CogX 2021: 10 innovations disrupting society

8 minute read

18 June 2021

By Peter Springett

Head of Content, Upstart

The CogX Festival 2021 was as thought provoking and dynamic as ever. With a nod to the theme of the event, ‘how do we get the next 10 years right’, here are 10 trends identified by the Upstart team who attended the conference.

1. Yes, we can build back better…

Who really benefits from disruption? And how do you ensure that digital transformation improves the life chances of as many people as possible, not just a privileged minority? In the wake of the pandemic, Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, and now United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance, suggested that policy makers, governments and businesses now have a template for collaboration that can help solve the climate emergency and other global challenges including future pandemics.  

2. …so long as no one gets left behind

A more cautious view was aired by Polly Mackenzie, Chief Executive of Demos. Its research shows that many people remain cut off from the benefits of social and economic disruption. As well as greater financial resilience the more well-off also enjoy greater social benefits. For example, affluent people were 50% more likely to make a new friend during the pandemic.

Research also revealed that far from changing attitudes to issues such as Brexit, taxation and climate change, the public’s pre-pandemic views have hardened. More than ever, governments will need to ‘take people with them’ when they argue the case for more radical solutions to climate change and inequality.

3. Governments, policy makers and local authorities are still in catch up mode…

If you believe some of the speakers, we are in a very dangerous place. Jack Clark, Co-chair, AI Index and Co-chair, OECD working group on AI, warned that too much knowledge is concentrated in the hands of a small number of private tech firms. On the other, governments not only fail to monitor these organisations, but they are also prone to making poor decisions based on insufficient information.

The risk increases further when you have adversarial governments making decisions based on old-fashioned geo-politics. In many cases, says Jack, a tech giant in your own territory knows more about what is happening on the other side of the world than a politician does.

4. …with businesses in many sectors calling for more, not less legislation

More than one CEO expressed their concern about a lack of political will at the local or national level. Many of the largest steel and concrete manufacturers are already taking steps to reduce carbon emissions. But they need more, not less legislation in order to shape the decisions of architects, civil engineers and building managers. By incentivising the construction sector to focus on net zero, policy makers give organisations such as ArcelorMittal the confidence to invest further in their carbon reduction strategies.

Fredrik Hjelm, Founder and CEO, VOI Technology was another advocate for change. Leading one of the biggest European brands in the micro-mobility space, he called on city authorities to issue guidelines that enable micro-mobility suppliers to close the gaps in existing mobility infrastructures. This includes ‘last mile’ journeys that take travellers from front door to their closest subway or bus stop, and targeting isolated populations with affordable transport options.

Upstart CogX
Image Source: Sam Moqadam - Upsplash

5. For smart cities, data is gold, but only when it has a purpose…

Several sessions confronted the obstacles that still stand in the way of the so-called ‘smart’ or liveable city. Here, it’s not just an over-reliance on private vehicles that is the problem, we also need to do better with the data that supports decisions in city halls. Stuart Wood, Partner & Group Leader, Heatherwick Studio warned that many data sets are incomplete or are sourced from a narrow band of the population.

As well as data, stakeholders also need to think more about individual and collective experiences. At Upstart we know that ‘experience’ is a much-overused buzzword but enjoyed being reminded that many of the best things about city life – hanging out with friends or walking through the park - don’t need an app or big data to be enjoyed.

Stuart also warned against short-sighted design and construction techniques. If you measure sustainable buildings by their longevity and the ability to change in use over time, some of the most successful architecture in the UK is Victorian or older.

6. …or can be structured and shared easily

In the panel on Digital Twins, the speakers agreed that one of the greatest barriers to building sophisticated system models is data interoperability. How do you build an information management framework based on a foundation data model, a reference data library, and an integration architecture? And even when you have all these elements, how do you incentivise different players to share their data in an open environment?

The very same question came up during the Visa sponsored session, on data-driven insights.How does the financial sector promote sustainable behaviour when there are still gaps in the quality and scope of data that could genuinely influence the decisions of corporate customers and consumers?

The panellists agreed that financial institutions should find better ways of combining and sharing data. For Ben Kellard, Director of Business Strategy, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), this meant banks had to move away from a ‘solo sport’ mentality and start working together as a team to overcome strategic blind spots and identify opportunities for data monetisation.

7. High streets will bounce back, but it won’t be easy

So much for smart cities. What about small towns that have seen high streets depleted by the financial crisis and e-retail, even before the pandemic? Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist, Google, says that small retailers and businesses have been flocking to Google Maps and other online platforms faster than ever during the pandemic to maintain a connection with existing customers and attract new ones.

But this isn’t going to be an easy journey for everyone. Vanessa Lawrence, Director, Location International, said that high street units will inevitably change hands, attracting businesses that adapt to changing tastes. Success stories include experiential retailers, such as artisan coffee and tea shops, who can revitalise customer senses numbed by months of lockdown.  There is also a pent-up demand for sustainable retail, be it vintage clothing, or detergents and cleaning materials dispensed into reusable bottles brought in by the customer.

Image Source; Su-San Lee - Upsplash
Image Source; Su-San Lee - Upsplash

8. Big tech, AI and healthcare have reached a ‘happy truce’

In spite of what you read in the headlines, AI isn’t going to replace your doctor any time soon. Even in the field of medical imaging, most AI tools support research into screening programmes, rather than than make decisions about individual patients.

In addition, the majority of AI software products are classified as class 2 rather than class 3 devices. That is, they assist radiologist decision-making by automating repetitive tasks that are prone to human error. But they do not replace the ‘gold standard’ where two experts make the final decision about a patient scan.

Big tech has also been humbled by one too many ‘bad-news’ stories exposing training data bias and data privacy. It was noticeable that speakers from Google and Amazon to name but two, were more modest when speaking about their goals, while stressing the need to work more closely with regulators and policy makers.

9. AI is helping to win the battle against cancer one algorithm at a time

AI also has a critical role to play in the future of cancer screening. Early detection results in 80% survival rates over five years, compared with 20% for late-stage cancer.  The statistics for breast cancer alone are even better. If detected early, patients have a 99% five-year survival rate.

So how do we drive down the cost of screening? Emi Gal, CEO & co-founder, Ezra has developed an MRI scanner, supported by AI software, that brings down the cost of a full body scan from more than $10,000 to $2,000 (the ultimate goal is $500).

Companies such as Kheiron Medical are leading the way in the use of deep learning to increase early detection rates of breast cancer. Sarah Kerruish, Chief Strategy Officer also stressed the importance of eliminating bias. Kheiron Medical uses training sets that take into account differences in breast tissue density between ethnic groups while 26% of its development team are women. 

10. Burnout is real (and not just in healthcare)

Finally, an update on the most sophisticated computer in the universe. The human brain is paying a higher price than ever for long hours and unhealthy working practices.  Studies show that one in five healthcare workers globally have experienced depression, anxiety, or PTSD during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, employees in many sectors are suffering from the rise of ‘toxic productivity’. Paddy Barrett, Consultant Cardiologist, Blackrock Clinic made an important point that burnout doesn’t just relate to long hours and overworking. It is also a symptom of working environments that lack a sense of community, have poor morals and where employees lack the resources to do the best possible job.

Above all, burn out is related to our humanity. When we push ourselves beyond our limits, we constrain our ability to feel compassion for ourselves and for others. We are also less receptive to help from friends and colleagues. 

At the end of another fascinating CogX conference it was good to be reminded that as well as improving data, devices, and algorithms, we need to do a better job of looking after ourselves.

Not sure what to do next? Then Start Here and get in touch with the team at Upstart today. We’re here to help you deal with digital disruption.


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