The New 3-Legged Stool of Sustainable Innovation: Data, AI, & Human Creativity

There’s a well-known saying among salespeople that goes, “Don’t sell the steak – sell the sizzle!” Coined in the mid-1930s by Elmer Wheeler, the point was to focus potential customers’ attention on the flashy features of a product; the “wow” factor. We’ve gotten an awful lot of sizzle from artificial intelligence (AI) recently, although much of the technology has been around for years, and leaders are now taking a closer look at the “why” behind the “wow.”

Unlocking Value

A recent global study from McKinsey shows that 55% of companies reported that their organizations have adopted AI, mostly in a product development or service operations capacity. For many, AI has become the engine driving transformation across industries, providing predictive insights, automation, and decision-making capabilities that were once unimaginable. However, McKinsey provides an interesting caveat as part of their insights into this adoption:

“One consistent finding is that high performers take a broad view of what AI is needed to be successful. They are particularly strong in staying focused on value, and then rewiring their organization to capture that value. They’re evaluating and testing the efficiencies and speed enabled by consuming existing AI services, and then developing capabilities to create competitive advantage – for example, by tuning models and training them to use their own proprietary data.”

This concept of value is a critical mindset shift, reframing data and AI as tools waiting for human ingenuity to unleash their true potential. The human element, characterized by creativity and empathy, is what distinguishes us from machines and adds emotional gravitas. Consider Airbnb, which, in its journey from startup to industry giant, has excelled by focusing on the human desire for connection. They leveraged data to understand traveler preferences but coupled it with human-driven experiences, creating a unique blend that resonates deeply with users.

Harmonious Synergy

For some leaders, the bright shiny future of what is possible has blinded them to the reality that the success of a company depends on its people, not just its products and processes. Meaning, true visionaries always put humans at the center of their business strategy, embracing technology as an enabler rather than a solution. The real magic unfolds when we achieve a synergy between data, AI, and human creativity – the new three-legged stool of sustainable innovation.

Sustainable innovation doesn’t mean one innovative idea that you manage to keep going over time, rather it’s a process of continuous improvement. Communication across industries and domains is an essential part of this process, and by sharing insights and best practices we can create solutions that benefit everyone. The Open Data Initiative led by Microsoft, Adobe, and SAP exemplifies this spirit of collaboration, empowering companies to derive more value from their data and fostering a more interconnected data landscape

Here are some other ways that human creativity adds value to sustainable innovation:

1. Resilience and Adaptability

According to Accenture, 90% of business leaders are applying AI to tackle aspects of operational resilience, including using the technology to anticipate market shifts, optimize supply chains, and fine-tune business strategies. In addition to these forward-looking capabilities, AI also improves current business resiliency by helping maintain operations during events like cyberattacks, software failures, or extreme weather.

There’s a difference between resilience and adaptability though, and even AI can’t predict the future (yet). While it is great at modeling scenarios based on “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” AI lacks the data inputs to respond to “unknown unknowns,” those random complications that require human imagination to solve. By pairing the power of AI with the ability of humans to interpret the resulting insights and apply them in unique ways, organizations will be able to better navigate whatever challenges lie ahead.

2. Environmental Stewardship

Data and AI offer transformative opportunities for reducing harmful emissions and shrinking a company’s carbon footprint. Big companies around the world have already made notable progress in analyzing energy consumption patterns and improving resource allocation. For example, Google has optimized the way it uses water, Nestlé is converting carbon dioxide into green products, and Walmart is helping reduce food waste – all through data and AI.

However, the New York Times points out that by 2027 AI servers could use between 85-134 terawatt hours (TWh) annually – similar to what Argentina, the Netherlands, and Sweden each use in a year. So, while AI has the power to optimize energy usage, the power required to do it might negate any positive impact. This is where humans come in, largely from a mindset of restraint. California Governor Gavin Newsom just signed two major climate disclosure laws that would require private companies to report their carbon emissions and energy usage annually, setting the tone for more oversight to come. It’s a critical example of how humans must remain involved with innovation if it’s to be sustainable over the long term.

3. Responsible Innovation

As we navigate the landscape of data and AI, it’s crucial to not only seek growth but also to do so in a way that respects individuals, society, and our shared planet. UNESCO, developer of the first-ever global standard on AI ethics, points out that the rapid changes stemming from AI can reinforce biases, threaten human rights, and cause further harm to already marginalized groups. Our best defense against these threats is our own human empathy, ensuring that we always endeavor to put purpose over profits.

Some of the other ways humans help foster responsible AI innovation include:

  • Employing diverse leaders and subject matter experts to help identify unconscious bias in data
  • Monitoring generative AI content to confirm it is free of any offensive material or harmful guidance
  • Validating sources of data to ensure the AI is learning from credible inputs
  • Instituting clear guidelines and governance (from the top down) on the shared responsibility of safeguarding sensitive customer information
  • Upskilling our workforce to bridge the digital divide and protect them from being replaced/displaced by mass automation

The Future Is A Moving Target

In many ways, innovation happens gradually, then all at once – launches, demos, newer, faster, better. It can be easy to get sidetracked by the sizzle. But as leaders, we must remember that we have a responsibility to tune out the noise and focus on the substance. The real challenge ahead is not our ability to acquire the right technology, but how we can blend that technology with the timeless qualities that define us as humans. It is in this balance that we will carve the path to sustainable innovation – one that enriches our industries, empowers our people, and leaves a positive legacy for generations to come.

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