Over the long Columbus Day weekend in the US, I participated in a conference held on beautiful Nantucket Island named, appropriately enough, The Nantucket Project (www.nantucketproject.com). Now you might well be thinking why does the world need yet another "thought leadership" conference on top of the World Economic Forum (Davos), the Bohemian Grove (California), the Allen & Co. Conference (Sun Valley), the Aspen Ideas Festival, SXSW (Austin), DLD (Munich), Bilderberg (originally, The Netherlands), All Things D (California), Le Web (Paris), and TED (everywhere) to name but a few.
The truth is that many great panel discussions have been held and many great keynote presentations given, but we seem no closer to solving our great societal, environmental, political or economic problems. Nonetheless, it was with my usual sense of optimism that I jumped on the short flight to this postcard-pretty summer resort for the East Coast establishment. I was not disappointed. The Nantucket Project, now in its second year, is the creation of a small group of civicly-minded Island families led by Tom Scott (founder of Nantucket Nectars) who seek to "bring together leaders from a wide range of disciplines to explore the most relevant, cutting-edge ideas and examine the implications they have for culture, society and business."
This year's participants included Sen. John Kerry, Peter Thiel (PayPal, Founders Fund), Eric Schmidt (Google), Stephen Wolfram (Wolfram Alpha), Toby Cosgrove (Cleveland Clinic), David Gergen (CNN), Chris Matthews (CNBC), Larry Lessig (Harvard) and Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard). I moderated several sessions including a lively panel on the Future of Finance in the Age of Radical Transparency, featuring Bob Diamond (former CEO Barclays), Eddie Lampert (Chairman of Sears and ESL Investments), David Rubenstein (co-founder Carlyle Group) and Larry Summers (former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard President).
I took an intentionally provocative position as moderator to argue that much of the current public company disclosure scheme is a waste of time and effort aimed at positioning or "spinning" quarterly or annual results and interim corporate developments which could one day be replaced by publishing weekly or daily revenue, cost and balance sheet figures directly to the internet. As desired, I got plenty of pushback from the panel who sensibly argued that no CEO would want to learn of his company's results at the same time as the public and that this could introduce perverse incentives to manipulate underlying transactions. I remain unconvinced as to much operating data, but I do believe that just as diplomatic communications should remain immune to Wiki- or other leaks so that diplomats can negotiate and brief their superiors, so should certain corporate developments such as merger plans and new product designs remain subject to protection.
We went on to debate such interesting (at least to me) topics as the blurring distinction between what it means to be a public or private company in the age of active secondary markets, relaxed solicitation rules courtesy of the mislabeled "JOBS Act" and delayed IPOs. There was a general consensus that this trend had accelerated in the last several years, with greater transparency now available with respect to even "private" companies, but that there remained important differences. After staying faithful to the conference's overarching theme of testing the limits of "collective intelligence" for the better part of the hour, I asked the panel to offer their views on the "fiscal cliff" faced by the US at the end of this year and the prospects for recovery (or at least stability) in Europe. The conclusions, not surprisingly, were that the US would rise to the occasion and at least partially address the fiscal challenges facing the nation (strongly supported by Senator Kerry later in the program) and that the EU would stay united, but with little enthusiasm and many nervous moments to come.
What impressed me about the Nantucket Project 2012 was (1) the broad range of topics covered, from politics to economics to healthcare to pure science; (2) the sense of community that arose from holding all the sessions in one large tent, thereby exposing the politicians to the science and the doctors to the economics; (3) the commitment of the presenters to stay and participate in other sessions rather than just fly in and out; (4) the request by the organizers to push the envelope and not just rehash talking points; and (5) the beauty of Nantucket as backdrop and playground. I would also credit the programming, organization and participation by the great team from BigThink.com, led by Victoria Brown and Peter Hopkins. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a minor advisory role at and financial interest in the company — too small to deserve any credit for their success, but large enough to provide me a good window on their talents.