Breakthrough: John Browne

John Browne
John Browne at Second Home Clerkenwell Green

You wouldn’t call John Browne a ‘tech bros’. Browne is Baron Browne of Madingley to you, CEO of BP between 1995 and 2007, when he earned the tag the ‘Sun King’, former President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Chairman of both the Francis Crick Institute and the UK board of controversial Chinese telecoms giants Huawei, author of The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business and the new Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation. But as the tech backlash continues to send waves of ill-will crashing over Silicon Valley and beyond, Browne finds himself tech’s unlikely champion. 

In Make, Think, Imagine, he interviews 100 or so makers, thinkers and imaginers, from Tim Berners-Lee to Norman Foster, to make clear what innovation in technology and engineering has done for us and what it might do in the future. “If you look around, you will see a world made richer, freer and less violent by engineering,” Browne insists. As John Thornhill, innovation editor of the FT and Browne’s gentle interrogator at Second Home Clerkenwell, suggests, this is a harder case to make than it was.

“When I started to write the book three years ago,” says Browne, “I was very much going with the grain of thought, that technology, engineering and innovation are great things to have. Now that suggestion is quite controversial and people aren’t buying that idea of progress. They see issues around Facebook and the distortion of democracy, they see videos of slaughterbot drones flying off to kill people using facial recognition technology and the list goes on.’ Browne’s counter to this demonization of tech is as old as the wheel, as tech itself; technology has no moral compass. There is no bad technology, only technology in the hands of bad people. ‘And the good news,” says Browne, “is there are far more good people than bad people and we see amazing progress.”

You could argue that one of the definitions of technology is that can allow just a small number of bad people do big bad stuff but Browne is a particular, and increasingly rare perhaps, unbowed techno-optimist (Stephen Pinker is part of this lonely group). He has an undimmed faith in human ingenuity and accents the privileged and pivotal position of the engineer, the bridge between science and discovery and the market.

Given his involvement with the Crick Institute in Kings Cross, the biggest biomedical research lab in Europe, Browne is particularly chipper about potential advances in healthcare. Big data and data analytics as well as genome sequencing – crunching the numbers on external and internal predictors – will revolutionise identifying and treating illnesses he promises. 

With his stretch at BP and a current role as Executive Chairman of L1 Energy on his CV, a similar optimism about tackling climate change might ring a little hollow. But Browne is no apologist for the oil and gas industries. Way back in 1997, he was the first CEO of a major oil company to acknowledge the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change. 

He does argue that most of the technology we need to tackle and reduce carbon emissions, to the point where our planet has a chance of coping with them, is already with us. What is lacking, he says, is political will, investment and incentivisation (like Bill Gates, Browne suggests that nuclear energy should play a major role in the de-fossilisation of power). For the moment Browne says, renewables are part of the answer but only part. Carbon capture and sequestrations technologies are advancing and energy suppliers need to be pushed into using them. “The main point is that a lot of this is available now but because it hasn’t been deployed enough so it’s too expensive,” he argues. “It requires people to give incentives, either threats or benefits, to get this done. The government has a role to take the first risk, they have to recognise that this is a short-term cost for a long-term gain.” Goverments should, he suggests, follow the lead of the Pope who last year called on Browne (not personally, through the Vatican) to gather together oil industry chiefs and investors so he could ask them, none too gently, what they were doing about emissions and climate change. “I don’t care how powerful you are, in the presence of the pope, you act like a child,” says Browne. “It’s doesn’t matter what religion you are, you are really well behaved. I think everyone realised that the dialogue about all this had to go deeper and action had to be taken.” Browne also noted approvingly that the Pope drove himself away from the meeting in a small electric car.  

In a wide-ranging talk, Browne took Thornhill through his thinking on curbing the power of the tech titans and the positives and pitfalls of anti-trust regulations, on the potential for innovation in start-ups vs big corporations, the future of artificial intelligence (Browne is an investor in AI start-ups), the on-going row about Huawei’s role in delivering 5G and the need for science and humanities bilinguals. “I’m a great believer that in the end, without engineering, there is no civilisation,” says Browne. “But there is no good civilisation without something built on top of engineering. And that is to feed the human mind with inquiry and difference.”

Written by Nick Compton

John Browne was speaking at Second Home Clerkenwell Green as part of our Breakthrough Fortnight, where together with Index Ventures and Sifted we brought the entrepreneurs and innovators behind now famous companies like Deliveroo, Farfetch, Mumsnet and Bulb together to reveal the stories behind their world-changing businesses.