Märtha Rehnberg Will Turn You Into a Technology Optimist

The Copenhagen-based entrepreneur makes a pretty good argument for tech optimism, disruptive technology... and inventing.

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Can technology save the world? When you read stories about people falling off cliffs because they’re playing Pokemon Go, you probably don’t think so. Märtha Rehnberg doesn’t think so, either—but she still calls herself a “tech optimist”. On paper, the Copenhagen-based entrepreneur is a digital consultant, advising businesses on integrating technological solutions as a partner in the consultancy Dare Disrupt. However, at this year’s Trailerpark I/O, we heard her tell the audience about what really matters to her: promoting “tech intuition” and advocating for “disruptive technology”. A twenty-minute speech isn’t exactly enough time to fully unpack the significance of those two terms—so we decided to ask her about them ourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Märtha Rehnberg—and let her turn you into a tech optimist, too.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hi, Märtha. During your speech this morning, you were urging people to be disruptive about technology. What do you mean by that?

Märtha Rehnberg: Well, I think it’s valuable to think of disruption in technology by asking yourself four questions about what you want to do with technology. First, is it a new product you’re making? Second, is it servicing a new customer need that didn’t exist before—and if it does, how do you create a new market? Take the App Store: it created the app economy, which is a huge economy today but didn’t exist seven or eight years ago. The last question, the most interesting one, is: how are you changing the value system among consumers and, at best, among society? Digital photography is a great example of a shift in the value system. Today, we accept that our own personal photographs are used everywhere and don’t ask too many questions—but they’re crucial for the development of Artificial Intelligence and our society of spying and surveillance. So, thinking about those four questions are some tools you can use to understand disruption in its core.

It’s cool to talk about being disruptive working with technology, but not everybody thinks they can work with technology in the first place. Who do you think is responsible for educating people about the possibilities of working with technology?

It depends on what society you’re in. In the US or Britain, people tend to focus more on the media. However, a country like Denmark follows the Nordic welfare model, so our public institutions have a big role in society—which means education is really important. However, the education system here needs improvement. For example, I got into tech because there was no tech in my education. I took a very elitist education and I thought I’d be set for life… but then I noticed all the models we were studying became totally obsolete in a digital space. Price-demand, supply-demand… all these models they’re still teaching today don’t make sense. I think it’s really mind boggling and disturbing that we’re teaching our kids to work in a space that doesn’t really exist anymore.

Märtha explains technological intuition.

That’s why understanding the basics of digital technology – the exponential nature of it, the converging and morphing nature of it – is so important. You can tinkle with AI and digital photography, or combine AI and production. I mean, there are so many different things you can do! So it’s important for people to know that it doesn’t have to cost that much to experiment with technology—or to be an inventor, either.

You also describe yourself as a tech optimist, which immediately brings to mind the opposite—being a tech sceptic. Are you opposed to scepticism about tech?

I actually think we have a tendency to be too optimistic about technology: thinking that tech will solve everything. The only reason I’m saying I’m an optimist is because I’m seeing more and more people with different backgrounds starting to apply and develop technology. When that happens, you develop a broader understanding of the jobs to be done and the problems you want to solve.

Although I’m generalising, I think the classical minds that used to develop technology – maybe engineers – don’t necessarily understand how to tackle the really big problems out there, like climate change or social inequality. So, I’m looking at technology as a vantage point for a dialogue around the problems we want to solve. That’s why in the end, I’m a tech optimist—but I recognise we need to do a few things before we can be totally optimistic about technology.

Since you say we still have some steps to take before we can be totally optimistic about tech, what are some of your main worries around technology?

In general, what worries me is that we apply tech for the sake of it. That’s why I keep advocating for tech intuition, which basically means understanding the tech that’s out there, knowing when to apply it but most importantly knowing when not to apply it. I think there’s a need among tech optimists to remind themselves of the problems they want to solve. What worries me most is that we don’t understand the full impact of the technology we have in front of us.

No, virtual reality is not just for porn.

What does a tech optimist do during the day, anyway?

I basically do what I want: I try to get the clients I want to work with and trying to talk to the audience I want to talk to. For example, Trailerpark doesn’t necessarily bring us cash but it’s important: it brings us to minds that are interesting and that are curious. So, my day to day is very much focused on what I feel like doing.

I used to work in the innovation department at Mærsk, and eventually I had to choose between a big corporate life (with the benefits that entails) and doing what I want. At some point, I felt like spreading technological intuition or talking about technology to society at large was more important than focusing on one company talking about those things. Now, I have a lot more insecurity with what I do but also a lot more freedom—and that’s how I see the future of work, anyway. If you have a 9-5 style job, that’s actually an inheritance from the industrial revolution that will die at some point. So I hope I’m getting more partners in crime who want to work like me. You have to be creative, entrepreneurial and have a lot of self discipline, though.

With this idea of the 9-5 being a relic of the industrial times, how do you see technology changing the function of the 9-5?

Majorly. I mean, it’s me being able to work from home and take meetings online… all of these things that decentralise work. We still need a space to meet and look each other in the eyes, though, so we’re seeing co-working spaces that let work become fluid. Technology enables the fluidity of work and increases your freedom, but I hope it can also empower people to create physical spaces across corporate, cultural, national and academic borders.

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As you’ve told me, there are so many opportunities for using technology. However, do you feel like we can use it in equally uniting and dividing ways—or do you feel that human nature tends to push our use of technology one way over the other?

It goes back to my bias: I just have to say that at the end of it all, I try being optimistic. I think that 99.9% of people are good people and want to do good for other people, so the tech that will be available will be used for that end. Yes, we’ve had some really crappy situations in terms of usage of tech which we can evaluate case by case—for example, what we’re seeing with modern terrorism or the systemic failure in regards to climate change. However, I still feel that ultimately technology is a unifying force. Just look at where we are today and how people unite and you see that technology is pushing some of those discussions. That’s the utopia of it.

The other side of the coin, the dystopia, is that we’ll just be streaming Netflix on the couch. But I think it will be uniting in the end. There’s already a lot of good stuff out there about tech: it’s just choosing what you want to read about.

Thanks, Märtha.