Innovation and how it’s shaping business

This special podcast on innovation is brought to you by Barclays Africa. Peter Diamandis is the executive chairman and co-founder of Singularity University. First trip to South Africa, Peter?

PD – It is, but not my last.

And Singularity…

PD – Singularity is an institution that was started in 2008 to help teach executives and graduate students around the world about this extraordinary rate of technological explosion that’s going on right now. We’re living in a time where the only constant is change and the rate of change is increasing across a range of different technologies. As an institution, we focus on those that are doubling in power year-on-year.

Do you have a campus? Do you have a faculty?

PD – We do. We have a campus in the middle of Silicon Valley on the NASA Moffett Research field, right next to Google. We have a faculty of full time and part-time people who come out of the top Silicon Valley companies and universities. Really an important group/faculty that come out of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. We are looking at technologies that are riding on top of the increasing power of computation. We all here of this thing called Moore’s Law – the amount of computational power you can buy doubles every 18 to 24 months. We riding on top of faster and faster computers or things like artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, synthetic biology, networks, and sensors. All these things are converging to change every aspect of our business, our industries, and even how we teach our kids and how we stay healthy.

Eugene Booysen is Head of Innovation at Barclays Africa.

EB – It’s a long way from 3-D printing to banking. It’s not that much of a leap. We almost wish more cards were printed on 3-D printers. For us it’s about more than just 3-D printing. It’s about how you look at your business model. It’s how you shift yourself from your traditional linear thinking into this exponential thinking.

How did you get to learn about these guys?

EB – I was fortunate enough to attend the Singularity campus in Palo Alto in San Francisco several years ago. That’s what drove a lot of my thinking internally – on the back of that – and it was also, a lot of the content I used to influence some of the decisions we were making and some of the decisions we had to make. I felt I needed to bring them out to South Africa and get the exposure not only for our staff, but exposure for our clients this thinking as well. It was definitely things that were going to impact their business model and I think all of them could intuitively feel this law of accelerating returns. They could feel this rate of change happening. If we wanted to solve some of the most difficult problems in Africa, we had to apply some of this thinking.

Peter, you don’t have a curriculum that can be given to some regulated authority. Why is that?

PD – We made an active choice, not to seek any kind of accreditation because when you go for accreditation, you basically have to freeze your curriculum and present it. We’re living in a world where the rate of change is so fast that to freeze it would be senseless and we really are reinventing what we’re teaching at these curriculum-planning meetings twice a year. We’re flowing in the latest in all of these fields plus areas like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, and how you tap into ‘today three billion, tomorrow eight million’ interconnected people.

The three of us are talking on a level that many South Africans would think this is just, way above their heads. South Africa’s not the most innovative economy anymore. In fact, our great innovator Elon Musk (a man you seem to know pretty well) seemed to have to go outside of this continent before they can gain recognition. Is it likely that, by bringing the knowledge here as you are doing (albeit only for two days at this point), that you could turn that around? 

PD – We’re living in a world that’s becoming massively hyperconnected where again, we’re going from one-point-eight billion people in 2010 to two-point-eight billion people today. Very soon, eight billion people in the next five years connected with high speed Internet, but also connected to the world to gain access to capital, to gain access to any technology you want. I think that we’re going to see a massive period of innovation growth. I think a lot of that growth is going to come out of Africa, India, and Asia and not traditionally out of the U.S.


PD – We’re talking about giving someone here in Africa, who has a high-speed connection, access to the tools that were once only possible back in the States. Today, a teenager with a Smartphone has access to more knowledge and information than the President of the United States had 21 years ago. It’s extraordinary. Incidentally, on that Smartphone that they maybe pay $2.00/day on micro finance for, comes two-way video conferencing, high-definition video, cameras, libraries of information, and Google etcetera. We now have the tools to have a much more creative population than ever before. When I look for where we’ll see real innovation coming, it’s looking for problems and converting those problems into businesses. I tell people, “the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities” and you can teach that. You can teach entrepreneurs. If you see a problem, start a company. Solve the problem and offer that solution to other people.

Eugene, where does a bank come into this? I can understand and it’s fantastic that Peter and the Singularity University people are here and will maybe even be coming back more and more in the future. Why would it appeal to you? It has to be a considerable investment in bringing the whole bunch of them out.

EB – I think that if you look at banks as a capital transformation player, there’s a responsibility for us in terms of how we’re reaching our clients and there’s a responsibility for how we’re leveraging those deposits and where the money is going. By getting ourselves involved in these technologies and with these entrepreneurs, it opens up that ability for them to guide and solve these problems.

From your side, you would presumably be looking at this unlocking of talent and the young guy who’s previously not be able to have access to finance, who’s discovered a world-beating app (the next Angry Birds) – you could be funding it.

EB – Yes. We’ve already looked at it. We’ve already started a Seeker Fund close to 18 months ago.

Seeker Fund?

EB – We made our first investment in a company you’re familiar with, called Rainfin. It was a peer-to-peer lender. Our involvement with that company has opened up other business opportunities for us and I think that’s the important bit. As you begin to experiment, begin to play, and begin to open up, you learn how the people are doing it and you gain access to a different talent pool. Those experiments and investments have allowed us to up skill our staff in a different way. They’ve allowed us to up skill our executives in a different way and allowed us to see a different way of tackling these problems.

Peter, in Silicon Valley there’s a shortage of skills – the kinds of skills the companies need. Is this a way of perhaps tapping into other skills sources that haven’t even been discovered?

PD – Yes, it’s interesting. About two years ago, an experiment was done. Two of my friends who were both at Google, who run an artificial intelligence course at Stanford, decided to open up the course to the world. Anyone could take this course online – free. They had all the Stanford students and then they had 10,000 students from around the world who took this. At the end, if you wanted, you could take the exam. They looked at the exam results and they said, “Where did the Stanford students line up with everyone else around the world who took this course?” They found that the top Stanford student ranked something like 863rd on the list, that 862 people above them from parts of the world that would never have had access to this course…

Slow down there. Stanford’s one of the great universities in the United States. You can’t get in that easily.

PD – You can’t and honestly, it’s one of the top AI courses in the world. The fact that the students who were in Africa, Asia, and India took this course online and then ranked better, tells us there’s so much latent talent out there in the world. They simply don’t have access to the information, coursework, or resources. What we’re really talking about in our partnership with Barclays in the work that Singularity wants to do, is making this accessible to everybody.

What happens after the course? In South Africa, we are very good at doing things (like the 2010 World Cup). We built stadiums and we forgot to tell everybody to come back to the country after the football was over. What happens here? What happens with Singularity University/Barclays Africa – all this information – when you leave?

PD – Well, there are many opportunities. Firstly, we hope that we’ll have a constant flow of executives coming to Silicon Valley and graduate students coming in and coming back to South Africa. Secondly, we’re in conversations with Barclays right now. We’re going to be doing a global request/proposal to pick five venues, five ecosystems, five parts of the world. We’ll set up operations to mirror and to support our growth around the world. We hope that one of them will be on the African continent. We hope and believe that with Barclays’ partnership, having it in Johannesburg makes a lot of sense.

Eugene, is that a reality – a possibility, rather than a reality?

EB – Yes, I think that’s why we brought them out. We trust the power of the content. We trust the power of the contribution SU’s making. We trust the power of their research and I think that by exposing our staff and our clients to that type of coaching and that understanding of those business models provides a long-term sustainability for this partnership.

Presumably, you can’t afford to fund this all yourself. If it were going to be one of the five (global) hubs, would you be looking for partners – other companies or the Government?

EB – I think that’s what we’ll achieve out of hosting Singularity around this time. Through our clients’ exposure to this, they will realise it’s something bigger than themselves and there’s an ability for them to apply it in their own organisations, and actually, be collaborative in terms of how we entertain this partnership going forward.

It’s not a BHAG anymore. 

EB – A big, hairy, audacious goal – no. It was a big, hairy, audacious goal getting it here.

Now it’s called something else. 

PD – I would say that, in order for companies to survive over the next decade they need to become data-driven companies. They need to be using these exponential technologies. If they’re not, they’re going to have a hard time surviving on the global stage. I tell large, corporate CEO’s and I spend with the top Fortune 100 CEO’s from around the world, that your competition is no longer the multinational overseas. It’s the exponential entrepreneur with access to these technologies. We’ve heard about Uber and Airbnb. All these start-ups suddenly start challenging multibillion Dollar companies out of no place. The rate at which we’re going from ‘I have an idea’ to ‘I run a billion Dollar company’ is faster than ever before. You need to know about this. You need to be partnering. You need to be making investments in the start-up community and I think we can represent a direct injection point of bringing entrepreneurs here and vice versa, bringing ideas, and connecting (through Barclays and through SU) the CEO’s of these companies here with the most important thinking and technology going on around the world right now.

It also sounds to me as though you would change the culture or potentially, change the culture of an organisation itself – like Barclays.

PD – You have to. As humans, we are linear and local thinkers. That’s how we evolved. Today, the world is growing globally and exponentially and unless you get into the mindset that disrupting yourself is mandatory… I like to say that unless you’re disrupting yourself, someone else will. Every company will eventually go out of business, unless it’s continually reinventing itself. If you’re not, then you’re on a slow descent to zero.

That’s an extraordinary statement and something that you’ve already started the path along, Eugene.

EB – Yes, I think that the idea of disruptive thinking isn’t new. Banks themselves have already been feeling this for the last five to ten years, but if we don’t start seeing that adjacent threat as an adjacent opportunity, we’ll miss the boat. To think that our current thinking is going to be enough to change our business is wrong.

That was Eugene Booysen, who’s with Barclays Africa and Peter Diamandis, the Executive Chairman of Singularity University. This special podcast on Innovation was brought to you by Barclays Africa.