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Ahead of CES, the annual bellwether event for technology and consumer electronics, we sat down with Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), to discuss the organization’s evolution during his 40-plus year tenure, CES’ transformation into a truly global event, and how the show pushes to solve the world’s problems.

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Jason Dressel: Mr. Gary Shapiro, welcome to “History Factory Plugged In,” and Happy New Year! Thanks for joining us.

Gary Shapiro: Thank you. I’m honored to be on your show.

JD: Let’s start with CES ’23. I can’t believe we’re saying 2023, but what are you excited about? And how is this year’s show a little bit different than past ones?

GS: CES 2023 is unquestionably a comeback show. We had a 2022 event in the midst of Omicron, and this event is, by almost every measure, a huge amount bigger in terms of the footprint. We’re looking, as of today, at about 2,500 companies and 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space. When I say 2,500 companies, that’s 2,500 companies exhibiting. We’ll have a lot more than that. The goal is 100,000 people coming, one-third of those from around the world. We have most of the Fortune 500 companies exhibiting.

It’s global. It’s focused on innovation. And it crosses several industries, from artificial intelligence to broadcast and content creation to robotics, to transportation, to healthcare technology. There’s a lot of cross-pollination, which is super important in innovation today, because no company could do everything alone, and they’re inspired by what other companies are doing. A lot of it is about deal-cutting and partnerships and strategy going forward.

 It’s making the world safer and better. In fact, we’ve teamed up with the United Nations and the World Academy of Science to push the concept that every human being has securities that are rights, whether it’s the right to health care, a right to clean air or right to clean water, a right to food and a right to security in terms of their community, a right to mobility—things like that, which all kind of combined very nicely. And that’s the theme of the show, overlaid by the theme of sustainability for the world, and a lot of the solutions to the world’s problems will be shown at CES.

JD: Technology now is just fully embedded in every industry, and you’re bringing together so many different types of industries and companies all around the world under a big tent. How do you see the role of CES and the Consumer Technology Association more broadly in terms of being a catalyst for all these industries and companies, and what opportunities or challenges might you see in that?

 GS: The Consumer Technology Association is a nonprofit trade association representing American companies only, and we define American as U.S. and Canadian companies. What we do—we have a very simple focus, and that is to promote the concept of innovation, to solve world problems. And so everything stems from that, including why we have events. And one thing we’ve learned from COVID is that as much as I am the chief cheerleader for the use of technologies like the one we’re using today to have this discussion and allow work from home and everything else, the truth is that we need to see and physically be with each other to establish relationships, to move the world forward, whether it’s innovation or anything else.

JD: How does the organization go about identifying emerging technologies, and what kind of criteria is applied to determine what industries are sectors you lean into?

GS: I’m not a big fan of strategic planning. I am a big fan of setting some big goals into the future. Every couple of years, our top people get together, and we look at the landscape, and we come up with a two-page document about where we want to be in five years. Now, reviewing the one we did pre-COVID, which is kind of a joke now because it really flipped everything up for three years now—but on the other hand, we did identify the areas we wanted to be in, and some of them kind of filtered out to nothingness. But others were big areas. We have identified healthcare technology for at least 10 years now as the area we want to be in. And in certain other areas, it’s just become a little less important—like five years ago it was all about car sharing, house sharing, things like that and Uber and Lyft and Airbnb. So it’s saying, we know where it’s going in technology now. And we’ve identified that. And what we do is we’re very opportunistic.

When I first took the job, we had fewer than 100 companies that were focused on just a couple of areas. And I insisted we be allowed to grow, and now we have 1,500 members and we’ve grown into the most important global business innovation event—certainly the largest by almost every measure. But it didn’t happen just because it happened. We envisioned the future, and one of the important things we envisioned was not necessarily the categories that we’re going to grow but the fact that businesses in different industries would need each other and need a place and a board, a forum, to do that and where they could get together. Because you can’t succeed in business now unless you cross different industries, and no one has all the expertise; not even Apple has that. And that’s why they have strategic partnerships and they buy companies and things like that. And we decided we would be the forum for that to occur, and we would do it in a way which was cost effective and allowed all sorts of new ideas to surface.

JD: Stepping back again and thinking historically about the context of the growth of CES, which has become really a household name that’s synonymous with innovation and consumer technologies, when did you see that reputation really begin to take hold?

GS: Well, CES is definitely a global brand. It’s not the Consumer Electronics Show, because it’s so way beyond that. Business products are not just about electronics. It’s about all sorts of technology, and we’ve worked towards that goal. One of the things we did, it was extremely effective—that a marketing person suggested. I said, “Why not?” Because we changed the name of the show about 20, 25 years ago to cover the International Consumer Electronics Show. At that point, we put up flags in different countries. We had translations globally, and that worked remarkably. Now, one out of three people that come to see us are from outside of the United States, and it’s a global event. And global leaders speak—global leaders of companies and governments come, suddenly.

Us becoming a global brand, it was a long strategy over time that kept iterating, and it went from how we positioned our keen owners and who we chose and required they be global corporate leaders to how we literally went around the world and have events in France and now Amsterdam. And we’ve had them in Sweden and Japan and even China for several years.

So it was a strategy of multiple strategies. But we realized what the world was heading toward—relationships between industries—and we positioned the show that way, where you had to be there if you were focused on growing your company. Innovation is our brand. It’s who we are, is what we live and breathe.

It is a future-focused institution. The focus is on the next generation and how they’ll do it and what they’ll inherit from us. Because I think the role of every generation is to leave the next generation with a better world, and in many ways we have failed generationally; in some ways we’ve succeeded. But I think through innovation and through what we see at CES and other events in other business meetings, you will be able to see where we’re going, potentially, if we don’t mess it up. And where we’re going is a much better world, and I believe in that passionately. That’s what gets me coming to work every day—is the fact that we have an opportunity to change the world by the actions we take, whether it’s creating an event where people can and should meet each other and be stimulated to create new ideas or use advancing policies which will help innovation.

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