Jim Whitehurst: The power of participation

During his keynote at the Red Hat Summit, CEO Jim Whitehurst took the audience on a walk through history, talking about how different industrial revolutions changed our social fabric and affected policies and politics.

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Jim Whitehurst delivering his keynote at the Red Hat Summit

Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Red Hat Summit started on June 28 in San Francisco, California. A live orchestra was playing prior to the keynote. And when and Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst  took the stage, he cited the famous conductor Itay Talgam who described an orchestra as a series of stories coming together. “In his words, all of these stories being heard at the same time, this is the beauty of a live concert, this is the reason you leave your home.”

“I hope you feel that here this week," said Whitehurst. "The theme this year is participation and the power of participation. That’s because participation and innovation are very, very tightly linked.”

Industrial revolutions and society

Whitehurst went on to discuss how industrial revolutions changed our society. Instead of family members producing things by hand, working from home, thousands of people worked together under the same roof, away from home. Capital and labor came together and created all this value, which raised the question of how that value would be distributed. “From the more social welfare systems that developed in the U.S. to socialism in parts of Europe to communism in other places, whole new political regimes were developed because of the second industrial revolution,” said Whitehurst.

Whitehurst said that during the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, the theme was the fourth industrial revolution. “Broadly, the industrial revolutions in this regard go from the early mills in the 1750s that happened in England to the second industrial revolution in the late 1800s with the birth of mass manufacturing and the third industrial revolution, which was the first generation of technologies, and now the fourth industrial revolution, which is a combination of technologies from the communication tools around broadband to artificial intelligence and machine learning to 3D printing or additive manufacturing to Internet of Things.”

He said that the discussion at the forum was not about these technologies themselves but what the implications will be for how we live, work, lead, for communities and organizations more broadly. “The overall consensus is this set of technologies, as cool and wow as they are, will have a deep, fundamental impact on, again, how we live, how we work, how we interact, the nature of organizations themselves,” said Whitehurst.

But as incredible these new technologies are, they are posing some new challenges. Whitehurst said that despite these new technologies we continue to see a decline in levels of productivity, which he says is the technologies are becoming so complex that applying them to solve major problems is something that no individual or single company can do alone. The decline is due not to a lack of innovation but in our capacity to use those innovations to solve the problems around us.

He gave the example of autonomous driving, noting that no single technology company, no single transportation company and no single government can do it themselves. “It's going to take all of those working together to ultimately build a system that allows autonomous driving to take off.”

Open source and collaboration are playing a very important role in this fourth revolution. Companies like Google are open sourcing their machine learning technologies. Amazon is slowly opens sourcing it’s deep learning technologies. People like Elon Musk are betting on open source to build AI.

And it’s not just about profit-making industries. Whitehurst shared a video of OpenNotes where doctors are sharing their notes so that patients and other healthcare providers around the globe can learn and help patients.

The bottom line is open source is at the core of the next industrial revolution; it’s at the core of the next social and political revolution.

This, of course, is a victory for a pure open source company like Red Hat. Whitehurst said, “If you think about that in the context of technology, that's an incredibly powerful thing. We've been able to demonstrate that a broad participative community of a very diverse group of people working together can create such an important impactful technology, and that's a great thing.”

What comes next is the broader context of applying technology to solving world problems from hunger to global warming. “We're only just getting started," Whitehurst said. "All of those problems are going to require participation to solve. No one brilliant person, no one incredible organization is going to be able to solve those problems.”

Whitehurst concluded his keynote by quoting Gandhi. “We have a Gandhi quote that we have on the walls of virtually every Red Hat office, and it basically says, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win’.”

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