With the rise of the populist movement across Europe and the U.S.--as those with little economic opportunity say their governments are out of touch--tech leaders are forced to consider the role that they, too, may inadvertently be playing. Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, says he's well aware of the social problems that technology like his creates:
"I think now about how artificial intelligence will create digital refugees, and how tens of millions of people will be displaced because technology is moving forward so rapidly," Benioff said. He was speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Tuesday.
At the annual gathering of roughly 3,000 heads of business and state this week, the overarching theme is "Responsive and Responsible Leadership," which speaks to the idea that business leaders must respond to social and political movements in turn. The forum, it's worth pointing out, is viewed by many to embody the very ideals that led to the populist uprising, including the surprise victory of Donald J. Trump in the U.S. presidential election in November; it brings together the global elite, or those who are typically first to reap the benefits of wealth creation.
Analysts argue that the tone of Davos in 2017 is markedly different from years previous. "This year, a different challenge has sharpened: People across Europe and the U.S. have risen up and said, 'We don't feel we belong, and we don't feel we're being heard," explained Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, who moderated a panel discussion on the "Fourth Industrial Revolution" on Tuesday. Woods spoke in conversation with Salesforce's Benioff, as well as Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka, Reliance Industries managing director Mukesh Ambani, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, and Shu Yinbiao, chairman of China's State Grid Corporation.
Although panelists agreed that technology was creating problems--even as it solves others--most struggled to offer concrete fixes. When pressed, Benioff offered a few possibilities: He says that companies will need to explore "new models of education," for instance, and consider how to allocate a universal basic income. He nodded to the startup incubator Y Combinator's pilot program to give roughly 100 families in Oakland, California a minimum wage, as an example. More significantly, though, the cloud computing exec said CEOs need to adopt a different approach to business: Considering how to deliver for all stakeholders, not only fiscal shareholders.
"As modern leaders, we have to think about stakeholder theory as one of our key paths forward," Benioff said.
General Motor's Mary Barra also underscored the need for governments and big companies to work together, rather than separately--though, she added that this requires execs to remain open minded. "I don't know if there is a software solution for respecting another point of view," she said.