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Davos: Decisions and Data

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, is certainly better known for the business and policy leaders it gathers. But I enjoyed some sessions by luminaries from the worlds of science and technology today as well. Now that I’m back, I thought I’d write up a couple, starting with the first session I saw.

“It’s a bit intimidating but I’ll have to overcome that,” said the first speaker at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman got a warm laughs in response from his “intimidating” audience as his talk got underway on “Thinking Fast and Slow” (Kahneman’s book of the same name is excerpted here). Kahneman said readers can see his book as the tale of two metaphorical characters at work in the brain, System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the closest to what we call memory, and includes our intelligence, knowledge of the world and skills. It is System 1 that instantly knows 2+2=4 without a moment to think about it. System 2, in contrast, is the effortful system. “If I say 17×24, and if you make the mistake of doing the calculation,” said Kahneman to appreciative chuckles, you will go through a series of steps. That’s System 2.

Although Kahneman said his is not a self-help book, he did suggest a couple of pointers about the brain to the leaders in the room. First, our view of the world tends to be simpler than reality. We also tend to be optimistic, perhaps overly so. While we want optimism, he said, we also want to know the chances that something will actually be successful. “If something seems like a good idea, it probably isn’t as good as you think it is,” he added. A useful strategy is to conduct a “pre-mortem.” Before a decision is implemented, it might be worth asking people involved to run through a mental exercise. They should imagine that it is a year later and the decision was a failure: Why did it happen? The answers are usually very helpful to revealing potential flaws. Kahneman also advised the audience to be “more tolerant of other people’s System 1”; that is, don’t assume they have bad intentions and have been calculating. Essentially, he counseled, to make better decisions, do what you can “to slow yourself down and impose the discipline of System 2.” A separate, later workshop with Kahneman and other speakers further explored improved decision making, including incorporating network theory to find staff “information hubs” to improve communication flow and making decisions more “horizontal” by pushing them to lower tiers in a corporate hierarchy.

John Maeda of Rhode Island School of Design uses design to crystallize ideas around leadership. Credit: Mariette DiChristina

Taking another interesting perspective on leadership, in his session, John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design and a past associate director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, looked at the influence of design on decisions. Through hand-drawn illustrations, he gave the attendees some ways to think about the mechanisms of leadership. For instance, he illustrated it as a cycle that involves a leader and team first charging with an idea up a hill. Then they “fall” off a metaphorical cliff when the idea is executed (and in that, succeed or fail). After landing, perhaps with an easy splash in a pool, they rest and then charge up the next hill again. In another appealing visual that evoked a strategy of pushing decision-making down into an organization, he showed an octopus—which has intelligence in the arms that enhances responsiveness compared with only having a central brain.

To close the afternoon, I attended a workshop hosted by M.I.T.’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory and of the Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, on “Data Deluge to Dividend,” in which attendees explored how decision makers can best wrestle big data to create a “public good” in various areas, from environment to education to governance. I sat in the working group on using such data to benefit education. My favorite comment came from a member of our group, who sensibly said: “One thing is clear. We have a great deal more data than maturity about what to do with it.” Fortunately, we also have sharp minds coming together at forums such as Davos to work on that problem.

Mariette DiChristina About the Author: Editor in Chief, Mariette DiChristina, oversees Scientific American, ScientificAmerican.com, Scientific American MIND and all newsstand special editions. Follow on Twitter @mdichristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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