Startupfest 2024: Here and Now

Published On Dec 14, 2023

We live in a great acceleration.

In nearly every field, we overcome scientific boundaries daily. Algorithms turn every human into a developer, an artist, a musician, and a poet, while making us question our place in the world. We can literally ask an AI to build us DNA, then have it sequenced in a lab, without leaving our desk. We can find our way anywhere in the world. Our hearts’ desires are just a tap, a click, or a swipe away. We can learn anything, for free, from the best in the world. It is the best of times.

We live in a great collapse.

By nearly every measure, the sustainability of our species is in question. Wars rage against the looming threat of bioweapons and autonomous drones. The icecaps are cracking, the cities flooding, the crop yields collapsing. Diseases spread around the world overnight. Education and healthcare are in freefall. Human rights and life expectancy are, for the first time in decades, in retreat.  We’ve moved online, yet we spend our evenings shooting at the avatars of people halfway around the globe, but only know our neighbors through random hallway greetings when our Uber deliveries coincide. It is the worst of times.

Civilization’s incredible achievements have brought us to a tipping point: We’ve built the tools to understand our species at scale, just in time to see the havoc we’ve wrought.  We have never needed innovation so urgently. The good news is that we can build the impossible. The bad news is that we must, immediately.

That’s why our 2024 theme is Here And Now.

Being Here isn’t just about being present—it’s about embracing the people and things we’re with in a world full of noise and clutter, so we can see things as they really are. It’s about genuine connections and firsthand facts, rather than abstract ideas and wishful thinking. It’s real-time adaptation over long-term planning in uncertain times. It’s about focusing on what’s in front of our eyes. It’s about not just seeing the canvas, but realizing that we are the painter. And it’s about authenticity that builds trust, attracts talent, and inspires others to join the cause.

Being Now isn’t just about time. It’s about acknowledging the urgency of the complex, interconnected challenges we face. A Chinese proverb reminds us, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Now is also about living in the moment, rather than regretting what might have been or overthinking what could happen.

Here and now is about immediacy. Startups that were able to focus their attention on the present and what mattered most have always had the upper hand. Now we need to apply that focus and urgency to society as a whole, because the problems we face are wicked and the solutions we’ll need are subversive.

Wicked Problems

Most problems submit to experimentation—that is, we can control for variables, split test them, or set up a control group. The researcher can detach themselves from the problem, and think objectively about it.

But there is a class of problem that perplexes policymakers, because it defies these rules. These are called Wicked Problems. Societal challenges like climate change, sustainability, lasting peace, and equitable justice, all fall under this umbrella. We might devise a solution to such problems, but it’s impossible to tell what will happen until the change is in place. To make things worse, incentives within the existing system often undermine potential solutions.

Because of this, Wicked Problems are seldom solved by a series of piecemeal upgrades. Instead, they require a complete overhaul of the system—replacing a system of government, or a market, or an energy grid, in its entirety. The problems we face won’t be solved by the system that created them. Bureaucracies undermine invention, and large organizations, unwilling to adapt and afraid to disappoint their shareholders, lobby against change. 

And yet solve them we must, because as Adam Weishaupt said in The Revolution will be Televised, “It’s up to us. No one is coming to help us. If we don’t make the effort, no one else will.” We must confront these problems, here and now, with resolve and conviction, or they will be our undoing. We need new, unexpected solutions—ones that challenge the status quo, debunk myths about what’s possible, and reimagine business and society from the ground up. Those come from startups, innovators, academics, and challengers.

Subverting the norms

In 2001, Ivan Arreguín-Toft published an article in International Security entitled How the Weak Win Wars. The study, popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, talks about how an unexpected strategy can make a competitor’s power irrelevant.

He looked at every unbalanced war fought in the past two hundred years—those where one army outnumbered the other dramatically. Unsurprisingly, he found that the weak side lost 72% of the time. But when the underdogs refused to fight on their opponents’ terms, they won 64% of the time. By not only ignoring the rules, but actively subverting them, they confused and outmaneuvered larger, more entrenched opponents.

Subvert comes from the Latin subvetere, “to turn from below.” Subversiveness is more than a tactic—it’s a mindset. In fact, Canada’s definition of hacking is “subverting the intended purpose of a computer system.” And subverting can be thought of as getting a system to behave in an unintended way.

The Wicked Problems we face will be solved by getting existing systems to work in unintended ways. That means finding loopholes, exposing folklore, and upending the status quo. It means not only changing how value is created, but how society perceives value. Startups—agile and adaptive, their business models not yet written—are inherently subversive. And they hold the key to the Wicked Problems we’re facing.

A platform to build the future—here and now

Startupfest has always been a platform for learning, collaboration, and connections. As a community of founders, investors, and advisors from around the world, our time together is a chance to join forces, and apply our collective ingenuity to the world’s biggest problems. There’s plenty of value to be found by subverting norms and solving Wicked Problems, of course, so we’ll be looking at the huge rewards founders and investors can reap when they unlock new markets, build new products, and create new sources of value.

Ultimately, Startupfest 2024 is about immediacy: A crucible that burns away distraction, helping us focus on the people, problems, and ideas that matter, right here, right now.

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