By Monty Hagler
My expectations of Russia involved snow, vodka and exotic foods. I was not disappointed on any of these fronts. Moscow is a modern, vibrant city that has continually remade itself for more than 800 years. Traveling outside of my comfort zone always makes me appreciate the wonders of the world and the comforts of home.
The primary purpose for this trip was participation in the “Stepping into the Future: Artificial Intelligence and Digital Economy” international symposium organized by the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. My hosts arranged for a tour of the University to learn about its rich history, followed by a meeting with its dynamic, visionary rector (President) Ivan Lobanov. His business card is printed on clear recycled plastic and his office features colorful screens that display interactive infographics with key data points on the University, setting the tone for three days of discussion about the role technology plays in shaping our world. Ivan shared with me that as a young man with limited English, he visited the United States and toured the country via Greyhound bus. What a hard way to travel! But those are the types of experiences that allow for better perspective and understanding as we grow older.
The symposium itself delivered on its objective to bring together diverse points of view on topics that affect all of us. During two business breakfast sessions (with an insane amount of food loaded onto every table), I listened via interpretive headphones as Russian leaders representing companies and ministries of the treasury, energy, economic development and environment articulated points of view on how technology can be used to address societal challenges in Russia and across the world. One speaker described the challenges associated with changing an economy that is 40 percent dependent upon the sale of fossil fuels. Another speaker described the challenge of switching to green energy sources when countries like Poland expect energy prices to be 40 percent below other countries because of their use of coal. One Russian business executive described the growing reality of “stranded assets;” oil operations built in permafrost that are now sinking into mud as our climate warms. It was a candid, remarkable admission in a public forum. Speakers listened and responded to differing points of view, demonstrating a willingness to listen and learn, not pontificate.
As I walked the streets of Moscow, I was shepherded by a bright college student named Victoria who spoke amazing English and was diligent in her volunteer responsibility to watch out for me. She asked questions about what was accomplished by such conferences. Like my daughter Julia, she is impatient for change and action on issues such as climate change. My explanation that wheels turn slowly on regulatory and legislative fronts, particularly for issues that involve so many different stakeholders, did little to comfort her. But I came away from the conference convinced that there is a serious commitment in Russia to help tackle tough issues in our world, and to use advanced technology and artificial intelligence to pioneer new solutions.
In all, I gave three presentations at the symposium. I spoke briefly at one of the breakfast sessions on the need to align efforts and improve communication among various stakeholders. I spoke on a panel session about the dual needs for technology and trust, and I’m pretty sure I am the only speaker who worked in references to Plato’s allegory of the cave, WorldCom’s global Confidence Index powered by artificial intelligence, the knowledge economy and Thanksgiving (https://youtube.com/watch?v=amOGn_HPah8&feature=share , my talk begins at 2:19:00).
My last presentation focused on the current status of public relations in the United States and the evolving nature of our industry. The questions from students both in the audience and watching online were engaging and probing.
In the two days before the symposium began, I explored Moscow. The sweeping views from Red Square, majesty of Christ the Savior cathedral (spectacular, with no pews or seats because Jesus suffered so worshippers should not have the comfort of sitting). Strolling through modern (Zaryadye) and classic (Gorky) parks. Dining at modern (Ruski, at the top of an 85-story tower in Moscow City) and classic (Pushkin Café, in a 19th century villa) Russian restaurants, where bills are paid with a wave of a phone and tips are left via QR codes. I sat in snarled traffic that rivals any US city and was whisked quickly to destinations on the underground metro. I stood silent at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWII (a conflict that saw Russia lose an estimated 25 million people to war, starvation, disease and cold). I walked miles and miles along the Moscow River.
I return to the United States thankful for this experience and appreciative of the warmth and friendliness of virtually every person I met. Not only officials at the conference, but waiters, drivers, hotel clerks, musicians, interpreters and others that engaged me in casual conversations. Some spoke only a few words of English, others were fluent. All were enthusiastic and optimistic.
When I arrive home, I will purchase a copy of Tolstoy’s War & Peace. I am embarrassed to say I have never read it. My Russian friends describe it as the best novel to read if I want to understand the scope and sweep of Mother Russia, from the rise of St. Petersburg built on the bones of the serfs, peasants and prisoners of war who transformed swampland into one of the world’s most beautiful cities, to Napoleon’s invasion, burning of Moscow to the ground and retreat in bitter winter snow, to the fall of the Romanov dynasty.
I am ready for it now.