Leaders – Robert C. Wolcott

Rob Wolcott is Co-Founder & Chairman of The World Innovation Network (TWIN), a global community of over 2,000 innovation and growth leaders from over 30 countries and across sectors (business, government, the arts, academia, defense). Wolcott is a managing partner with Clareo, a foresight and innovation strategy consultancy, an active angel investor and a Contributor for Forbes regarding the impact of technology on business, society and humanity. Adjunct Professor of Innovation at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, and the Booth School of Business, University of Chicago. Wolcott won Teacher of the Year from Kellogg’s EMBA program in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. He holds a BA in European and Chinese History and an MS and Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering and Management Science, all from Northwestern University.

Potolicchio: What is TWIN Global?

Wolcott: The World Innovation Network (TWIN) is an invitation-only connective of over 2,000 innovation and growth leaders from over 30 countries representing all sectors: business, government, non-profit, the arts, academic, defense. TWIN is a “serendipity engine” whose purpose is to help TWINians and our wider world thrive.

Potolicchio: What is a book we should read if we want to prepare for an uncertain future?

Wolcott: I’m a thoughtful optimist, but I love great dystopian literature. My two favorites are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. If you haven’t read them, do, and now. 1984 emphasizes control by force, while Brave New World explores control via emphasizing base desires at the expense of all else. They’re both about far more, of course, but the contrasts provide a wide palette upon which to envision dystopian futures— or with which to consider the present. In addition to be exceptional literature, they both enable us to consider the kinds or worlds we aspire to create— and to avoid.

Following publication of 1984, Huxley wrote a beautiful letter to Orwell explaining that while he believed 1984 to be a true masterpiece, he felt that his own vision in Brave New World represented the dystopian path the world would more likely take. As technologies become more capable and invasive, we see how these forces-- brute force and shallow gratification— continue to operate and threaten life, liberty and our pursuits of happiness.

Potolicchio: What is the question we aren’t asking but should be asking? 

Wolcott: There are always more questions to answer than we have attention to address. One I love asking an expert in any field is, “What, related to your area of expertise, have you seen that has truly surprised you?” The premise is, if they’re experts in an arena and something surprised them, I want to know what it was, why it surprised them and what we can learn from it.

Potolicchio: How should we change higher education?

Wolcott: The single most important capability absent from almost all education, from pre-K through graduate school, is the ability to explore the question, “what should I do, and why?” The question of purpose. By purpose I refer to both grand questions of life, but also the pragmatic, prosaic questions of purpose and priorities. These are questions we face throughout our lives. Colleges and universities have an opportunity help people address this, though I’m afraid few even recognize this as worthy or relevant for their attention. In their absence, many other organizations will rise to this need. It’s the college and university sector’s to lose, and I’m afraid they’ll lose it.

Meanwhile, the question becomes ever more essential. In a world where technology can increasingly do anything, the question for each of us becomes, “what should we do, and why?”

Potolicchio: What is something that most people would disagree with you on, but you are confident you are right?

Wolcott: Three years ago I published an article in Quartz arguing that learning to code will become, later this century, like knowing Ancient Greek. For a centuries, to be considered learned, one required a working knowledge of ancient Greek. Today, only philologists and Hellenic experts need to know it. My premise regarding coding is that while it’s useful to know— my daughters will learn some— coding will progressively continue to become less arcane and more natural. Eventually, “coding” will amount to simply ‘telling’ a computational system what you’d like to accomplish. It will, in a sense, code itself. Knowing to code will remain a badge of honor for the computational elite, but increasingly less important for an ever-wider range of activities.

Many people thought I was overly optimistic-- even ignorant-- but one fellow who contacted me due to the article was Gary Hoberman. Gary had just founded Unqork, which is today a unicorn with rapidly ramping revenues. They create and host enterprise-level— the tough stuff that requires robust, secure systems-- applications without any traditional coding. They’ve making the “no code” movement happen.

Even more than coding, I recommend that we all learn computational thinking. As TWINian and friend Conrad Wolfram quips, “we should teach as though computers exist, because they do.”

Potolicchio: What memoir do we have to read?

Wolcott: Your own. Think about that every day. As my intellectual hero William James admonished, “Act as though what you do matters, because it does.”