Trees are sanctuaries. … A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought. … A tree says: My strength is trust.  

— “Trees,” Hermann Hesse. —

Aspens are an unusual tree species.  Growing seasons are short but vibrant. No tough bark for this species; scratching a white trunk reveals a stripe of green photosynthesis just below the surface.  Individual trees are connected by gigantic, rhizomatic structures just underground. 

In the steep Rocky Mountains, you can see large swaths of once-seemingly immutable conifer forest on near-vertical slopes that have been obliterated by the chaos of avalanches.  

And in those clearings, the green shoots of aspen trees grow into the gaps. 

Its eponymous, namesake tree offers a very apt metaphor to describe and summarize the Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN): influential individuals, strongly committed to action, whose work stands alone but draws on the resources, inspiration and support of the heavily networked stand of their fellow Fellows.

I was a newbie to the Aspen Action Forum this year.  It was also very meaningful to me, as my 16-year-old daughter Gemma attended the adjacent Action Forum Youth Camp (which I paid for on my own nickel; read her account). 

Reflecting on the week, the forum  offered profound examples of how peer-to-peer actions can drive real, meaningful outcomes – fast. The Aspen Global Leadership Network represents a truly diverse mix of people, an attribute that any organization focused on the future of work can learn from and emulate, including a relentless drive to make the world a better place, and a faith in capitalism as a lever to lift all boats.

Finding a Void to Find Your Voice

The event’s central themes of action and fearless leadership emanated from session-to-session, room-to-room and person-to-person.  A critical imperative was letting the “gap” of this week allow the AGLN members time for togetherness, and to give space for “green shoots” to emerge in their lives and their work, and to reevaluate the things that matter to them most in the intersection of society, policy and humanity. 

Characteristics like these greatly harmonize with our efforts here at the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work. We’ve written extensively on the absolute criticality of giving yourself space or a “void” from time to time in this increasingly fraught, digital age. From those gaps, new insights and ideas, as well as  green shoots, can germinate.

Over the course of the week, legion examples of Aspen participants displayed the power of the actions of the individual – and the collective – spurred to fearless action for the common good.  Here are a few examples:

  • Bill Browder, co-founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, provided a tour de force in fearlessness during his fireside chat with CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux. At great personal cost, Browder has relentlessly campaigned to expose corruption and human rights abuses in Russia (the Magnitsky Act is named for his lawyer, who was tortured for 350 days and killed).
  • Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, offered great examples of leadership that extends beyond mere “stewardship” amid headwinds of change and turmoil. His discussion of his path as a poor, gay, African-American boy from eastern Texas to his leadership of the Ford Foundation was remarkable, initially sparked by his grandmother bringing home magazines of the big, outside world in the family grocery bag; and oh, by the way, he links the writings of Langston Hughes and FDR’s Four Freedoms. #newestbiggestfan”
  • Lynda Resnick, president of The Wonderful Company (lovers of pistachios and pomegranate juice, unite!) highlighted efforts to improve the lives of her company’s farmworkers in California’s Central Valley through healthcare/diabetes prevention and advancement to prestigious four-year colleges for their kids. Oh, and she connected a narrative thru-line that wove from her role in copying the Daniel Ellsberg “Pentagon Papers,” all the way to today, and her endowment of the Action Forum to 2030!
  • Malcolm Frank, Cognizant’s EVP of Marketing and Strategy, re-committed his action pledge for the Cognizant U.S. Foundation to support technology education and skills initiatives for U.S. workers and students, with an initial grant of $100 million (such as at the recently opened South Bronx Training Center with partner Per Scholas), preparing them to thrive in the digital era.
  • Dave Gilboa, co-founder of Warby Parker, is helping to remedy vision disabilities – which has a major negative impact on outcomes – among students from low-income households. His “Pupils Project” provides free in-school eye exams, and has provided over 43,000 pairs of free Warby Parker glasses to children in New York City and Baltimore public schools.
  • Di-Ann Eisnor, director of growth at Waze, made an on-the-spot joint-action pledge with other AGLN Central American Leadership Initiative Fellows to use the power of technology to help stem the deteriorating social, political and economic situation in Nicaragua. Several of the Latin American leaders at the event spoke of the horrific events in that country and expressed the fervent belief that fearless action can stop it.
  • Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO, is a Zen priest from Belgium and a social entrepreneur who has trained rats to save human lives by detecting landmines and disease. Yes, you read that right: rats that sniff out landmines!  Weetjens, who was originally an industrial engineer in product development, melded his passions to make APOPO a reality. (The other good news: The work is not fatal to the rodents!)
  • Hope Azeda, founder and artistic director of the Mashirika Creative and Performing Arts, spoke of the Ubumuntu Arts Festival, an outgrowth of Rwanda’s process of reconciliation in the wake of the 1994 genocide. Her festival supports national and international peace-building efforts through the performing arts that deal with the social trauma of violence in all its forms. In addition to the festival, Azeda works to advocate for arts education and build the capacity of Rwandan artists to instigate healing and dialog.

Exchanges on initiatives like these reverberated throughout the forum.  Discussions to make these ideas come to life  transpired throughout the halls, pathways and geodesic domes of the Aspen Institute: state-of-the-art glucose monitors; aesthetic design; Singularity University-backed ventures into the new medicines of tomorrow; the future of farming. 

Fearless Youth, Fearless Leadership

Fearless leadership and courage aren’t just the province of adults. It’s all well and good to talk about the future, but it will be our kids who will inherit it. Indeed, it’s one of the central themes of our “21 Jobs of the Future” report: How will your children thrive when computers can out-think, out-work and out-manage them? What do they study? Where do they focus? And will they have any chance of living a life as good as ours? 

A Friday evening session led by  Adria Goodson, chief program officer of the Pahara Institute, illuminated the key issues. She spoke with five young leaders from across the globe, probing how and where they have acted boldly.  Listening to these amazing young adults reassured me that our future is in very good hands.   Puerto Rico’s Salvador Gomez Colon put it well: “Age is just a number – it shouldn’t define your maturity, responsibility or potential to do good and take action.” More power to you, Salvador.

For Humans, By Humans

At the Center for the Future of Work, we talk a lot about using digital as a powerful tool to double-down on “work that matters” –  comforting patients, asking insightful questions, teaching a child to read, or leading a team to extraordinary outcomes for their work and humanity at large, etc. 

Residing in the Bay Area, I constantly hear about the latest cutting-edge innovations in Big Tech. Yet of all the examples, initiatives and action pledges I heard last week, there was very little mention of “the D-Word” (i.e., “Digital”) anywhere.  Of all the “action pledges” made (and all the Aspen Fellows have to commit to one “I will do X thing by Y date and accomplish Z outcome”), virtually all of them were resolutely for humans, by humans. 

After years of glass-eating business conferences, that was refreshing. Making meaningful societal change isn’t about digital technology-for-technology’s sake.  Yet it hit me that underneath the covers of all these pledges, sub rosa, is an unstated, palpable opportunity to apply machines to supercharge the results and catalyze successful action.   

An Action Pledge for the Future of Work

So my own action pledge, if you will, is to help lay out the pathways to get people from “here” (i.e., the old jobs of today) to “there” (the new jobs of tomorrow).  Our book What To Do When Machines Do Everything explains how to navigate the impending machine world and to fear not the bot.  It’s now very clear to me that we have a new challenge at hand: how to show people the step-stone path needed to get from here to there and to thrive in a world where machine intelligence will augment and expand human capability, creativity, empathy and constructive problem solving.

Whether you’re a leader, an executive, a teacher, a truck driver, a doctor, an accountant, a sailor, a banker, a retailer, a maker, a traveler or a trader, it is apparent that many people don’t see the new opportunities that  new digital technologies will provide.  For that reason, the Action Forum has served to galvanize and reinforce the work we’re doing (and will continue to do) to help shine as bright a light as we can on the pathways to the new, exciting work of the future: work that we don’t fully understand yet, that is simultaneously unsettling and yet extremely stretching – that is not fit for our parents and may seem ridiculous to our kids.

In short, the Aspen Global Leadership Network offered a profound lesson in how we can stand tall amid our fractured world, allowing space for the collective to sprout green shoots of new ideas and actions that deliver a better tomorrow. 

Robert H. Brown

Robert H. Brown

Robert Hoyle Brown is a Vice President in Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and drives strategy and market outreach for... Read more