Chris McKnett: The investment logic for sustainability


Chris McKnett is a Vice President of ESG Investing at Boston-based State Street Global Advisors, the world’s largest institutional investment manager


Sustainability is the investment logic looking at social, environmental and governance (ESG) issues. The main players to influence this are institutional investors, and Chris promises to prove sustainable investments are easy, and high performing. Investors currently tend to focus on economic metrics, but with depletion of natural resources, increasing pollution and an increasing population, it is hard to ignore the economic impacts of sustainability metrics.

The private sector is also seeing the need: 80% of CEOs see sustainability as an innovative, competitive advantage, while 93% see it as important for the future of their business. On the share market, stocks with good sustainability (ESG metrics) perform as well as other stocks, and the large blue chip stocks with high ESG outperform their low-ESG rivals.

Some institutional investors are taking ESG into account in the investment process, for example Calpers is the second largest investment fund in the US and moving towards 100% sustainable investment. The philosophy is that value comes from a combination of financial, human, and physical capital. On the flipside, plenty of other funds claim they are focussed only on high returns, or don’t want to use the fund to make political statements. Chris counters that returns are compatible with sustainability, and it doesn’t need to be seen as a trade-off.

Institutional investors hold 8 times more money than the US GDP, so have plenty available. If we could channel that towards companies that improve social and environmental causes it could have a huge impact towards solving problems such as hunger, or access to clean water.

John F Kennedy stated “There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction”. It makes sense to invest sustainably so that we can retire wealthy, but also into a better world.

My Thoughts

I thought this talk was a little light on details, especially examples of what a sustainable company is. It didn’t seem clear whether sustainability had to be a core product of the company (eg delivering water infrastructure to developing world), or whether it could be a bank / resources company with a strong sustainability culture. I tend to think the latter, but a lot of the benefits seemed like they only made sense if the company actively solved ESG issues.


Morgana Bailey: The danger of hiding who you are


Morgana Bailey is a human resources activist who wants to see the diversity of society reflected in the workplace


Morgana is a lesbian who came out during this TED talk, but doesn’t want to be defined by that. She grew up in Kansas and was not afraid to be seen as odd, but when she realised she was ‘different’ she worked harder to conform. She was paralysed by the fear of not being accepted. However, she is not the only person wanting to conform: 61% of the general population change an aspect of themselves to fit in at work, and 83% of gays do the same. They believe conformity is the path to career advancement.

Morgana changed when she realised that gays in non-accepting communities have 12 yrs less life expectancy compared to more inclusive communities – driven by heart disease, violence and suicide. When Kansas voted on a bill that would allow businesses not to serve gays, she neglected a chance to come out to an old friend who could tell her story to a congressman. This congressman voted in favour of the bill, and she realised that her silence was making the issues worse.

She moved to a company renowned for it’s social inclusion, and promised herself she would come out to such an accepting institution, but still did nothing. “There are more scary things inside than outside” – by confronting her fears, Morgana realised she can change the outside world. By coming out she can influence the data, and also to help others who feel different be more accepted and fulfilled.

My Thoughts

An emotional call to be yourself, or else see yourself being destroyed by others.

There’s something strange about a majority of workers feeling they have to change themselves to conform: the ‘majority’ they are conforming to might have no real members.

Kevin Allocca: Why videos go viral


Kevin Allocca is YouTube’s trends manager.


Over 48hrs of video are uploaded every minute, and only a tiny fraction of a percent get more than 1 million views. Going viral requires 3 things

  1. Tastemakers: influential people enjoying the video and reposting it
  2. Unexpectedness: With so much video out there, the viral videos have to be different.
  3. Participation: Others want to be a part of this, create parodies and meta-references.

He talks through examples of videos with these features:

  • Double-Rainbow’s views spiked massively when it was retweeted by Jimmy Kimmel (tastemaker)
  • Rebecca Black’s Friday went big when a few people (tastemakers) started posting about it. From there plenty more people referenced it or parodied it – within days there was a parody for every other day of the week (participation).
  • Nyan Cat is extremely strange (unexpected), but also very easy to remix with different background music, set it in a different place, or post meta-references such as a cat watching a cat watching nyan cat (participation).
  • A cyclist riding on the street protesting a ticket for not riding in the bike lane Because his funny video had an unexpected twist, 5 million people (at time of TED talk, now 13 million) saw his protest.

We’re building a new type of culture where everyone has access and the audience decides popularity. This will define the entertainment of the future.

My Thoughts

Entertaining and light, but with an interesting perspective on Youtube.

Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work


Shawn Achor is the CEO of Good Think Inc., where he researches and teaches about positive psychology.


As a child, while playing a game with his little sister she fell from a bunk bed and landed on all fours. Shawn made her better by telling her she looked just like a unicorn – instead of crying she immediately got back on the bunk bed happy.

When studying people, we tend to look for excuses to discard ‘outliers’, and focus only on the average to find a line of best fit. This is the cult of the average – we look only at the baseline. Instead we should look more at the positive outliers: what makes them different? If we study outliers, we can move the ‘average’ upwards.

Shawn is an advocate of ‘positive psychology’: studying the positive side rather than focussing on the negative. For example studying happy people on why they are happy, rather than on how to make depressed people happier. “The absence of disease is not health”: you can’t talk about wellness by only focussing on alcoholism, risky sex, bullying.

Looking at someone’s surroundings only explains 10% of their happiness levels. 90% is based on how your brain sees the world around it. Only 25% of job performance is based on intelligence, with 75% based on support networks, positivity, and ability to perceive stress as a challenge.

Currently most people believe that if they are successful they will become happy. This is flawed because:

  1. When you achieve success, you immediately shift the goal posts further. If you get good grades, you need to get better grades next time. So you will never achieve success and always push it over the horizon into the future.
  2. Happiness makes someone more successful. “The Happiness Advantage” means you are better at getting a job, 31% more productive, more resilient.

In 21 days you can rewire your brain to see things more positively. Shawn suggests writing down 3 things you are grateful for, perform random acts of kindness, meditate to clear your mind.

My Thoughts

Shawn speaks well, with plenty of clever stories. However this is a talk that makes me a little wary: it often sounded a lot like a sales pitch rather than purely informative. There’s a few numbers mixed in, but they are vague percentages without a clear source. Some of the ideas are well established: Happiness does make people more successful and people never really see themselves as ‘successful’. However the rest feels like an eclectic mix of ideas to help sell his books or consulting.

It is worth watching, I’m curious if others got the same vibe I did…

Avi Reichental: What’s next in 3D printing


Avi Reichental is the CEO of 3D Systems, which has been a major force in the field of rapid prototyping, turning a design from a CAD file into a solid object.


3D printing is going to enable a craftsmanship and local manufacture that was killed by the industrial revolution. It will allow personalised medical objects, such as

  • glasses that fit perfectly to you without hinges
  • a more feminine robot leg for a paralysed woman
  • hearing aids are being 3D printed to correct size
  • ventilated sclerosis splints
  • knee replacements.


  • GE is designing the next generation of engine, which uses 15% less fuel
  • a small startup is designing space probes using 3D printing – they weigh less, are cheaper, and quick to manufacture.

In food, we can ‘print’ food to embed the correct flavours, nutrients and structure.

The power of 3D printing is that complexity is free: it is as simple to make a complicated object as a simple one. It puts this power in the hands of anyone – and to help this there are tools that assist on the 3D modelling side to make it more intuitive.

Avi’s grandfather was a cobbler, and Avi can now design hybrid leather-plastic shoes that honour the craftsmanship and quality of his ancestors.

My Thoughts

This was a quick flick through a lot of examples.

Ray Kurzweil: Get ready for hybrid thinking


Ray Kurzweil is an American author, computer scientist, inventor, futurist, and is a director of engineering at Google.


200 million years ago mammals evolved the neocortex. This allowed them to learn and think around problems, to develop new behaviour. Previous reptiles needed to ‘evolve’ new behaviour over thousands of years, but these early rodents could do so instantly. This helped mammals survive the cretaceous extinction event, and since then the neocortex has gotten larger and larger to enable high level thinking.

The brain is a series of ~300 million modules in hierarchies to work on patterns of data: to recognise, learn, implement a pattern. For example a series of modules might look for the crossbar part of an “A”, then a higher module would decide it is an “A”, then the word, sentence etc. It can also work in reverse, using context of higher levels (the rest of the word) to lower thresholds as if asking “I think it is: could this letter possibly be an A?”. This is similar to a Hierarchical Hidden Markov Model, being used in AI to understand language.

In the future hybrid thinking will evolve: combining human and computer thinking. Google will understand language more than just series of keywords, and could anticipate user problems and keep them up to date on research of interest to them. Ray also predicts that nanobots could interface with out neocortex and connect it to ‘the cloud’ – to massively expand our brainpower using an external computer network. This will expand our neocortex: and remember how powerful it was last time mammals developed their neocortex… This time we will not be restricted by the architecture of our heads – there could be no limit.

My Thoughts

The history of the neocortex is one of the better descriptions I have heard. The models he describes are easy to understand for the layman and also useful enough to apply to reality.

His comments on the future seem a bit too sci-fi though. It isn’t that this won’t happen, but he doesn’t really describe how or why. Thoughts of the AI singularity and similar ideas have been knocking around human culture for 50 years, constantly just around the corner. We are no doubt closer now than before, but the nanobots and ‘brain extension’ he talks about are a long way away. Even if AI is ready for this advancement, medical understanding of the brain is still too far away to connect us into computers.

Tom Wujec: Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast


Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He’s an innovative practitioner of business visualization — using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas.


Asking people to draw how to make toast can reveal a lot.

  • Most people draw a flow chart: images (nodes) connected with arrows (links). We intuitively know how to break a drawing down in this way.
  • The details people go to can reveal more about them: whether the supply chain of bread, or engineers drawing the inner workings of a toaster
  • people from different countries see toasters differently (Americans draw an electric toaster, Europeans a fry pan, or some draw fire).
  • Number of nodes is usually around 5, and 5-13 is the best to describe the process. Fewer nodes are too simple, but more than 13 difficult to understand

The second step is to draw the nodes on sticky notes or cards. This lets you rapidly rearrange or change the nodes, to make it better faster. These diagrams tend to have more nodes than one drawn on a sheet of paper – making them richer.

The third step is for a group to draw on sticky notes and rearrange them together. This results in more nodes again, but map shock isn’t an issue because they all saw the process come together. They group automatically organises the nodes to group similar nodes or deal with contradictions.

Managers can use this simple process to map out their organisation or strategy – to break a very complicated entity into the working parts. They simply draw the nodes, then organise or refine them until the patterns emerge. These models can extend to hundreds or thousands of nodes. An executive team for a publishing company spent 3 days organising post-its, and their newfound understanding let them reclaim $50million of revenue and customers now rank them as an “A” – from a “D”.

Next time you are confronted with a complicated problem, try breaking it down in terms of visibly nodes – it is fun, simple and powerful.

My Thoughts

A simple exercise, and definitely worth trying to understand a problem. However, having seen the exercises in business a few times, I’m not sure they always yield results. Ones I have been a part of tend to be too structured and quick (~1/2hr) – rather than the random self-organisation and iteration Tom suggests. These exercises tend not to result in an answer or clarity at all.

Having had the logic explained through this talk, I will try it alone though. Take an idea or problem and break it down, then see if it can be re-organised in a useful way.