Big issues shaping our world: reflections from the Huxley Summit

03 December 2018

Rupert Pearce, CEO Inmarsat

Last week, James Cemmell (Vice President, Government Engagement) and I attended the third Huxley Summit, hosted by the Royal Institution, and run by the British Science Association. I thought it was a fascinating discussion and wanted to share some personal reflections.

The Huxley Summit is a high-profile event which brings together business leaders, scientists, policy makers and opinion-formers to discuss how we ensure that the products of innovation are fit for purpose as societal, environmental and cultural expectations change and shift. As such, it is a forum that examines public policy issues associated with innovation, especially the challenges and opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The meeting was opened by the Chair of the British Science Association, the Rt Hon the Lord David Willetts, who is well known to Inmarsat as he served as Minister for Universities and Science between 2010-14. During this time,  he was responsible for the UK space industry and drove through an ambitious UK space industrial strategy, including the formation of the UK Space Agency and upping the UK’s contribution to ESA. He attended the launches of both our Alphasat and GX-4 satellite launches.

Plastic, plastic everywhere

The first Huxley Summit session looked at the issue of plastic pollution, in the wake of the BBC’s Blue Planet II. The discussion focused on balancing the undoubted utility of plastic as a ‘wonder material’ with serious concerns about recyclability, biodegradation, oceanic pollution and even human health (it is quite clear that plastic microparticles are entering the food chain, with potentially harmful implications for both animals and humans).

While the plastics industry is preparing to increase production 40% in the coming years, levels of recycling remain low, pollution issues are increasing and public perceptions are souring rapidly, especially as regards single-use plastics. This poses thorny and important questions for businesses, policy-makers and scientists.

It is impossible not to conclude that, without profound change, an environmental and health crisis looms. I am proud that our maritime surveillance capabilities are already being deployed (e.g. in Indonesia) to monitor plastics pollution and to geofence projected maritime reserves.

The ethics of innovation

The second session of the afternoon looked at reputational and ethical issues associated with innovation. It asked how leaders in boardrooms and government can change perceptions across technical and cultural spheres to create and spread responsible innovations. Speakers included senior executives from companies perceived as having got it dramatically wrong – BP (Deepwater Horizon disaster) and Credit Suisse (2007 banking crisis) – as well as academia.

The discussion focused on the need for commercial institutions to balance short and long-term outlooks, as well as both profits and ethics. It also highlighted the need to accept fiduciary duties to a much wider groups of stakeholders than just shareholders.

I was very personally proud that, in these areas, Inmarsat is so clearly a thoroughly modern institution, with clear and powerful values, culture and purpose, and with goals that are long term in nature. We make a contribution to society of which we can be truly proud and are embracing a duty to many stakeholders and communities including our staff and our localities.

The future of AI

The third session we attended examined perceptions of Artificial Intelligence. From a ‘wonder technology’ heralded by technologists, business leaders and policy-makers with the potential to solve global problems such as health, climate chance and inequality, to something feared by the public because of perceived risks associated with the ‘rise of the machines’ and the impact on jobs and skills.

Huxley Summit participants agreed that AI could only be adopted gradually, with great care and planning, in close partnership with industries and governments, and alongside long-term planning for our future societies, including education and skills and a transformed industrial and social landscape.

Of course, the delivery of AI capabilities, especially automation and autonomation, to the seas and the skies and to other hard-to-reach industries, is a role which Inmarsat’s global networks will play. As our organisation embraces the power of AI across our business we want to be leading the conversation around the correct and ethical ways to harness the opportunities of such technology.

The Huxley Summit was a very thought-provoking afternoon. Many of the issues discussed will be live for many years to come, asking demanding questions about how we conduct business, grow and prosper.

About the author

rupert bioRupert Pearce joined Inmarsat in January 2005 as Group General Counsel and, from January 2009, additionally held the position of Senior Vice President, Inmarsat Enterprises. He became Chief Executive Officer in January 2012. Previously, Rupert worked for Atlas Venture, where he was a partner working with the firm’s European and US investment teams. He was previously also a partner at the international law firm Linklaters, where he spent 13 years specialising in corporate finance, M&A and private equity transactions. Rupert received an MA (First Class) in Modern History from Oxford University and won the 1995 Fullbright Fellowship in US securities law, studying at the Georgetown Law Center. He has been a visiting fellow of the Imperial College Business School, London, lecturing on the school’s Entrepreneurship programme, and is the co-author of Raising Venture Capital (Wiley).