Future Investment Initiative 2021. Accelerating change – three things I learned

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Ongoing attempts to contain the Covid19 pandemic meant that many of the big events that traditionally dominate January, such as Davos and CES, only occurred online.

Yet one high profile event that did happen, at least partially in the real world this January, was the fourth edition of the Future Investment Initiative (FII). The event featured leaders, investors and policymakers from across the globe attending either virtually through some pretty impressive technology, or in person at the venue at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Given the title The Neo-Renaissance the event featured a stellar lineup of presenters from multiple, diverse industries including; Larry Fink, CEO of investors Blackrock, Peggy Johnson, CEO of much-discussed AR startup Magic Leap, David Schwimmer, CEO of the London Stock Exchange and H.R.H. Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

While traveling to the region was seriously difficult, I was glad I made the effort. I moderated sessions including ‘How are leaders reinventing work for the post-Covid world?’ And ‘How can CEOs leverage the new pace of digital transformation?’

Here are three things I learned.

1 The future of events is hybrid – I believe the FII can provide a template for events in the future. The physical presence may be smaller, and a little more exclusive. Yet at the same time the event will be democratised by the way in which the main sessions are streamed online.

Typically the FII’s attendance would be a couple of thousand people. This year – while only 200 people gathered in person – over four million people tuned into the event on various platforms online including; WeChat YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

By reducing the number of people at the event it enabled the event to become less carbon-intensive. Fewer international visitors means less people jumping aboard planes. 

There is still the issue of how do you replicate the networking experience of a real world event online. Nothing replaces human interaction.  For me, seeing people in person – although masked and socially distant – was enormously refreshing. 

But the future of Video Conference may well be more satisfying than it is at present. Jacob Mullins, Managing Director of Shasta Ventures told me about two companies that allow you to interact more naturally online – Nowhere – which creates 3D gatherings and Spatial which allows people to collaborate together through augmented and virtual reality. Note: It does help if you have a pair of ocular glasses. 

2 The transition to a carbon-neutral economy can have unintended consequences – moving away from fossil fuels must not be done at the expense of the environment and the Global South.

The new Biden-Harris administration raises the hopes that we may be able to limit the harmful effects of global warming. Number two on the White House’s list of priorities (after Covid19) is tackling the climate emergency, “while empowering American workers and businesses to lead a clean energy revolution.”

Marc Ganzi, CEO of Digital Colony and Colony Capital told me that from an investment perspective the clean energy revolution means mass electrification of the US economy. And the number one material you need to do this is copper.

Large copper deposits are in South America and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Private companies – like his – need to ensure that they are working fairly with locals paying them decent wages, ensuring there are no underaged workers who should be in school, that the mines are authorised by local authorities and that the earth is protected as the copper is extracted.  Ganzi told me that he works with local NGOs to certify that his investments are ethical and protect the communities he is working in. 

It is not just copper. The Economist last week featured a story about wood forests that are being destroyed because of the demand for balsa wood for blades of wind turbines.

3 Manufacturing is moving back to the Global North. ‘We’re not safe until we’re all safe.’ ‘We can only solve Covid19 with global partnership’.  Alongside these lofty words is the emerging reality of Covid19 vaccine nationalism (namely where the vaccines are produced can lead to which population gets them first.) 

Add this to the brutal reality brought by the effect of borders tightening for months limiting supplies of vital goods and we see a profound shift in manufacturing as countries need to protect their national supply chains from further destruction. 

I spoke to Andrew Liveris who highlighted the fact that pre-Covid, Australia imported 90% of its pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, largely from China. When the pandemic first hit and imports constricted, Australians ran out of some medicines and was short on ventilators.  

Now the Australian government is creating a national industrial strategy – including ways to produce their own drugs. 

This is opposite to what we’ve seen before in terms of globalised supply and reliance on cheap imports.  A similar process is also happening in the UK and US. Liveris pointed out to me that China has shown the world how to do this through advanced robotics and data analytics.  Expect China to be exporting less of its products, and more of its know how to enable other country’s domestic economic sovereignty to grow.


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