MBA London Symposium closes with focus on leading change, competing with artificial intelligence and the benefits of becoming interplanetary

Entrepreneurs and thought leaders discuss our present and future at home and on other planets.

The final day of the MBA London Symposium culminated with conversations from business and entrepreneurial leaders specialising in retail, engineering and space travel.

The three-day online elective — part of the MBA course which brings together over 150 students from all MBA cohorts at the Business School (formerly Cass) — has this year focused on the theme of ‘Perseverance and Ingenuity’. This is in recognition of the resilience, changes and growth shown post-pandemic and in homage of the latest two space probes that have landed on Mars.

‘Recognising an unvarnished truth’

The day began with an open session led by Archie Norman, chairman at Marks & Spencer. Mr Norman, chairman of the multinational retailer since 2017, faced questions by faculty lead Dr Sionade Robinson and the Symposium participants on progress made by M&S since his arrival and the challenges with building back a successful business – following 8,000 staff redundancies last year.

“Over the last three and a half years we set out to regenerate M&S from top to toe as it was last a truly great company perhaps 25 years ago. The genesis of any turnaround is the recognition of an unvarnished truth. We must be unstinting in our critique of ourselves and we must measure progress by how fast we are changing, not by who we are.

“We must also fracture the old culture. We need a refresh to appeal to the younger generations. Over the years M&S was not for older people but we have grown old with our customer base. We need to have that universality and we need to be bold and make big commitments.”

Perseverance crucial for ‘real-life Iron Man’

The next speaker was Richard Browning, a British inventor who has been dubbed as the ‘real-life Iron Man’ after his invention of the jetpack. In the last five years, the former City oil trader has gone from testing the first version of the jetpack to patenting it and agreeing lucrative partnership deals across the world.

Now the Founder and Chief Test Pilot of Gravity Industries, Mr Browning has won plaudits from the likes of Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and says believing in the project and coming up with a viable business model means there is a bright future for his invention, which was recently tested in a search and rescue mission in the Lake District.

“Re-imagining flight was a real mental challenge but it was too much of an enthralling challenge to step away from. I was asking myself many times in the early days if this would ever work. But the higher the chance of failure the more exciting the challenge. You make risk judgements, and ask yourself whether you can survive the safety, financial and reputational downside. I had to keep thinking what is the worst that can happen and I could live with that downside. I now have more time to develop equipment and a diverse engineering portfolio. We want to feed the R&D journey.”

Conceptional thinking key to human and AI joint-working

Dr Harvey Lewis is a senior technology leader and senior honorary visiting fellow at the Business School. Dr Lewis discussed human problem solving in the age of AI and how advances in technology are impacting our own actions and knowledge.

“AI is making a profound impact across the world. It is helping doctors take more effective action and save lives and taking us to other planets. So, are we on the cusp of a golden age?

“There is an impact on humans, and the way our thinking is evolving. The automation paradox outlines that humans assume the technology is flawless and confidence in our own ability disengages? as a result; the specialisation paradox explains that specialisms can make our own view narrower as humans are interacting with more complex systems; the computation paradox means the more we rely on computational solutions, the less we rely on ourselves to find the solutions.

“These can be addressed by more conceptual thinking and solutional thinking may be resolved without computational means. This is where humans exceed and compliment AI.”

Getting to Mars is dependant on intellectual capital

The final session of the morning was led by aerospace engineer Dr Robert Zubrin, who founded The Mars Society in 1998, and Lucinda Offer of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The UK space sector currently supports £300 billion of UK economic activity using satellite services and Ms Offer said work continues on sending humans to the red planet, stating “who knows, maybe the first person on Mars will be you”.

Dr Zubrin explained why it is important that society takes on Mars.

“We need to get to Mars for science, challenge and the future. I want to know if we are part of a much larger tapestry and what the role of life in the universe is and can be.

“I believe societies, like individuals, stagnate if we don’t challenge each other. Our survival is based on an intellectual capital — look at the Covid-19 vaccine — and if we had a human to Mars programme, we would be more advanced in developing this kind of capital.

“The future means that 500 years from now there will be new nations, with new languages, cultures and literature on Mars with vast contributions to technologies and invention because of a need for infrastructure. If you have the power to initiate something grand and wonderful then you should.”

The value of open-mindedness

The afternoon sessions were led by Clare Murphy and Matt Watkinson. Ms Murphy is an international storyteller and has worked across the globe for 15 years speaking to the likes of NASA, The Royal Shakespeare Company and Jaguar Landrover.

“Great storytelling is founded on some simple principles. Effective storytelling can build culture, pass on knowledge, improve emotional quality and transmit courage, resilience and belief.”

Mr Watkinson is Chief Executive for Methodical and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Business School. A consultant on customer experience and strategy, he discussed ‘adopting the right mindset to thrive in an uncertain world’.

“If we live in a probabilistic world failure is inevitable. To thrive in uncertain worlds, they key to success is to get better at failing. Most of the failures we experience are a consequence of trying to learn. You fail by default if you don’t try and you can’t fail if there is learning.

“We need to reframe failure, adopt a growth mindset, persevere and be insatiable truth seekers.

The place of 'the Bold One'

Closing the Symposium, Dr Robinson said perseverance and ingenuity are crucial themes moving forward and fulfilling ambitions.

"London is ‘the place of the Bold One’, and I hope you take away the importance of being bold, taking opportunities, and being open to new ideas as that is where value is created.

“There is opportunity everywhere — in Greentech, currency, astropreneurship and further afield. How do we make the most of them? Industry is crying out for the kind of skills we can bring. We need to remain open-minded, recognise that the status-quo is not good enough and bring everyone in. Explorers are discontent and being complacent is a dangerous place to be when the world is changing so quickly. Keeping those unique sources of curiosity is so important in the future.”

About the Symposium

The Symposium is an elective element of the MBA course which brings together over 150 students from all Business School MBA cohorts, as well as MBA teams from partner schools in South Africa and Europe.

The first Symposium was held in 2014 to celebrate the Business School’s unique network inside the heart of one of the world’s best global cities. The Symposium mixes thought leadership in plenary sessions with a ‘backstage pass’ to some of London’s most iconic brands and organisations which drive the city’s prosperity.

It is now the flagship MBA elective, providing students with excellent networking opportunities and access to some of London’s most prominent and respected business figures. Launching electric version but battery technology is advancing in leaps and bounds.

You can tweet about or from the Symposium using #PercyAndJenny2021.