A mathematician at the Global Business Forum

I am just back from the Global Business Forum in Banff. Every year, three remarkable people expend Herculean efforts to oversee the organization of this high-profile gathering. The Forum is sometimes referred to as the “Davos” of the energy industry. It is meant to “create opportunities for international business executives, academics, government officials and other thought leaders to meet, discuss and debate crucial global economic issues.” These highly dedicated and indefatigable individuals are Lois Mitchell, Doug Mitchell and Hal Kvisle. You learn very early on that if and when Lois asks you to contribute to one of the Forum’s discussion panels, you simply do it. And if it happens that you are not an expert on the topic, then you simply try your best, which is what I did this year.

By inviting me, Doug and Lois wanted to give more exposure to the mathematical sciences and the Banff International Research Station within the business community. The topic was so orthogonal to the rest of the presentations that it worked! Mathematics was mentioned in one way or another by many of the speakers throughout the 2-day event. It surely helped that I was followed by the testimonials of the already converted MITACS CEO Arvind Gupta, IBM Vice-President Susan Puglia, and Intel’s corporation Vice-President Jackie Sturm. We have Doug and Lois to thank for that.

The Forum’s topic for this year was “Innovation: A creative and disruptive force.” I gave a 10-minute presentation on the disruptive role of the mathematical sciences. Actually, I decided to be provocative and claimed that it is the innovation capacity of the mathematical sciences that has the most potential to disrupt our world and to shake up our socio-economic fundamentals. I may post my presentation in a couple of days, once I am sure that nothing in it is too embarrassing.

Most of the talks were fascinating, starting with the opening keynote address by James Manyika, who served on President Obama’s Global Development Council and who is now director of the McKinsey Global Institute.

Another superb talk was given by an incredibly articulate and obviously very smart, Yermolai Solzhenitsyn, the son of the famous Alexandr. Also a director of McKinsey (Russia), he gave an insightful overview of the socio-economic context of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation over the last 100 years, with an eye towards the business and investment opportunities there.

I have to say that the McKinsey folks present at the forum impressed me. Their almost academic approach to analyzing the evolution of global markets, political situations, social values and trends has to be very beneficial for their international investors. I was told that they not only hire business managers and economists, but also nuclear physicists, mathematicians, social scientists as well as folks from the humanities.

Solzhenitsyn was paired with the talented Yuen Pau Woo, President and CEO of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, who was much more low key in describing the miracle of China’s economic development. When I mentioned that to a colleague, he simply answered, “Well, they are winning anyway, so there is no need to elaborate.”

A highlight (for me) was Al Jazeera-America’s host Ali Velshi interviewing Ken Taylor, former Canadian Ambassador to Iran during the 1979 US hostage crisis in Tehran, which was recently back in the news thanks to Ben Affleck’s revisionist and quite silly movie, Argo. But what a class act this Ken Taylor is. He was extremely funny in shrugging off Hollywood’s distortions of these historical events. He gave lots of credit to then Prime Minister, Joe Clark. His gentle, respectful and civil style, his objective, sage, and clear-headed analysis of current world affairs, make you wonder what ever happened to Canada’s distinguished diplomatic corps of the second half of the last century. I also wondered whether the US could pay us back by helping in the release of Tarek Loubani and John Greyson from Egyptian custody.

The session of the two generals was the biggest surprise of the forum. Retired US four-star General Raymond Johns impressed with his description of the role of the USAF Air Mobility Command that he led, in dealing with a world that is being constantly “disrupted”. Armed conflict uses up only a fraction of the $20-billion fuel bill that this command spends every year on rapid air transport. Most of their efforts go to support much less advertised humanitarian missions, such as assisting, providing relief and transporting the displaced and the stranded, whether after the tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, or during hurricane Katrina. He surely generated lots of good PR for the US army.

“The new energy abundance,” mostly thanks to fracking and other new oil and gas exploration technologies, was another lively session, with very dissenting views as to where the future of the energy supplies lie. Yousuf Habib, who could have spoken all day if allowed, remains a believer in the “supremacy” of Arabian oil sources. Others were seeing a major pivot towards South Asia. Of course, none of them had anticipated the recent flirting sessions between Obama and Iran’s newly elected president Hassan Rouhani. Neither did David Gordon, Head of Research at the Eurasia group, who was the last speaker also predicting the political shift towards South Asia. In his latest UN speech, president Obama mentioned Iran 26 times, Syria 21, Israel 15, Palestine 11; China 1, Japan 0, Koreas 0, India 0. What pivot to South Asia?

BlackBerry co-founder, Jim Balsillie, spoke of his views as to why Canadian high tech industry (aka BlackBerry) is destined to fail. Let’s just say that the inadequate and passive attitude of the Government of Canada vis-à-vis international patent litigation is not to be ignored.

I learned a great deal about Board Governance from Thomas O’Neil, Chair of the Board of BCE and Bell Canada. I wished I had heard him six years ago before I joined the UBC Board of Governors. O’Neil seems to be an incredibly principled man and I hope we can get him to address the UBC Board sometime soon.

Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, surely pleased some of the executives in the crowd by talking about what he thinks are the falsehoods in the discourse about climate and energy. Dr. Frank Luntz, a communication consultant and a political pollster, tried to entertain us at lunch by teaching us how to communicate (“Exploring new sources for energy” sounds better than “drilling for oil”), and how to raise our kids (“Don’t answer your smart phone while vacationing with your children”).  These two “company sponsored” talks did not sit well with my inner academic/scientist. I shall leave it at that.

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