The 2019 Esri User Conference will stand out as a highlight in my life. It was the first time I attended the whole week, and I experienced everything it had to offer. I’ll admit it though, I was tuckered out by Thursday afternoon and didn’t make it to the party at Balboa Park. This year was different for me. I attended as a member of the media for The Geo Cloud and it allowed me to experience the conference from a different perspective.
I didn't experience it as a student or businessperson, but as an observer that got to see the big picture without getting submerged in all the classes, demos, exhibitions, and activities that took hold of San Diego. There were nearly 20,000 attendees from around the world that represented many location-focused organizations from local governments, utilities, and even sovereign states. In addition, there were 1,000+ hours of classes, 770 hours of training, and more than 300 exhibitors in the expo hall. The Esri User Conference has grown substantially since the first meeting with a total of ten attendees. What I saw, and experienced, was an environment of collaboration, learning, and inspiration.
Significant changes are happening in the world, and Esri crafted a simple metaphor to describe it: we’re moving to a reality where the digital, environmental, economic, and human landscapes are all interconnected like the responsive nature of the nervous system we all have. The nervous system is one of the most critical parts of an organism. It can detect changes (both internal and external), analyze these changes, and act upon them in multiple ways. As humans, we depend upon this system for nearly everything we do. It provides us essential information for how we respond to changes in our surroundings and, in many situations, is critical to our survival. With existential challenges facing us like climate change, overpopulation, and biodiversity loss, this intelligent nervous system will be one of the most important movements of our time. I say movement because it isn’t just technology. The intelligent nervous system has emerged from a collaborative global community of people, vast amounts of publicly shared data, a shift of applications to the cloud, and geographic science to bring it all together.
I was able to sit down with Jack Dangermond, the visionary behind Esri. What stood out most wasn’t his business success or even intelligence, but his humbleness, passion for serving others, and making a difference in the world. He was easy to talk to, and we could’ve talked until the late hours of the night about how people will use science and technology to make the world better. During the interview, I was only able to ask him two questions, but that was more than enough. He took time to understand what I was asking, thought about what really mattered, and carefully communicated his thoughts. I asked what he thinks this intelligent nervous system will look like in fifty years and what that means for the average person. I also asked him a more open-ended question: what was something unexpected in your journey to today, be it something you learned, built, experienced, saw, or thought about? Though not apparent at first, these two questions are connected, and the possibilities we are seeing grew out of early decisions made by Jack and his wife, Laura.
The intelligent nervous system and what it means for us
Everything has a space and place, and we can use this simple but powerful concept to analyze everything in context to everything else. “The world’s knowledge will become increasingly geospatially defined,” Jack said. In other words, we can collect more location-based data about the world so we can make better decisions and take action. This applies to disparate things like natural disaster response, identifying unknown locations where endangered species live, and analyzing the spread of disease in a city. Jack recalled the release of the first smartphone: “When Steve Jobs presented the iPhone on stage, he should’ve mentioned how the Library of Congress was now at our fingertips.” It wasn’t about the device, but the knowledge that was now accessible from anywhere, anytime.
Esri is all about building tools that collect, analyze, create, and share knowledge with others. “We’re shining light on darkness, making the invisible, visible” he said. One example is geo-news about significant events like hurricanes and fires. When these disasters occur, people turn to their phones to get information about what’s going on so they can make better decisions about what to do. These same people then contribute their own data through social media and other public channels. This crowd-sourced data is beginning to be fed back into traditional data systems to give a better understanding of conditions on the ground. What does this mean? It means when a full picture of something is presented to an individual, they can change their behavior based on that new information. Jack wondered why this isn’t the case for other pressing issues like homelessness and biodiversity loss. He’s hopeful that we’ll eventually get there if we can democratize access to knowledge using maps. The intelligent nervous system is key to this.
“We must change the way we think,” he continued, “Humans are ingenious, and we must take action. If we are to solve the severe problems we’re facing, a shift in thought needs to occur. Not everyone will change after seeing the evidence, but if we can get enough people to see the truth, then the tide will turn.” How does the intelligent nervous system deliver knowledge to people that will enable this change in thought? Story maps are a good example. They present knowledge in a way that’s easy to understand. Spatial data is integrated with maps, text, and other visual media and presented in a guided user experience. Studies have shown that stories communicate knowledge better than charts and figures, so this is a natural way to inform someone about something new.
I saw another instance of this knowledge sharing in the form of a company. I found 2NDNATURE in the startup zone, and they’re a woman-owned business led by scientists. They make it easy for governments to collect water quality data during field inspections through an intuitive app, which enables stakeholders to make data-driven decisions on actions that can reduce pollution in streams, rivers, and lakes. They take it a step further, though, and help people engage with the world around them. The collected data is analyzed and made available through a public dashboard where residents can see what condition their water systems are in. When you see how your actions, or those of your neighbors, are affecting the place you live, it suddenly becomes more real. Rather than trying to understand an abstract global issue, people can focus on what’s in front of them and feel empowered to take action as a result. This is the power of the intelligent nervous system: collect, analyze, decide, and communicate at scales that weren’t possible before.
What helped 2NDNATURE achieve its purpose of engaging cities and their communities with the environment? Jack mentioned that the key to enabling this transformation around location has been expanding and opening the ArcGIS platform to developers. This is game-changing. Innovation is nearing the speed of imagination, and Jack agreed. “It’s up to the imaginations of people” to make the solutions of the future. Esri couldn’t possibly build all the tools we need to address every critical issue, so they enable us to apply our unique knowledge and experience to make it happen. Esri has achieved great success with this strategy, and it’s evident in the company’s financial data. Esri is an impressive $1 billion company (he rounded down from $1.1 billion) but enables 2,500 partners to realize more than $21 billion in revenue. The intelligent nervous system will continue to drive innovation, collaboration, opportunities, and action around the globe in ways we haven’t dreamed of yet. The most significant impact of this integrative technology is creating and sharing the knowledge that will bring the average person out of the darkness and into the light.
A difficult journey but one worthwhile
I asked Jack if there was something unexpected he encountered on his journey to today; one of the things that stood out to him. He immediately asked me if I was referring to his life journey or his business one. It didn’t occur to me before that those paths may be intertwined; but each is different in terms of the challenges and obstacles you must overcome. I wanted to hear both, but time was short, so I kept it the context of Esri. He said it was a surprise to build a company entirely focused on users, but then thought maybe it wasn’t. If you’re wondering why he responded that way, I’ll get to it. “In the process of serving others, we are addressing the challenges of our time,” he said. This was stated a few times to ensure I got it. This is the core principle that is woven into the fabric of Esri and everyone who works there. Esri empowers people to make their communities better through technology, science, and education.
How was Jack able to focus on users? It was decided early on that Esri would be a purpose-driven company. It meant doing good by serving others. That approach set the difficult path that would have to be taken to ensure people were placed before profits. Although the startup culture and resources that are available today weren’t there back then, Jack resisted allowing outside investors to come in. The standard model we know is getting money from those who have it, like venture capitalists, and then running the gauntlet to try to scale your business and ‘make it.’ He likened this to investing in a 401K. When you give someone control over your investment, you want them to make decisions on what is in your best interest, not what will make the most profit. In the context of Esri, going that route wouldn’t allow the core principle of serving others to be followed. If the company was focused on profits, it’s doubtful a third of yearly profit could be invested into R&D, original books authored by scientists published regularly, or the donation of software to educational institutions could be made.
You often hear companies and startups talk a big game about their values, but rarely do you see it actualized in the fundamentals of the company. Jack acknowledged that Esri has been very profitable over the years, and they’ve been able to do this by building stellar marketing and sales teams. They had to do this, we operate in a capitalist system, and if you want to keep up, then you need to generate revenue and compete with others. Having a profitable business enabled him to do good for the world with his share of it, like establishing a 24,000-acre preserve in Santa Barbara county. Going back to R&D, they invest about three times more than other companies do. Esri doesn’t just talk the talk they walk the walk.
Being different is hard, though, very hard. When your self-funded, you need to run two businesses at the same time. One side of the business, professional services in the case of Esri, generated revenue for the product side. This means slower, incremental growth on the product side, and it had to be managed with care. I’m sure there were many stressful situations, late nights, and time spent going in the wrong direction. Jack proved that you could do it, and he started talking about the next generation. “Young people can do great business work without raising capital. But, it’s hard, really hard”. I agreed and said we need to move to a post-startup model as the current system has devolved into people with money getting others to work long hours for low pay. Jack added, “The startup culture robs people of their dignity and takes away their idealism.” Many startups do good for the world, but I think the culture needs to be improved and actually work towards that work life balance we all hear about.
What the world needs most right now are motivated people who have a purpose in their lives and are enabled not just to get by, but thrive. Everyone needs to collaborate and contribute their creative potential to help solve climate change, overpopulation, and biodiversity loss. If someone was working twelve-hour days and worried about how to pay the rent, it’s difficult to focus on the challenges ahead. I believe we can do what Jack did. Esri is proof that you can build a billion-dollar company without selling out and sacrificing your core values and beliefs. This is evident in the success and global reach of the company that has a group of dedicated customers who use their products every day. We should strive to lead with our purpose and beliefs, not the ideas or things we’re building.
Bringing it all together now
Jack has used systems thinking as the foundation to create Esri, taking a holistic approach to building a company. Like Mother Earth, everything is connected, and you can’t focus on one aspect of a complex system like a business and expect to do good for people. It starts with education, preparing the next generation to understand our connected planet and enable them to solve difficult problems. Building tools and then training on those tools to empower people to address issues in their communities. Collaborating with scientists in various disciplines to inform the business. Leading by example, by preserving biodiversity through conservation efforts. Establishing a purpose-driven culture based on ethical principles to make it all happen. Would Jack have been able to build a company that does all this if he couldn’t focus on people instead of profits? Unlikely.
Again, Jack put it simply: “In the process of serving others, we are helping to address the challenges of our time.” The intelligent nervous system will transform our world and at its core is service to others. During this conference, we all discussed and heard a lot about the problems and threats that our planet faces. But, there was also inspiration, hope and kindness shared from around the world during that week in San Diego. Smart, driven people, are dedicated to making things better. When I asked Jack what things will look like in fifty years, he exclaimed: “It’s hard to see beyond three years!”. What he could tell me, without doubt, is that Esri users have been able to accomplish amazing things over the last fifty years and he expects that to continue in the next fifty.
After the interview, I became a believer that we can turn this around. I believe we can change the world and we can do it in the service of others. We can build great things without sacrificing our principles and values. I learned that if we put purpose at the core of everything we do, no one can compete with us there. Let’s go back to the original question of something unexpected Jack encountered in his journey. In business, you never know if you will be successful or not, and I think this is what was surprising for him. What didn’t surprise him, though, is creating a company that is focused on people and making a difference. He couldn’t, and wouldn’t, build it any other way. Thank you, Jack, for contributing to this movement and empowering others to make their part of the planet better than it was. I’m looking forward to being part of this growing global community and taking on the challenges of our time. I’m going all-in on making good change happen. And to the reader I ask, will you?