16 standout thought leaders you need to follow in 2018

18 Dec 2017

Image: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

This diverse set of thinkers across science, technology, innovation and business are the driving forces to watch in 2018.

Some change-makers are leading the charge from the top of their sector, while others are disrupting entire industries from the bottom up. These are the people set to shape the sci-tech industries of 2018 with their ideas.

Jim Al-Khalili

Jim Al-Khalili on set in Switzerland. Image: jimal-khalili.com

Prof Jim Al-Khalili is a British-Iraqi theoretical physicist, author and host of The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4. He is also professor of theoretical physics and chair in public engagement in science at the University of Surrey.

‘Scientists have a moral responsibility to speak up and make sure their voices are heard along with everyone else’

Al-Khalili is renowned and respected in the scientific community and he doesn’t hold back about his opinions. Earlier this year, he and fellow high-profile scientist Brian Cox pulled up their own broadcaster for giving a climate-change denier airtime. In a recent interview with Wired, Al-Khalili said: “Scientists have a moral responsibility to speak up and make sure their voices are heard along with everyone else.”

Marc Benioff

Marc Benioff at TechCrunch Disrupt event in 2013. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marc Benioff is the founder, CEO and chair of Salesforce, one of America’s most highly valued cloud computing companies. Notably, Benioff pioneered software as a service (SaaS) and paved the way for an entire SaaS economy to be built. He is frequently quoted as saying that cloud is “the end of software”.

‘There is no finish line when it comes to equality’

He has also been outspoken about the need for diversity in the tech industry, and has implemented policies to close wage gaps in his company. According to Benioff: “There is no finish line when it comes to equality.”

Sinéad Burke

Sinead Burke

Sinéad Burke on stage at Inspirefest 2016. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

At 105cm tall, Sinéad Burke experiences the world differently to those of average height, and she has been tireless in telling her story so that designers and manufacturers of all sorts can see that designing for averages can alienate differently abled people. Her rising star has streaked across the universe this year – from a TED talk in New York, to Geneva to present to the World Economic Forum, to joining the Voices at Business of Fashion’s Oxfordshire conference.

‘My money and my existence is as valid as yours’

A teacher by trade, Burke has spent the past year educating the world on the perils of not designing for difference, and the importance of products that are both adaptive and attractive. What next but the presidency?

Liz Carolan

Liz Carola | Sci-Tech 100 2018

Liz Carolan. Image: @LizCarolan/Twitter

Dublin-based governance, transparency and data consultant Liz Carolan has set herself a mission. Earlier this month, she announced that she would commit 120 hours of her time over 12 weeks to see what can be done to increase transparency, accountability and good governance in Ireland.

Carolan quickly met with elected officials, public servants, activists, academics and more to generate a ‘stone soup’ of ideas, which she said is pushing her towards concrete projects. And she’s already proposing how transparency advocates can band together to ensure 2018’s referendum on the Eight Amendment won’t be marred by misinformation campaigns online. Watch this space.

Anil Dash

Anil Dash. Image: anildash.com

Anil Dash is the CEO of the small, well-respected project management software company Fog Creek. The company recently released Manuscript, a bug-tracking software hoping to get developers thinking about the larger ramifications and ethics of the applications they work on.

Dash also hit headlines for introducing ‘climate leave’ at his company – up to five days leave for extreme weather each year – after a Florida-based employee had to evacuate his home due to the devastation of Hurricane Irma. It is exactly this kind of compassion and innovation that distinguishes Dash as a transformative figure in the tech industry.

Fabian Dattner and Jess Melbourne Thomas

Fabian Dattner & Jess Melbourne Thomas

From left: Fabian Dattner and Jess Melbourne Thomas, founders of Homeward Bound. Images: @FabianDattner/Twitter and @DrJessMT/Twitter

Earlier this year, Siliconrepublic.com reported on a mission that left a lasting impression on us: the largest all-female expedition to Antarctica. The voyage was part of the Homeward Bound initiative to “heighten the influence and impact of women with a science background in order to influence policy and decision-making as it shapes our planet”.

The STEM spark behind this monumental project was ignited by Fabian Dattner and Jess Melbourne Thomas, co-founders of Homeward Bound.

Dattner is a partner at Dattner Grant, a leadership expert and a women’s advocate. Melbourne Thomas is an Antarctic marine ecosystem modeller, a research scientist with the Australian Antarctic Division, and a project leader with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre.

After six months of hard graft and preparation, Dattner and Melbourne Thomas led a team of 76 women on an expedition that lasted almost 20 days – and they’re not finished yet. Stay tuned for the next voyage, which is set to take place across February and March 2018.

Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler. Image: Shalon Van Tine/susanjfowler.com

Susan Fowler. Image: Shalon Van Tine/susanjfowler.com

Susan Fowler wrote a blogpost detailing the gender discrimination she witnessed while working at Uber. What she really did, though, is disrupt the industry so fond of the term itself despite persistently retreading the status quo of the boys’ clubs of old. The Silicon Valley ecosystem was shaken after Fowler’s whistle blew, calling time on the reign of many leaders found to be lacking at tech’s hottest start-up.

‘There’s something really empowering about standing up for what’s right’

Featured as one of the many ‘Silence Breakers’ in Time’s Person of the Year profile, Fowler has overcome the fear of speaking out and embraced her new identity as “a badge of honour”.

Cindy Gallop

Cindy Gallop

Cindy Gallop delivers a keynote speech at Inspirefest 2015. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Cindy Gallop has been fighting to change the ratio of women in business for a long time. Now that 2017 has uncovered sexual harassment at a level many suspected but too few believed possible, Gallop is more fired up than ever before.

‘We need to build our own business and financial ecosystem, because the white male one isn’t working for us’

Known to call out sexism as she sees it, the advertising guru and MakeLoveNotPorn founder is taking her own industry to task for its hidden horrors, gathering the stories of those encouraged to finally speak out. The reckoning is far from over; in fact, it has only just begun – and Gallop hasn’t even hit her stride yet.

Martha Lane Fox

Internet pioneer Martha Lane Fox co-founded Lastminute.com in the early 2000s. She sits on the board of Twitter and has served on a number of public-service digital projects in the UK.

She also became a member of the House of Lords in 2013, where she gave government ministers a firm warning about the dangers of dismantling the progress made by the Government Digital Service (GDS), an initiative launched off the back of a report she wrote.

Lane Fox is also an ambassador for Code First: Girls, which has launched its latest campaign to teach 20,000 young women how to code for free by the end of 2020.

Nilofer Merchant

Nilofer Merchant. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Nobody knows how to turn wild ideas into reality quite like bestselling author and Thinkers50 globally ranked thought leader Nilofer Merchant. Her now-famous TED talk, in which she declared that “sitting is the new smoking”, is in the top 10pc of the organisation’s most-viewed talks.

Lately, Merchant has turned her mind towards hot-button issues such as diversity, sexual harassment and conformity within the tech industry, and how all of these things are not only stressful on an individual level, but impeding innovation and depriving the world of some of the best ideas by driving away talent and denying opportunities to people who deserve them.

Luke O’Neill

Prof Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry, Trinity College Dublin. Image: The Royal Society/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Prof Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry, Trinity College Dublin. Image: The Royal Society/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

There likely isn’t a scientist in Ireland who doesn’t know Prof Luke O’Neill – and he’s no stranger to the rest of the world, either. O’Neill is ranked in the top 1pc of most-cited researchers in their respective fields by Clarivate Analytics.

For O’Neill, that field is immunology and inflammation, in which he is leading research at Trinity College Dublin. Widely published and widely cited, O’Neill’s work has influenced lab work, start-ups, industry collaborations, patents and licences. He was instrumental in the formation of two university spin-outs – Inflazome and Opsona – and his work seeks to develop new drugs for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and rheumatoid arthritis.

Lisa Svensson

Dr Lisa Svensson pictured at the Ocean Conference, UN headquarters, New York, June 2017. Image: IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon

Dr Lisa Svensson pictured at the Ocean Conference, UN headquarters, New York, June 2017. Image: IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon

As global director of the UN Environment ocean and marine programme, Dr Lisa Svensson is starting a critical conversation with industry about its responsibility to address an urgent environmental concern.

This year, the UN declared war on ocean plastic, and that battle will continue as millions of tonnes of plastic leak into these waters each year. Being pragmatic, Svensson believes that change must come from governmental and private-sector action. “We need to change the way our business models work … We need a coalition of leading countries, businesses, individuals, foundations and media actors to get this massive movement going,” she said at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi.

Ida Tin

Ida Tin, Founder of Clue

Ida Tin, founder of Clue. Image: Clue

Clue founder and CEO Ida Tin has had her struggle pitching a period-tracking app to rooms full of men but, thankfully, millions of users came aboard to prove her product’s worth and secure the firm tens of millions in investment.

‘Data’s fantastic – it’s when we misuse it, it becomes problematic’

Clue is a smart, progressive, science-focused app, with a leader to match. Tin has addressed the necessary steps needed to make the app relatable to all its users – which includes women of all stripes as well as transgender men – and she’s quick to assure responsible use of the intimate data her service is collecting. “Data’s fantastic – it’s when we misuse it, it becomes problematic. So, let’s build good, ethical, solid data companies,” she told TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin earlier this year.

Zeynep Tufekci

Zeynep Tufekci. Image: Bengt Oberger/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Zeynep Tufekci. Image: Bengt Oberger/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Following a very well-received book release in 2017 (The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada named it his “most enlightening” read of the year), sci-tech audiences would do well to pay attention to Zeynep Tufekci’s writings, be they in print, on Twitter or the Opinion pages of The New York Times.

‘We are Facebook’s product. Our attention and eyeballs are sold to the highest bidders, whatever they may be peddling’

The self-declared ‘techno-sociologist’ is known to dive deep into the social implications of emerging technologies. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest tracks her journey into 21st-century protests around the world, galvanised rapidly through social media and losing momentum just as fast. Hers is a critical voice amid the growing interrogation the influence of social media has on society.

Naomi Wu

Chinese Maker Naomi Wu (AKA SexyCyborg) configures a Raspberry Pi 2. Image: Naomi Wu/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Chinese Maker Naomi Wu (AKA SexyCyborg) configures a Raspberry Pi 2. Image: Naomi Wu/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Arguably, ‘SexyCyborg’ Naomi Wu has had to work harder than most to prove her prominence in the maker community because she is so often misjudged by those in it. When Dale Dougherty – founder of Make magazine and creator of Maker Faire – tried to paint her as a fraud, Wu had to fight hard for her reputation. And she won.

Dougherty made a comprehensive apology for damaging Wu’s credibility and has invited her to advise on events in China, where she is based. This gives Wu the chance to deliver on what she was calling for all along: mutual respect for women and other minorities in the maker movement.