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Could Big Data Have Saved Ancient Civilizations?

David Jonker

The burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria has come to symbolize the tragedy of irretrievably losing valuable cultural information and knowledge. The Egyptian center of scholarship was one of the largest and most important libraries of the ancient world, standing from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC.

In those days, much of the known world’s recorded knowledge was kept in the library. Today, our information is decentralized across huge regions, and thanks to digital technology, there is a lot more of it. So much more, in fact, that it’s been theorized that every last papyrus scroll in the vast Library of Alexandria could now fit onto an ordinary flash drive.

Ninety percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years. According to the documentary The Human Face of Big Data (shown worldwide as part of SAP’s Our Digital Future film series), the typical person in the Western world is now exposed to as much data in one day as someone in the 15th century would have seen in their entire life.

For convenience, we call this phenomenon Big Data. We won’t always call it that. The term denotes something still new and exciting. Since the recent explosion of data generation, there hasn’t yet been time to scrape the surface of its potential to inform decisions.

There is such an abundance of data that we don’t yet know if it will actually hinder us more than help us. We could be suffering from debilitating information overload. Big Data and digital technology are moving us into totally uncharted territory. We’re just beginning to understand how we can use all that data to improve the world and human lives.

Rather than just feeling smug about its ability to help us live better, we have to also be wary of following a path of self-destruction. We can’t simply dismiss doomsday believers as “negative” or “gloomy” thinkers.

The Library of Alexandria was the ancient world’s attempt at Big Data, making full use of the technology of the day. You can be sure the great minds of the day were scrutinizing the library’s “data” to make intellectual connections, further human knowledge, and preserve and advance their civilization.

Little did they know at the time, their efforts were in vain; that the conquering Roman Empire would undo centuries of work invested into the library’s body of knowledge. Little did the Romans know, emperors’ squabbles and decadence would eventually lead to their downfall. Every ancient civilization collapsed for some reason or another (though never just one reason).

The world of today, however, is very different. We are in an age of independent states, rather than empires, and because of modern technology we are fast moving towards a global civilization. The fall of our global civilization would be a terminal disaster for the entire world.

The Human Face of Big Data spends some time discussing how we can get out of the problems we’ve made. Climate change, overpopulation, conflict over finite resources, invasive species, nuclear instability – it would be foolish to think any of these problems or threats will solve themselves or never occur.

As we tackle these problems with the help of Big Data, can we dare to dream that our global civilization will be the first that doesn’t unwittingly destroy itself? Can we ever be sure our actions won’t lead to our collapse? To begin answering these questions, let’s look back at a few ancient civilizations (chiefly by way of Jared Diamond’s excellent book Collapse), consider how they collapsed, and think about how Big Data might have saved them…

Greenland Norse Vikings

In AD 984, Vikings settled in Greenland, and by 1450 they had died out. They inadvertently caused soil erosion and deforestation, which meant they weren’t able to make the charcoal they needed to support themselves as an Iron Age society. Dwindling trade with neighboring mother country Norway didn’t help the Vikings either, nor did their hostile relationship with the Eskimos with whom they shared Greenland. Those Eskimos may have blocked Norse access to the outer fjords, which they depended on for seals.

What if the Vikings had the Big Data we have today? They might have built a vast sensor network feeding into a database system that measured how much deforestation they could safely carry out. They might have used insight from data to figure out how to share fjord access with the Eskimos harmoniously, while mapping an efficient trade route around the sea ice separating Norway and Greenland.

Easter Islanders

Out of hundreds of islands in the Pacific Ocean, none has suffered a case of deforestation as severe as that which destroyed the civilization on Easter Island in the 1600s. Jared Diamond has called it “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources.” A combination of environmental factors led to the deforestation, but on such a small island, how could the Easter Islanders not have seen what they were doing? Diamond asked, “what did they say when they were cutting down the last palm tree?” In the future, people might be asking the same about us.

With Big Data, the civilization might have been able to identify and address problems caused by volcanic activity, latitude, rainfall patterns, and the lack of “continental dust from Asia” that protects the Pacific islands by restoring soil fertility.

Indus Valley Civilization

The largest of the early urban civilizations, the Indus once covered more than a million square kilometers and may have accounted for 10% of the world’s population. After a period of stability and great technological advancement, when the civilization’s rivers flooded adequately to support farming, climate change caused the floods to dry up, and the cities had to be abandoned.

We can’t imagine that happening in today’s developed cities, in an age where the likes of Buenos Aries have sensor networks monitoring and controlling the flow and pressure of their entire water supply. Even if natural climate change did make a region uninhabitable over time, we’d surely have the foresight to know it was coming.

If Big Data is to save our global civilization, achieving something our ancestors didn’t, it will depend on more than just data. If Big Data really does have the potential to solve civilization-ending problems, our fate will depend on humans acting on insights.

The most urgent problems facing today’s global civilization are of our own making. There are many things we still don’t understand, and many things we haven’t started or stopped doing to solve these problems. Big Data will be crucial in helping us change that. Unlike ancient civilizations, digital technology can ensure our future.

Get more insight on how cities are using data to build a better future in Smarter Cities: Future Metropolis and Societal Impact.

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David Jonker

About David Jonker

David leads the global marketing team for the SAP BusinessObjects Predictive Analytics business, a machine learning platform for both analysts and data scientists. He manages the innovation lab creating data analytics showcases with customers, partners, and not-for-profit organizations.

Big Ideas For Banking That Helps More Than The Privileged Few

Susan Galer

People using the latest technologies are often well-off, younger, urban, and tech-savvy – or none of the above. This was the disruptive reality that 20 students from the London School of Economics imagined during a recent design thinking workshop. The three-hour session, conducted as part of the school’s relationship with SAP, challenged the non-techie undergrad and grad students to brainstorm how innovations in banking could help people with disabilities – physical, social, and psychological – realize their business dreams. It was their first-ever experience using design thinking, and a revelatory exercise that broadened their minds.

“We wanted to shake them up and bring them out of their comfort zone,” said Martin Gollogly, director of SAP Next-Gen Innovation Community for SAP Leonardo. “One of the first ‘aha moments’ came during the warm-up when we asked them to design a chair. They realized everyone had similar ideas narrowly related to physical disabilities and banking environments. We challenged them to have the broadest possible definitions of both being disabled and banking.”

Twenty students from the London School of Economics envisioned how the internet of good things could bring banking to non-traditional customers.

Twenty students from the London School of Economics envisioned how the Internet of good things could bring banking to non-traditional customers.

Applying Internet of good things

Working in small groups, the students created several personas of non-traditional banking customers. The challenge was to apply an “Internet of good things” approach to meet each person’s unique requirements.

Persona 1: A high-powered businessman-turned-monk, disappointed with his previous life, seeks a more spiritual existence. Now living in Tibet, he aims to build a non-profit temple supporting the local economy. He uses cashless transactions-in-kind and barter from his remote location. Drones could fly in small-denomination cash and smaller barter goods. RFID chips could track livestock and materials for farmers and people making small crafts, turning the temple into a source of security when animals go astray or materials are lost or stolen. A digital voice assistant could automatically translate words and enable basic transactions between two people who speak different languages. The temple could house a local 3D printer station creating objects to help maintain local goods.

Persona 2: A flight attendant dreams of opening a café on a boat that would travel the world, allowing him to pursue his hobbies, playing the guitar and sailing. People with disabilities would be able to book ideal locations, travel times, and rates using banking services powered by Big Data and analytics. A currency conversion selector would allow customers to set and receive the best ticket prices based on purchase dates, trip timeframes, and destinations. Travelers could also request and buy specific supplies sourced from local businesses at various ports along the journey.

Persona 3: A retired, divorced soldier with PTSD is living on a lake in Africa, forced to travel over an hour to pick up his monthly pension from a bank that is often closed. With cybersecurity fears, he checks email only once every couple of months in a remote Internet café. He also needs to purchase equipment to build his sailboat. Using biometric input plus virtual reality headsets, the local Internet café could become this ex-soldier’s bank. Virtual reality headsets can create the impression that he’s in a bank branch, while avatars based on facial reproduction technology allow him to transact business at his convenience while talking to a “face.”

Creative disruption

Even for these top students who will likely go on to assume senior roles in banking and economics, it was a stretch to consider the less-obvious, which is critical to disruption.

“Some of these ideas might seem unusual or far-fetched, but they are actually viable, said Gollogly. “SAP University Alliances has 3,000 members, and if we get one viable idea from one design thinking session out of ten, that’s 300 disruptive ideas. We’re helping students expand their education for creative disruption to do good in the world.”

Gollogly added that SAP is launching a Next-Gen Community powered by the SAP Leonardo Center with the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom this month.

This blog was originally posted on the SAP Business Trends Community.

Follow me on Twitter, SAP Business Trends, or Facebook. Read all of my Forbes articles here.

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What To Do About The Youth Unemployment And STEM Skills Gap

Marita Mitschein

Today, half the people on the planet are under the age of 30. Millennials are the first “always connected” generation and the best-educated people in history, but are affected by high unemployment rates, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

At the same time, organizations around the world are increasingly reliant on advanced technical skills in the emerging digital economy. By 2020, economies will face a shortage of the skilled talent needed to drive prosperity and social security. Forty million high-skilled workers – especially with science, technology, engineering, and math knowledge – are needed globally, according to McKinsey.

What role can the private sector play in solving these issues?

The situation presents organizations of all kinds with a major challenge, but also with a huge opportunity. Although there are many public and private sector initiatives supporting employment-related education, companies also must take seriously their social responsibility here. By supporting students and recent graduates on their way into employment and bridging the gap from academic into professional life, companies can impact the lives of 1 million people each year.

A best-in-class practice is the creation of a training and development institute (TDI) that puts the upskilling of local talent at the core of the growth strategy. The concept supports local unemployed youth by offering a host of programs tailored to bring business skills to those who already understand a region’s culture and society.

A unique approach to inspire youth and jointly tackle today’s challenges

TDI’s approach not only trains and enables the most talented local millennials, but also supports them in entering a corporate workforce or establishing their own businesses. For example, our program, designed for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has already helped more than 1,070 talented university graduates across 12 countries shape their careers, with 98% of participants placed into employment, largely in our ecosystem, after completion of the training program. Technology has the power to transform the lives of many people worldwide, and building strong public-private partnerships is key to ultimately shaping a better future for individuals, companies, and economies at scale.

True to a corporate vision of higher purpose, TDIs can help the world run better and improve people’s lives and expand that mission into additional fast-growth markets with significant skills shortages such as Brazil and Mexico. Moreover, its best practices have been adopted to support skills for Africa and a U.S. nonprofit organization that supports veterans.

As efficient solutions to the youth unemployment challenge are needed globally, this knowledge transfer inspires organizations across the globe to start looking into ideas and solving one of the most pressing issues of our time.

The urgency of the youth unemployment is a challenge, as indicated by the World Economic Forum. But a TDI centered on public-private partnerships canempower youth, create jobs, and, ultimately, drive economic growth in regions that need it.

By hosting these programs, the SAP Training and Development Institute has built skills and knowledge reflecting an in-country value of over US$110m to date. Read more about the SAP Training and Development Institute.

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Marita Mitschein

About Marita Mitschein

Marita Mitschein is Senior Vice President Strategic Investments (MENA) and Managing Director of the SAP Training and Development Institute and Member of the SAP Global Executive Leadership Team. Marita is responsible for leading the SAP investment strategy across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the operations of the SAP Training and Development Institute.

Teaching Machines Right from Wrong

Dan Wellers

 

By 2018, smart machines will supervise over 3 million workers worldwide.
21% of consumers in an FTC study had confirmed errors on their credit reports.
2014: the first annual Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning conference.
A private university encouraged 20-25 students to drop out based on AI predictions of
poor grades.

Real-world examples of misused AI algorithms abound. These are just a few:

  • Women who weren’t pregnant — or weren’t ready to reveal it — received special offers of baby products and “congratulatory” messages.
  • People with minority ethnic names received a disproportionate number of ads implying they had criminal records.
  • Guests at a party learned a ride-hailing company kept track of customers who stayed out all night and went home in the wee hours.

Ethical-Edge Cases

Credit scoring algorithms designed to evaluate lending risk are now commonly used to gauge reliability and trustworthiness, determining whether someone should get a job or apartment.

Insurance underwriting algorithms determine the extent, price, and type of coverage someone can get, with little room for disagreement.

Healthcare algorithms could be used to penalize the currently healthy for their probability of future illness.

Algorithms often use zip codes as proxy for (illegal) racial profiling in major decisions, such as employment and law enforcement.

Self-driving cars will have to learn how to react in an accident situation when every possible outcome is bad.


What Should We Do About It?

All machine learning contains assumptions and biases of the humans who create it — unconscious or otherwise. To ensure fairness, business leaders must insist that AI be built on a strong ethical foundation.

We can:

  • Monitor algorithms for neutrality and positive outcomes.
  • Support academic research into making AI-driven decisions more fair, accountable, and transparent.
  • Create human-driven overrides, grievance procedures, and anti-bias laws.
  • Include ethics education in all employee training and development.

Above all, we must consider this a human issue, not a technological one. AI is only as unbiased a tool as we make it. It’s our responsibility to keep it on the ethical straight and narrow.


Download the executive brief Teaching Machines Right from Wrong.


Read the full article AI and Ethics: We Will Live What Machines Learn

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is the Global Lead of Digital Futures at SAP, which explores how organizations can anticipate the future impact of exponential technologies. Dan has extensive experience in technology marketing and business strategy, plus management, consulting, and sales.

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Why Millennials Quit: Understanding A New Workforce

Shelly Kramer

Millennials are like mobile devices: they’re everywhere. You can’t visit a coffee shop without encountering both in large numbers. But after all, who doesn’t like a little caffeine with their connectivity? The point is that you should be paying attention to millennials now more than ever because they have surpassed Boomers and Gen-Xers as the largest generation.

Unfortunately for the workforce, they’re also the generation most likely to quit. Let’s examine a new report that sheds some light on exactly why that is—and what you can do to keep millennial employees working for you longer.

New workforce, new values

Deloitte found that two out of three millennials are expected to leave their current jobs by 2020. The survey also found that a staggering one in four would probably move on in the next year alone.

If you’re a business owner, consider putting four of your millennial employees in a room. Take a look around—one of them will be gone next year. Besides their skills and contributions, you’ve also lost time and resources spent by onboarding and training those employees—a very costly process. According to a new report from XYZ University, turnover costs U.S. companies a whopping $30.5 billion annually.

Let’s take a step back and look at this new workforce with new priorities and values.

Everything about millennials is different, from how to market to them as consumers to how you treat them as employees. The catalyst for this shift is the difference in what they value most. Millennials grew up with technology at their fingertips and are the most highly educated generation to date. Many have delayed marriage and/or parenthood in favor of pursuing their careers, which aren’t always about having a great paycheck (although that helps). Instead, it may be more that the core values of your business (like sustainability, for example) or its mission are the reasons that millennials stick around at the same job or look for opportunities elsewhere. Consider this: How invested are they in their work? Are they bored? What does their work/life balance look like? Do they have advancement opportunities?

Ping-pong tables and bringing your dog to work might be trendy, but they aren’t the solution to retaining a millennial workforce. So why exactly are they quitting? Let’s take a look at the data.

Millennials’ common reasons for quitting

In order to gain more insight into the problem of millennial turnover, XYZ University surveyed more than 500 respondents between the ages of 21 and 34 years old. There was a good mix of men and women, college grads versus high school grads, and entry-level employees versus managers. We’re all dying to know: Why did they quit? Here are the most popular reasons, some in their own words:

  • Millennials are risk-takers. XYZ University attributes this affection for risk taking with the fact that millennials essentially came of age during the recession. Surveyed millennials reported this experience made them wary of spending decades working at one company only to be potentially laid off.
  • They are focused on education. More than one-third of millennials hold college degrees. Those seeking advanced degrees can find themselves struggling to finish school while holding down a job, necessitating odd hours or more than one part-time gig. As a whole, this generation is entering the job market later, with higher degrees and higher debt.
  • They don’t want just any job—they want one that fits. In an age where both startups and seasoned companies are enjoying success, there is no shortage of job opportunities. As such, they’re often looking for one that suits their identity and their goals, not just the one that comes up first in an online search. Interestingly, job fit is often prioritized over job pay for millennials. Don’t forget, if they have to start their own company, they will—the average age for millennial entrepreneurs is 27.
  • They want skills that make them competitive. Many millennials enjoy the challenge that accompanies competition, so wearing many hats at a position is actually a good thing. One millennial journalist who used to work at Forbes reported that millennials want to learn by “being in the trenches, and doing it alongside the people who do it best.”
  • They want to do something that matters. Millennials have grown up with change, both good and bad, so they’re unafraid of making changes in their own lives to pursue careers that align with their desire to make a difference.
  • They prefer flexibility. Technology today means it’s possible to work from essentially anywhere that has an Internet connection, so many millennials expect at least some level of flexibility when it comes to their employer. Working remotely all of the time isn’t feasible for every situation, of course, but millennials expect companies to be flexible enough to allow them to occasionally dictate their own schedules. If they have no say in their workday, that’s a red flag.
  • They’ve got skills—and they want to use them. In the words of a 24-year-old designer, millennials “don’t need to print copies all day.” Many have paid (or are in the midst of paying) for their own education, and they’re ready and willing to put it to work. Most would prefer you leave the smaller tasks to the interns.
  • They got a better offer. Thirty-five percent of respondents to XYZ’s survey said they quit a previous job because they received a better opportunity. That makes sense, especially as recruiting is made simpler by technology. (Hello, LinkedIn.)
  • They seek mentors. Millennials are used to being supervised, as many were raised by what have been dubbed as “helicopter parents.” Receiving support from those in charge is the norm, not the anomaly, for this generation, and they expect that in the workplace, too.

Note that it’s not just XYZ University making this final point about the importance of mentoring. Consider Figures 1 and 2 from Deloitte, proving that millennials with worthwhile mentors report high satisfaction rates in other areas, such as personal development. As you can see, this can trickle down into employee satisfaction and ultimately result in higher retention numbers.

Millennials and Mentors
Figure 1. Source: Deloitte


Figure 2. Source: Deloitte

Failure to . . .

No, not communicate—I would say “engage.” On second thought, communication plays a role in that, too. (Who would have thought “Cool Hand Luke” would be applicable to this conversation?)

Data from a recent Gallup poll reiterates that millennials are “job-hoppers,” also pointing out that most of them—71 percent, to be exact—are either not engaged in or are actively disengaged from the workplace. That’s a striking number, but businesses aren’t without hope. That same Gallup poll found that millennials who reported they are engaged at work were 26 percent less likely than their disengaged counterparts to consider switching jobs, even with a raise of up to 20 percent. That’s huge. Furthermore, if the market improves in the next year, those engaged millennial employees are 64 percent less likely to job-hop than those who report feeling actively disengaged.

What’s next?

I’ve covered a lot in this discussion, but here’s what I hope you will take away: Millennials comprise a majority of the workforce, but they’re changing how you should look at hiring, recruiting, and retention as a whole. What matters to millennials matters to your other generations of employees, too. Mentoring, compensation, flexibility, and engagement have always been important, but thanks to the vocal millennial generation, we’re just now learning exactly how much.

What has been your experience with millennials and turnover? Are you a millennial who has recently left a job or are currently looking for a new position? If so, what are you missing from your current employer, and what are you looking for in a prospective one? Alternatively, if you’re reading this from a company perspective, how do you think your organization stacks up in the hearts and minds of your millennial employees? Do you have plans to do anything differently? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For more insight on millennials and the workforce, see Multigenerational Workforce? Collaboration Tech Is The Key To Success.

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