by Richard Corbridge

‘Tech for humanity’ – Richard Corbridge digests Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s Gartner Symposium CIO call to arms

Nov 12, 2019

Boots Director of Innovation, Richard Corbridge, shares his Jack Kerouac-esque ‘Stream of Consciousness’ notes, digesting some of Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s discussion at last week’s Gartner Symposium in Barcelona which looked at the role of CIOs in building technology for humanity.

On the 50th birthday of the internet, creator of the world wide web Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee urged us in a Tweet to fight for its future:

“Today the internet is 50 years old. The internet and the web it enabled have changed billions of lives for the better. But their power for good is under threat. This birthday must mark the moment we take on the fight for the web we want,” he said.

Delivering his keynote at the Gartner Symposium in Barcelona last week, Professor Berners-Lee wanted to get a clear message across about the future of digital and the society that digital creates. The power of what we now call the world wide web is a force for good, a force to be nurtured by all and a thing of the future as much as of the past.

The IT leadership in the room for the keynote were abuzz with excitement, watching the facts of the world that had changed as they waited for him to hit the stage. He asked for a moment of reflection on all that has changed since the birth of the web, and a moment of planning for the future; if so much can be done by one simple idea in a relatively short period of time, then what will be next?


As is often the case at Gartner events the audience had already been taught the new Gartner buzz term, TechQuilibrium, and been given a one sentence vision for how dangerous Generative Adversarial Networks could be for the future. Live on stage Professor Berners-Lee generated an excitement as to how a true modern day superhero was going to describe the digital world of the future.

In his opening remarks he commented on how easy it was for the web to magnify emotions good and bad, and how the same concept made us and enabled us to question truth.

Professor Berners-Lee was described in his introduction as an expert connector. Professor Berners-Lee commented himself that ‘all’ he was trying to do originally was to deliver a hobby project known initially as the Information Management Project – a project which he grandly renamed the World Wide Web.


In 2009 Time magazine reported that of the billions of people in the world, Professor Berners-Lee should be considered in the top 100 most important people. With now half the planet online, Professor Berners-Lee has accepted a mission to make that possible for everyone.

Professor Berners-Lee was born in 1955, and since his parents met over a computer – one of the first – he believes this gave him access to computing that was not necessarily available to others. He grew up excited about technology, the advances it could bring to every walk of life and the way in which everyone could be part of the technology change that was coming. Clearly he is still excited by the origins of technology and an enthusiasm to show people how it all worked – just as he was in his 30s at CERN – and that’s what drove him to work with the many kindred spirits there to create the web.

The web was a side project that came from frustration and from a need for integration and interoperability and collaboration for scientists and their disparate ways of working. His own theory and obsession of putting things back together was applied to information as the web was born.

Professor Berners-Lee was asked about ‘selling’ the concepts of the web to colleagues. He described it as one of the original paradigm shifts, a new world that needed a new vocabulary. Everything is considered to be five clicks away now, but even that is new language inspired by the web! Therefore, he needed to create a myth and story to get everyone from A to Z. Professor Berners-Lee had to motivate each person to go step by step with him. He does concede that when he looks back at the web now and its tech design, it is a bunch of concessions to others – the web is a collaboration even in its own creation.

Privacy and security

His views of the current state of the web show a level of concern and enthusiasm. For Professor Berners-Lee, security and privacy are of immense importance and will never stop being so. Furthermore, it is now everyone’s job to be concerned about and engaged in security and privacy issues. Since Cambridge Analytica there has been a realisation that security and privacy concerns at a personal level are very real, and that the citizens of every country now understand better that their information is now being used to manipulate others.

To ‘fix’ privacy we need new tech – tech that makes clear, easy and straight-forward the ability to put access control into all of our hands. Similarly society needs to be more aware that technology will not be able to do this on its own; we will always need a better awareness of where information goes next. Professor Berners-Lee was at pains to be clear, this is a responsibility for all and is in the hands of the collected whole to mitigate.

Project Solid and ethical leaders

His current work on project Solid is to create a word wide identity that is agnostic to provider. Professor Berners-Lee explained that with no working global access control, the web created silos. The Solid web decentralisation project will give everybody one or more IDs, and you as the user will always own your IDs and your data.

Professor Berners-Lee believes that our Digital Society should be beyond profit, and that it should serve the environment and protect ethical considerations. He said that he wanted technology and digital leaders to keep true to ethical positions, building technology which would protect the fellow human, the earth, and the way we learn. He believes forward thinking leaders are now creating a movement towards this, and those that are not part of that movement in time will fall by the wayside.

The web inventor is clear AI will have the power to influence everything from what we eat to what we believe, and as such he places great responsibility on those developing AI solutions and the dangers of fossilising any biases in the algorithms. Furthermore AI must not be used to manipulate people, and of AI creators he asked that we always consider the unintended consequences of future creations.

Bernes-Lee called on the technology executives present in Barcelona to try and do fantastic things for humanity. He is very clear that the people in the room at an event like the Gartner Symposium are the people that must protect the world from worst consequences of our digital connectedness.

Build the web for humanity

‘Protect and create truth’and ‘defend against falsehood’ have become key tenets for Professor Berners-Lee. Wikipedia is a great example, he explained, as a truth protector delivering good to humanity – we know Wikipedia is not the only source of truth and it needs consideration every time it is used, and Professor Berners-Lee supports it as a model. Use the web but always with human and humane consideration for what is being seen, he said.

He asked digital leaders to consider how to create a safe, true place to debate questions – and answers will then be able to bubble to the top. This new system thinking will allow us to function as human beings that need each other to reach conclusions, rather than acceptance of what we are told. And he sees this as having particular relevance as the other half of the world comes online.

Professor Berners-Lee’s final provocation was for attendees in Barcelona – many of whom CIOs and technology leaders in their regions – to accept his offer for them to become his successor – he can’t do it alone, he wants the people in the room to build the web for humanity.

Richard Corbridge is Director of Innovation at Boots (WBA Group)