John Elkington ponders: Since the challenges we face are literally impossible to solve using the unadorned human brain, how long will it be before we see A.I. in the boardrooms?

By John Elkington, Chairman and Chief Pollinator at Volans

First, a brain-teaser. How would a top-performing corporate board be configured in Sustainia? And how would top teams help shape business models, financial markets, government policies, and capitalism’s master discipline of economics to ensure the internalization of so-called externalities currently dumped in society’s—or nature’s—lap?

And who, in that transformed reality, would make the perfect board member? I’m no headhunter, but having worked with top teams for over 30 years I predict that the most attractive non-executive and supervisory board members will soon be robots. Always on. Connected in real-time to an ever-expanding universe of market intelligence. And posing no competition for top floor restrooms—male, female or transgender.

The idea of boardroom robots no longer seems particularly shocking, but when I commissioned the cartoon above, some business leaders saw it as disrespectful, even vaguely seditious. That was back in 1992, when the single, financial bottom line was the unassailable business orthodoxy. And I was about to become a heretic. In the cartoon, three figures sat at an imaginary boardroom table, alongside place tags featuring a number of traditional top team roles. On the left, the fish represented nature and our planet, the woman in the centre humankind (particularly the poor and dispossessed), while the robot sat in for the long-term future. Drawn by the Financial Times cartoonist Ingram Pinn, the cartoon illustrated an early version of the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ (TBL), a term I would go on to coin a couple of years later.

The accelerating confluence between capitalism and A.I. is now critical to our collective survival because a growing number of the challenges we face are literally impossible to solve using the unadorned human brain—however many of them we manage to recruit and deploy.

The idea was deceptively simple: any business needs to track and value not just a single bottom line but three. When The Economist spotlighted the term as an emerging part of business lexicon back in 2009, it spoke in terms of financial, social and environmental value added—or destroyed. But the idea was always wider, embracing economic (not just financial) impact. Over time, growing numbers of leaders have declared their intention—directly or in so many words—to “save the world”. Thousands of businesses have been certified as B Corporations, with the triple bottom line agenda part of their DNA.

In parallel, the meaning of the robot in the cartoon has shifted. Originally it was slightly fanciful, symbolizing a seriously long-term, hard-to-imagine future. But the future has a habit of becoming the present. In 2014, for example, the first company announced that it had recruited a robot, or at least an artificial intelligence (A.I.) system, to its board. More recently, Salesforce has been offering its Einstein A.I. system to the same end.

So now the robot also symbolizes the push of A.I. into boardrooms and C-suites. In fact, the accelerating confluence between capitalism and A.I. is now critical to our collective survival because a growing number of the challenges we face are literally impossible to solve using the unadorned human brain—however many of them we manage to recruit and deploy.

Wicked Problems

To keep abreast of these challenges, Volans is investigating the mindsets, business models and technologies needed to tackle the “wicked” (and even “superwicked”) problems that are central to the sustainability agenda. One of the more interesting articles on the subject of wicked problems appeared in the Harvard Business Review back in 2008—as the global financial crash threatened to trigger a new depression. The author, Professor John Camillus of the University of Pittsburgh, concluded that, “Wicked problems often crop up when organizations have to face constant change or unprecedented challenges.” In other words, in times very much like these.

Such problems, he noted, “occur in a social context; the greater the disagreement among stakeholders, the more wicked the problem. In fact, it’s the social complexity of wicked problems as much as their technical difficulties that make them tough to manage. Not all problems are wicked; confusion, discord, and lack of progress are telltale signs that an issue might be wicked.”

But what causes them? A wicked problem has innumerable causes, we learn. It is “tough to describe and doesn’t have a right answer. Environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty—these are classic examples of wicked problems. They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.”

Later, I came across a special class of such challenges: so-called “super wicked” problems. In a 2007 paper, Kelly Levin, Benjamin Cashore, Graeme Auld and Steven Bernstein distinguished between the wicked and super wicked. Pointing to the case of climate change, they noted that super wicked problems have four additional characteristics: first, time is running out; second, there is no central authority; third, those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it; and fourth, current policies discount the future irrationally.
These characteristics are endemic among challenges clustered under the sustainability agenda. Among them are ocean plastics; the links between diet, obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes; antibiotic resistance; space debris; the impending data tsunami; and climate change. The question is not so much whether tomorrow’s capitalism will use A.I. to try to save the world, but whether it will do so at the necessary pace and scale—and in ways that crack problems without creating new, even wickeder ones.

How long will it be before a human board goes up against A.I.?

Even geniuses often unwittingly trigger cascades of unintended consequences. Take the story of Thomas Midgley, Jr. as a cautionary tale. He was brilliant, with over 100 patents to his name. But he has been described as the single organism that has done most damage to the planet. Among his claims to fame were his invention of leaded gasoline (poisoning the nervous systems of generations of children) and Freons (which helped blow a hole in the stratospheric ozone hole).

A.I., the internet of everything, autonomous vehicles and synthetic biology will all surprise us—sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not. Now that A.I. systems have beaten chess and gomoku masters, how long will it be before a human board goes up against A.I.? Whatever the issue, my money would be on state-of-the-art robots to solve tomorrow’s wicked problems well ahead of the species that is creating them.


John Elkington is Chairman and Chief Pollinator at Volans. He also co-founded SustainAbility (where he is Honorary Chairman) and Environmental Data Services (ENDS). His latest book, The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits With Tomorrow’s Bottom Line, is co-authored with former PUMA Chairman & CEIO Jochen Zeitz and published by Jossey-Bass. His most recent report is Breakthrough Business Models: Exponentially More Social, Lean, Integrated and Circular. He tweets as @volansjohn.