The Future According to Megan Smith
Women 2.0 conference keynote speaker and Google[x] VP Megan Smith gives us a glimpse of her 2020 vision.
By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)
What will the world look like in the 2020?
Most of us will get the answer to that question by waiting and watching the future unfold. But as a VP at Google[x], the company’s lab for advanced projects like Google Glass and driverless cars, Megan Smith actually helps to shape the future when she goes to work every day.
So how does she see the rest of the decade unfolding, and what insights can she share about how the world will be different in seven years time? We spoke to her to find out.
What industries do you see being really transformed by 2020?
The thing that’s going on is affecting everything. I call it network effects. People have had great ideas all over the world for all time, they just haven’t always had access to communicate them to each other and collaborate, and so I think we’ll see profound disruption and innovation across many different sectors.
The ones that I’m most excited about are education and learning — we’re just at the very beginning of that; you can see the cracks in the dam— and what’s happening in emerging markets. Three billion people are joining the global conversation. Sometimes people say, oh, they’re a market. It’s not a market. It’s a group of teammates.
How about the hardware revolution – how do you see that unfolding?
I think open source is an evolutionary idea for humanity, this idea of transparency. It played out for us in the technology world, but it also played out with the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission and Wikipedia. What’s exciting is hardware is becoming part of that movement. From an engineering perspective, innovation always builds upon what’s been done, but it’s just starting to happen faster. There’s a network effect for hardware that’s really exciting.
Open source hardware must challenge some traditional business models.
Perhaps, but then you see great innovation like WordPress, which is largely an open idea, or Android. You know, sometimes sharing makes more, so you figure out: what is the business model on top of this stuff?
There’s this fabulous innovation ship called Unreasonable at Sea, where I’m a mentor. One of the companies there was called Protei and they’re an open hardware ocean exploration and monitoring idea. It’s very difficult to solve a lot of problems from the top down. It’s more straightforward if you can garner the energy of other people and have them collaborate with you, not only to create something like Wikipedia, but to also invent the platform itself, which is what is going on with some of the open hardware. That’s exciting.
So the business model is a challenge, but I don’t think it’s a barrier.
What other aspects of our world do you see changing profoundly by 2020?
Professor Yunus, who invented the idea of microloans, really feels that there’s an opportunity this century, and I agree with him, to eliminate poverty. His vision is a 2030 poverty museum. Maybe not by 2020, but on a path. And part of that includes this massive evolution in education and access for entrepreneurs everywhere.
There’s a great project in Ethiopia that Nicholas Negroponte from MIT Media Lab and Dr. Maryanne Wolf are doing. Their question is, using Android tablets, could kids teach themselves to read? There are 50-100 million kids who don’t have a teacher, so the places where there are no teachers, could kids onboard themselves using some kind of device? You could scale that because the pricing of these devices is getting so cheap. Basically, a mobile phone with a bigger screen is what we’re talking about. It’s still very, very early, but it’s some of the most amazing stuff to work on because if people could learn to read on their own, then they can read to learn, and if the network comes — which it will — all of a sudden you can alleviate poverty with education and entrepreneurship.
Do you think technology is going to disrupt education closer to home?
Totally. The state of education in the U.S. is pretty depressing. We have wonderful, wonderful teachers who can’t disrupt their industry because it’s so constrained and bureaucratic, so what are the ways that we use the internet in our own country with our own kids?
We need to make school WAY less boring. Science class is traditionally taught as science history class – you learn all these facts that someone else discovered, which you need to know, but that’s not really an inspiring way to learn science. Instead, a great way to learn is project-based learning. In order to do the projects you need to learn the facts, but you’re an active scientist or maker. One of the most important things we need to do in the U.S. is to empower kids to be makers rather than consumers.
Project-based learning is more effective and less expensive. Right now a couple million kids get to do this stuff, and we have 60 million kids in school. All the kids need to be able to do that. The world becomes the classroom, instruction comes from the topics as you need it, and people collaborate on real stuff. It’s almost like Peter Thiel’s idea of here’s $100,000 to not go to school. Maybe actually going to school will be more like a Thiel Fellowship.
How about women in tech by 2020. Will these changes help get more women involved in the industry?
Yeah, I think there are two big innovations that would help. One is this stuff needs to be required in class. There are several places in Vietnam where they’re teaching computer science from second grade in class, so they don’t have a gender divide because everybody is expected to program. By 11th grade kids are doing Google interview-level solutions. We need to have making, including computer science, shop, etc. as part of the core curriculum from the beginning, not just an optional afterschool thing. Things like First Robotics and all of those great programs need to become mainstream.
The second change is how we teach. Math has been taught a particular way for a very long time. Fine, but it pulls the same small subset of kids into mathematics. We have two boys, and one of our kids is much more interested in history and stories, so if you want him to do some calculations about lenses you would start talking to him about Galileo and why did they not believe Galileo? Let’s make some things and see how his telescope looked. Can you see the moon? Then he would be into the lenses, but if you just start talking to him about lenses he might not stay with you. Each kid is unique in what captures their attention and their passion.
You’re very involved in Solve for X at Google. Can you explain a bit about what you’re up to there?
Solve for X is a place where people suggest moonshot innovation proposals on the web and then can collaborate around really cool ideas.
On of the fun things is we have people declare their X. We just lost professor Amar Bose. He was an amazing MIT professor and I was lucky to take acoustics with him. He gave this advice in the last class of the semester: ‘You guys are high performing people. Now you’ve got to find your passion.’ It’s so important to find what you want to change. What do you want to impact in the world? What’s your X?
What ‘s your X personally?
I have two Xs. One is sustainable abundance because I think everything is here that we need to solve these problems. We need to do it sustainably, but there’s an abundance opportunity if we can mesh ourselves and collaborate well and innovate.
And the second one I work on a lot I call talent inclusion, which is how do you get all the talent in the world to the table, not just the people who have been included for centuries? That doesn’t happen by other people doing it. The people themselves have to take their rights, but there are people who can help.
Interested in hearing more about Smith’s inspirational view of the near future? Early bird tickets to the conference are available until July 31. Want an extra 30% off early bird tickets? Get a Women 2.0 membership! And…if you are a tech startup, with less than $1M in funding and at least one female founder, apply to our startup competition! First round closes (also) on July 31.
What’s your X?
Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter @entrylevelrebel.