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AI, like much technology, will enable a thousand flowers of creativity and innovation to bloom

Ajaz Ahmed, CEO of AKQA, speaks at UKENIC23

A.I., like much technology, will enable a thousand flowers of creativity and innovation to bloom Ajaz Ahmed, CEO of AKQA, speaks at UKENIC23. Around 450 delegates from the UK and 25 other countries gathered at the QEII Centre in Westminster for the UKENIC23 Conference on the 4th and 5th December.

Across a packed two-day agenda focusing on ‘Reconfiguration’, speakers and panellists led expert discussions providing valuable insight across the sector.

AKQA CEO, Ajaz Ahmed, was among the on-stage guests for day one’s morning plenary and shared his thoughts on the importance of creativity, innovation and leadership… Ajaz shares his five principles or characteristics of some of the world’s most extraordinary organisations

Tom Bewick (TB):
Conference, will you please welcome the CEO of AKQA, Ajaz Ahmed.

Ajaz Ahmed (AA):

Despair is an insult to the imagination. These are the words of the extraordinary Anthropologist and brilliant author Wade Davis. But despite the constant of the troubles and tribulations and the strife that carries on, there’s always a constant. And that constant is innovation and creativity.

Creativity itself is such an optimistic act because you’re inventing something that didn’t exist before. You’re pushing back with something that’s more beautiful than what existed before.

Necessity is the mother of all invention. Because when we face practical problems, we create innovative solutions. Initiative, ingenuity, passion and innovation are the only antidote to irrelevance.

So, when we think about the climate crisis, we have to think about solutions not being a sacrifice, but in fact, being so much better than what existed before.

Likewise, when we think about artificial intelligence, some people claim that it’s going to destroy humanity.

A.I., like much technology, will enable a thousand flowers of creativity and innovation to bloom.

Well, humanity is doing a pretty good job of itself of doing that. But in fact, A.I., like much technology, will enable a thousand flowers of creativity and innovation to bloom.

And it can help us to amplify the best of ourselves and protect us against the worst of ourselves.

So, one example is you can create a cyber shield around protected areas of the Amazon rainforest, and then every single one of those massive machines that tries to destroy it would stop the minute it goes near there.

Similarly, all weapons can be created which have built in mechanisms that if they go anywhere near schools or people, they can be stopped. And the technology, the future’s already here, it’s just not widely distributed. So, when we use technology in brilliant applications that advance our humanity, it amplifies the best of ourselves and can protect us against the worst of ourselves.

I’ve been lucky to have spent 30 years studying and working with some of the world’s most extraordinary organisations, and I wanted to know what is it about their DNA and their characteristics that makes the organisations we love and admire really endure? And I discovered five principles or characteristics that are woven into their DNA.

Being Revolutionary

And the five principles are, firstly, they democratise what’s for the elite, and they make it for everyone.

So as an example, when Apple created the world’s first personal computer, Steve Jobs, the creator of the computer, thought of it as a bicycle for the mind. They’re revolutionary not just in their products, but also in other aspects of the organisation, like the service, the culture, the architecture, the employee engagement, and the audience engagement.

But in addition, their innovative and pioneering when it comes to aspects that some organisations don’t give a thought to like logistics and distribution and architecture.

And again, when we think of an organisation like Apple, you look at the architecture and it’s revolutionary. And it’s revolutionary just as the user experience is revolutionary and the products are revolutionary.

Big don’t necessarily beat the small

The third characteristic is that the best and the most enduring organisations understand that the big don’t necessarily beat the small, but the fast will always beat the slow, and the simple will always displace the complex.

And so, the most enduring organisations always find ways to simplify the lives of their employees and their audiences.

Operational excellence: counterbalancing creativity and experimentation

The fourth characteristic is related to their operational excellence, where they counterbalance creativity and experimentation with phenomenal organisation. And it’s that tension in between that allows the real progress to happen.

So, when you think about an athlete, it’s only when you break a muscle that it grows back stronger.

And so, by carrying out a number of experiments, they can see which ones they want to amplify and which ones didn’t work.

After all, what is innovation? Innovation is merely an experiment of unknown outcomes.

Brilliant storytellers

And the fifth characteristic is their brilliant storytellers. So, they understand that everything an organisation does tells a story.

So, if you imagine a 186-year-old brand like Hermes, every single connection and touchpoint an audience has with that organisation is beautiful and it’s authored with authenticity, which allows it to become the authority in its particular field.

And just using that aspect of brilliant storytellers, if you listen to Robert McKee, the amazing Hollywood story, Hollywood storytelling coach, one of the things he teaches us that if you have a story that doesn’t have conflict and crisis, you’ll bore your audience to death.

So, when you think about amazing TV series, of the last decade like Game of Thrones or Succession, you’ll see that the reason we’re all gripped is a conflict and the crisis. And it’s exactly the same with organisations.

So, if you take a brand like Nike, it’s in conflict with inertia. Anything that doesn’t move people forward or the world forward, that’s its antagonising in force.

And so, the protagonist is anything that moves people forward and inspires them, that brings innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world. And when Nike thinks about an athlete, the way they think about it is, if you have a body, you’re an athlete.

Is the productivity crisis a leadership crisis?

There’s a lot of talk these days about a productivity crisis. My belief is it’s a leadership crisis. And in the words of Peter Drucker, only three things happen naturally in organisations – friction, confusion, and underperformance.

Everything else requires leadership. And there are thousands of books written on leadership.

But it’s only about one thing, and that’s being a decent human being. Leaders don’t just encourage diversity and inclusion. They also ensure belonging.

So, I think one way to think about it is diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is being able to choose a track for the playlist that everyone else can dance to.

And across the world and across industries, we see a lot of progress in diversity and even in inclusion.

But the real opportunities to make more progress in belonging.

One-minute MBA on leadership

And this conference is related to and about education. And I want to offer a one-minute MBA on leadership. And my one-minute MBA on leadership is:

Make a list of all the things that were done to you that you hated and never do them to anyone. And make a list of all the things that you loved and do them all the time.

There’s a number of questions that each of us should probably ask across all our organisations.

One of them is instead of who do we compete with, what do we compete for? What are our values and aspirations for the audiences and people that we serve? What are our values and aspirations for the world?

Enable a culture that creates relationships

Another question for all of us is how do we enable a culture that creates relationships, not just transactions?

Another question for all of us is what’s the memory we want to create and the feeling we want to evoke in the hearts and minds of all our employees, and the audiences we want to serve?

And another great quote is ‘vision without execution is hallucination’.

And so, with our aspirations and our values, what are the concrete mechanisms that get us there?

People talk a lot in business and organisational management about chemistry, but not enough about physics, about the inputs and the outputs, which help us to achieve certain goals.

What is our motivation?

And then another question for all of us is what’s our motivation? What are we going to contribute to society? How are we going to remove friction and pain points and barriers from people’s lives?

Bringing children into the world is an act of the greatest hope. The purpose of life is to create life, protect life, and protect anything that’s beautiful. The educator’s role is to be an instrument of peace and prosperity. The only metric that really matters to me is the metric of quality of life improved.

My favourite film is Gattaca, and it has the brilliant line: ‘There is no gene for the human spirit’.

And in this world where genetic engineering claims to transform us or AI is better than us and everything we do, I believe that the most powerful force in the universe isn’t technology or imagination, it’s love.

Thank you very much.

Question and answer session

Ajaz, thank you so much for that eight-minute MBA brand innovation and leadership.

I shall submit my homework, my two lists later to you. But, you know, obviously we are on a tight schedule so if you’ve got questions you want to ask Ajaz, then please do get on the conference app and put those questions in.

Something you said there in your presentation about vision without execution is another form of hallucination. And you know, here I find myself 30 years on from that conversation we had in the halls of residence at a university in the west of England, and you had this vision to be a founder of a company called AKQA.

You actually, I remember on your, you were a big fan of Steve Jobs, the late Steve Jobs, back then, you, on your Apple Mac, printed off actually the font for AKQA, which I believe you still use to this day. You certainly were not hallucinating in the last 30 years, Ajaz.

How, in the short time we’ve got, how did you go about building this this global company?

Well, thank you for inviting me along Tom. It’s a genuine honour and privilege to be here.

Ever since I’ve been here this morning, I’ve learned so much already, it has been completely mind expanding.

But I think of my life as an adventure in serendipity. So, it was at university where somebody showed me the internet.

And because as a kid, I was very lucky, from the age of 12 really, to 18, 19, that I’d worked with computers, and I’d work with some of the world’s most important technology companies, I knew that as soon as someone showed me the internet that’s convergence.

And so, I wanted to make sure that I had a role to play to help organisations participate.

So, and I think in terms of the serendipitous aspect, is one is knowing what I wanted to do.

What is the CEO’s job really?

And then the second is, well, what’s the CEO’s job really?

And the CEO’s job is, I think, two things:

Quality control, making sure that an organisation never lowers its standards, and relationships.
And relationships are the team that you hire, the customers that that that you work with.

So, I think I’ve always tried to focus on those, but I have been immensely, immensely lucky that the timing worked out. And we managed to really benefit from this new revolutionary, new technology, which is obviously why we’re never afraid of AI.

Whenever a new…the same conversations that are happening about AI are exactly the same conversations that were happening about the internet 30 years ago.

Yeah absolutely. And I do want to come on actually to the phenomenon of Chat GPT, which only launched a year ago.

Actually, towards the truncated end of this session, but something else you said up there was that the productivity challenge that this country, and indeed a lot of advanced nations of facing this so-called productivity challenge, which strip away the economist language, really it’s about stagnating living standards.

We’re on our second decade here in the UK of pretty anaemic growth. And I thought it was fascinating that you talked about it being a failure, more of leadership.

And I’ve got a slide actually for you from the Financial Times, which, you know, I shared with you in advance, it’s the one just before that, which is fascinating because, I mean…I know you’re a big fan of London, and actually if you took the London out of the equation, in terms of our output and our head count, UK GDP would fall by about 14%.

Yet if you did the same in Germany, another hugely productive city in Munich, very creative city too, German GDP would fall by just 1%.

In other words, the London centric nature of the UK economy, whilst it’s great if you live here, and it’s a world-renowned creative hub, how do we spread the benefits of what London delivers across the whole of the UK?

And I appreciate we’ve only got 30 to 60 seconds to answer this.

I’ll tell you the expert on London, is our friend Jimmy, who’s looking after the AV today, and Jimmy is reading Simon Jenkins’ book about London, and Jimmy will tell you that the reason why London is the place it is, is because it is diverse, it has had business embedded from day one, and it’s always been a world capital.

And I think as we go around the UK, you know, some of the stories, that the UK is the fifth biggest economy in the world, and yet one in five children today, they’re going to go to sleep hungry – one in five.

And so, there isn’t a shortage of wealth, there’s just a poverty of distribution.

And that’s where I am, you know, and I can give you two stories just really quickly, which is you have teenagers going into school with empty packed lunchboxes, because they don’t want to be shamed about the fact they haven’t got any food.

You have parents today, who are taking their children to food banks and dropping them off, because they literally can’t afford to keep feeding them.

And these, and I think we’re so lucky that here we are in amazing London.

You know, for me, it’s the most extraordinary capital in the world because of its diversity, because everyone is welcome, because it’s a world capital, because I love business, and this has always been a business place.

But I think until we find ways to raise the living standards and include everyone, and allow everyone to participate, it’s going to get compounded.


Indeed, because that’s your point about poverty. If economies are not delivering across the board, raises in living standards, then we’re always going to be talking about that challenge.

I’m going to fast forward actually now to the last slide, because we are running out of time, and I do want to make sure all of our brilliant guests and delegates get away for their networking and their coffee.

But I saw this on the internet a few months back, of course, right at the time when everybody was talking about Chat GPT and The Economist was saying that a third of jobs by 2030 potentially are going to be automated, not only jobs in the skills trades but also a lot of paraprofessional jobs as well.

I thought this is very cheeky billboard ad, you know, hey Chat GPT, finish this building.

I mean, is that not really one of the key challenges of our age? You know, we’re talking about automation and about AI, and the use of AI in terms of digitising many work processes that traditionally may have required manual input or manual labour, but there’s always going to be, is there not, this case of technology destroys jobs, but it creates jobs, and therefore the challenge really is to make sure that when you look at the ledger, at the end of the day, we’re creating more jobs out of this new technology than we’re destroying.

Yeah, and you only need to look at the USA and Ireland for those examples, where productivity is fantastic, and I think people naturally feel threatened by a new technology like AI.

But the opportunities are immense and I suppose do people feel threatened by the calculator?

Maths teachers did initially.

But I think it’s kind of led to so many other breakthroughs because what it allows us to do is like, we think of AI now as a member of the team.

So, for us, AI is not a failed attempt at being a human. It’s just something different that contributes differently and can be incredibly helpful.

What a fantastic insight to end on, Conference. I like to talk about artificial intelligence as augmented intelligence. As Ajaz says, we should see it as our friend and not our enemy.

But who knows? Next time you come to an ENIC conference, if we’re not sitting here in person, it could be a hologram, it could be an avatar. As it’s far better, far more…

How’d you get more articulate than Ajaz?

But, please, for one final time, give your hands to Ajaz.

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