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The Human Side of Technology: Catalyst 2019 Keynote by Scott Hartley

2013 Presidential Innovation Fellow, Author, and Venture Capitalist Scott Hartley explains the origins of his best-selling book, The Fuzzy and the Techie:  Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World in his words “kicking the tires on the technology world, poking holes in the notions we’ve lionized.”

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False Opposition

All technology upon which we rely is human-built to address human problems. Pointing to Two Cultures, a lecture delivered in 1959 by physicist and a novelist CP Snow at Cambridge, Hartley reminds us that uneasy tension and the gaping chasm between the natural world and humanity is not new. 

Snow’s mid-20th-century concern was that people studying the laws of thermodynamics had never read Shakespeare, as though the two could not compatibly exist.  This is a false opposition, and in the ensuing decades, not much has changed. 

In the words of Hartley, technology is not the enemy; rather, it is a resource to be applied to human lives and human values. Particularly for commercial real estate owners and operators, PropTech is the resource that accelerates opportunities to “create value and maximize returns for investors by efficiently deploying capital across their portfolio through the acquisition and maintenance of physical assets.” New call-to-action

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Referencing terms from Stanford University that became the title of his book, Hartley explains:

“fuzzies refer to those who study the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Techies are those from the engineering or computer sciences.”

For Hartley, the purpose of bringing the Fuzzy and the Techie together is to bridge a perceived chasm. Humans require both code and context. In the absence of the ability to apply it meaningfully, code is useless. Interviewed shortly after the release of the book he explained his perspective:

“We need both context and code, data literacy and data science. And as machines take on more routine tasks within our jobs, we need deep-thinking humans in addition to deep-learning AI.”

Liberal arts and technological innovation are not mutually exclusive, but rather two sides of the same coin. Literature, philosophy, and social science, disciplines seen as secondary to professional and technical education, have proven invaluable to driving innovation in our rapidly changing tech-driven ecosystem. 

Fuzzies v.Techies

Throughout tech organizations, fuzzies have their place. In Hartley’s opinion, they are essential in applying emerging technology with “context, consideration, and relevance to the greatest human problems.” 

He demonstrated this by the number of leaders holding “fuzzy” degrees from the ranks of the most successful and well-known companies.

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A Marriage of Equals

In elevating techies and their skills above the fuzzies, we’ve missed the point. Evolving the built world is a highly creative process. Applied to commercial real estate, marrying the creative with the technology as equal partners, is essential.

Instead of fearing AI, artificial intelligence, Hartley challenged the audience to see technology as IA: intelligence augmentation.  AI is perceived as technology replacing people, whereas IA leverages the power of humans to accomplish more. How? Within the world of commercial real estate, by utilizing the power of technology to amass data and deliver insights more accurately and quickly; the difference between asking a project manager for a status report and generating information from a database integrated with data sources from all teams involved. 

Commercial Real Estate has always been about Relationships

In the world of commercial real estate, there is growing technology adoption, despite our cultural dependence upon relationship building, deal-making and collaboration, very human skills. Not lost on Hartley: 

“If we peer behind the veil of our greatest technology, we will see that it is distinguished by its humanity.” 

He cautions us never to forget, human lives and human values are the things to which technology is applied. 

In our industry, technology has the capacity to facilitate more efficient decision-making by delivering insights and actionable intelligence sooner, informing the decisions we make and the ways we drive greater value.

Technology Alone is Insufficient—the Real Question is “How Do We Think?”

For Hartley and so many thought leaders in our world, data isn’t going anywhere. Success is the joining of the human algorithm with technology.

As evidence, Hartley quotes “fuzzy” Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack, who earned degrees in Philosophy and the History of Science. Of what possible value are those disciplines in a tech company? According to Butterfield:

"Studying philosophy taught me two things...I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true--like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces--until they realized that it wasn't true."

Bridging the Divide

Hartley left us with the following questions:

  • How do we get the right people in the room to ask the right questions in the right way? 
  • And, if our future requires the best of the Fuzzy and the Techie, what type of skills are most important from each?

Hartley made this clear; non-routine tasks, improvisational, creative, empathetic and collaborative elements cannot be automated. What differentiates technology from human interaction is that technology is, in the words of Apple’s Tim Cook, “without values or compassion.” 

Lacking values and compassion, technology will never be capable of exercising a dose of skepticism, or master critical thinking. Technology will always reflect human values. 

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"If machines keep getting better — and they will — humans must become better versions of themselves. The rise of the robots, which has been persuasively heralded, will impel a greater need for our very basic humanity, and our need for empathy and the soft skills. Automation will take away repetitive human tasks that do not require higher-level problem-solving. Being a techie is not the antidote to redundancy in tomorrow’s economy; being more human is."

~Scott Hartley to Forbes magazine

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Rochelle A. Carter-Wilson

Written by Rochelle A. Carter-Wilson

Rochelle is the Content Marketing Manager for Honest Buildings. She creates stories and other on-brand content to inform and engage owners and other members of the Commercial Real Estate industry.

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