a company in which BMW i Ventures has invested – provides a comprehensive package of resources for everyday corporate mobility. This is possible, thanks to an app that allows the user to activate Zirx services. “We automate all aspects of vehicle logistics,” explains Behr. “We enable businesses to harness the power of a unified logistics ecosystem.”
The mobility visionary
“When we talk about connectivity, it’s important to emphasize that this involves not just digital communication between people, but also between objects,” says the BMW Group’s Head of Strategy, Marketing and Communication, BMW i Mobility Services. “Take communication between the vehicle, the urban infrastructure and the driver, for example. This opens up all sorts of new possibilities, since with this idea of connectivity, we are not only able to develop new business models, we can also make everyday life easier for people in the future. Thanks to real-time traffic information, the driver can take a more anticipatory approach to urban navigation. Knowing where there are free parking spaces saves time and ensures a less stressful environment for the driver. The ultimate vision is to organize urban traffic in a more sustainable and efficient way.”
Kaiser Kuo has just moved to the U.S. after 20 years in China. “I still think of Beijing as my true home,” he says. Kuo is one of China’s leading tech gurus. He has helped Baidu – the Chinese equivalent of Google – increase its workforce from 6,000 to 50,000 in just six years. With its focus on the mobile market, Baidu’s rise to behemoth status has gone largely unnoticed in the West. Yet the company has, for instance, developed speech recognition and translation software considered at least on par with Apple’s Siri. “Language is still the main barrier to understanding between cultures. I’m convinced we will live to see software capable of providing simultaneous translation.” Since he still considers the spoken word to be the most important form of communication, Kuo now produces the podcast “Sinica,” in which he speaks with guests – in English – about China’s economic development and technology. “Podcasts with discussions can convey a lot of information in a short time. And since most people listen to them on headphones from their smartphone while traveling, it’s a very direct and intimate experience.” In the podcast, Kuo also looks beyond the boundaries of the internet. “It helps being a father,” he says. He is constantly reminded by his own family of how important it is “for children to see the world not just in virtual terms, but also to experience it physically.” Rather than working on the next online giant, however, Kuo is currently focusing on trips to the countryside, involving entirely analog experiences. His theory: sometimes the best ideas are born around the campfire.
A Slack session sounds more like recreation than hard work. But it’s effective. And those who spend a lot of time online and working on teams have most likely used it. In many companies, this simple chat service has replaced email as the number one communication tool. Slack makes communicating about projects much more efficient – and renders subject headers like “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Telephone conference” superfluous. Leah Reich is a senior researcher at Slack, the startup founded in 2009. Slack’s rise to one of North America’s most prestigious companies has been meteoric. Reich’s role is to ask questions about communication: what factors make communicating within teams a pleasant experience in the 21st century? What social norms should apply in the digital environment? And how do you avoid everyone typing at the same time? Reich has learned that when it comes to exchanging views online, the same principles apply as in a good face-to-face discussion. “We have to learn to communicate so that we are actually heard, not how we expect to be heard. There’s a difference!” And that’s all? “No. We also need to ask each other more questions. Lots more questions!”
Sometimes a road leads to nowhere – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of the line. In essence, this is the thought that inspired the vision developed 10 years ago by Jonas Spengler and his colleagues: a smart map service for outdoor recreational use, both on and off the beaten path. Although the first iPhone had yet to hit the market at the time, some mobile phones were already being equipped with GPS. Then in 2010, Spengler’s company launched the first prototype of Komoot; it got tens of thousands of downloads in just a few weeks. Today it has over three million users, mostly in central Europe, but increasingly also in Japan and the rest of the world. “We’re the guys who know even the tiniest path in the forest – and can show everyone the way,” says Spengler. The incredible thing is that Komoot has metamorphosed from an information resource and outdoor navigation system into a connectivity tool. The startup has shifted from single-player to multiplayer mode. The community generates tips, and algorithms digest the knowledge of those on the move outdoors. With the data generated from every hike, each user helps make Komoot better. “We want to knock down barriers and make the world a place everyone can explore,” says the 34-year-old. “Wherever you go, there’s something new to discover.”
Photos: Julia Lopez: PR; Dennis Mortensen: Malene Lauritsen (1); X.ai PR (1); nanamee (2); iStock; Mike Curtis: AirBNB PR: Nanamee; Mike McGregor, Contour by Getty Images (1), Alli Harvey/Getty Images (1); Sean Behr: Xirx PR; nanamee; iStock; Anthony Douglas: BMW AG; Kaiser Kuo: Keso/Flickr; Leah Reich: Slack PR: Jonas Spengler: Komoot; nanamee