“Can we finally talk about the negative impact now?”

That mindset as a predominant psychological personality trait can have an impact on oneself or even an entire nation or culture was already summarized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

The view one adopts for oneself profoundly affects the way one leads one’s own life.

Treatises on how people and nations deal with challenges, changes, or crises, or simply view the world, can be either an obstacle or an enabler to overcoming them.

Nothing makes that clearer than the focus and types of questions I get from delegations in Silicon Valley or from audiences when I visit home. I even joke that I don’t even need to know whether I’m giving a talk in Europe or the US. After all, the first question would give it away. In front of European audiences, the first question tends to focus on the negative aspects of a new technology or trend.

For example, a few years ago at a lecture in Hamburg, the first eight questions were mainly about the problems, risks and dangers of Silicon Valley and the trends that came from there. My pointing out that these questions were all negative caused at least one participant to rethink. She told me at the following dinner that my hint had opened her eyes. She herself had only then noticed this tendency of the questions.

A few weeks ago, a group of German SMEs visited the San Francisco Bay Area to be inspired and learn from the unique innovation ecosystem. Despite the group’s efforts to keep an open mind about trends and look at opportunities first, some of the group unexpectedly entered a “death spiral of negativity.” Discussing a new type of autonomous vehicle in which passengers sat facing each other, similar to a train compartment, and designed for low-speed urban driving, some participants immediately zeroed in on the safety aspects. What would it be like in the event of an accident? Both seat belts and a new type of ‘horseshoe-shaped’ airbag had been developed for the vehicle, the presenter said.

Horseshoe airbag

“But what about a stroller?” was immediately followed up. The death spiral would have continued if I had not immediately pointed out the nature of the questions.

Change of scene a few weeks later. South of Vienna, I was invited to give a presentation to the staff of an automotive supplier on the state of development of autonomous and electric cars. The presentation, which I had peppered with videos and details, was followed by a question and answer session. After 20 minutes, an employee came forward and impatiently and almost indignantly said the following:

Now that we’ve talked about all the positive things about autonomous cars, can we finally talk about the negative impacts?

It almost sounded reproachful from this sentence, as if the questioner had been forced to deal with positive effects. As if he had been so used to boiling in a broth of negativity that he could no longer stand the opposite.

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Neither do I want to give the impression that we should not also ask critical questions about new technologies and trends, nor that an intensive preoccupation with negative effects is wrong. We owe our lives and well-being to entire professions that they constantly deal with this. For example, when I was still an assistant at the Vienna University of Technology, I invited a policeman to a walk-through because our institute had been the target of burglars several times. The policeman had already appeared an hour beforehand, without us noticing, to carry out an inspection of the premises. He had looked at the door locks, the construction of the doors or the behavior of the institute staff and students and was then able to give us some hints on how to secure the premises.

Firefighters and fire police also have this almost paranoid view of potential fire hazards to properties. But so do military personnel who deal with possible conflicts or potential conflicts.

And we are grateful to have them among us, because it can quickly cost people their lives if we are too careless about these risks. After all, our ancestors and we had more chances to survive if we could focus on potential dangers quickly.

However, this gets in the way if our focus is more on the dangers and risks of new technologies and trends than on the dangers and risks of old technologies that the new technologies are supposed to reduce. For example, cars driven by humans kill more than a million people and injure more than 10 million worldwide every year. But the fervor is on the potential dangers of the new technology – autonomous cars, precisely – but not on the now-real dangers of the old technologies – human-driven cars.

And as it turns out more often than not, the dangers and risks identified as possible rarely manifest themselves in practice. The infamous trolley problem of how an autonomous car should decide whom to kill should it speed into a group of people does not occur in reality, but it dominates public discourse – and thus public and political decisions. And in doing so, we delay the development and deployment of new technologies that can save lives and improve our lives.

The right approach is to focus first on solving the problem with the opportunities, and then iteratively identify and minimize the hazards and risks that arise in the process. An 80:20 rule helps with this. Instead of spending 80% of the time during the conceptualization of an idea and technology dealing with its dangers and risks, turn that on its head and spend 80% of the time dealing with the possibilities and opportunities. As it turns out, many of the risks and dangers in this equation never show up in practice.

In this respect, the indignant questioner was right: after 20 minutes of only positive discussions, 5 minutes of negative discussions must also be allowed. And sometimes even more, especially since the expertise of this automotive supplier lay in safety systems.

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