Preparing to Live in That Unknown Country: The Future

The recent New York Ideas 2013 conference, sponsored by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic Magazine, brought together about 600 New York and national thought leaders.

Among the many participants were people such as: Robert K. Steel (NYC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development), John Borthwick (Founder and CEO, Betaworks), Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman, Google), Alexa Von Tobel (Founder and CEO, Learnvest), and Katherine Oliver (Commissioner NYC Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting). The discussions were excellent, but mainly around technologies, policies and business innovations that shaped the past five years, and might shape the next three to five years.

In the 1950s, Detroit’s population peaked at around two million; by 2010, its population had declined to 700,000. Detroit became a byword for urban collapse, because it failed to respond to the latter 20th century’s changes (primarily the long-term implosion of America’s auto industry). Its citizens paid a heavy price. With Detroit’s example in mind, it’s worth asking what changes the 21st Century might bring, and how they might impact the global, U.S. and NYC economies.

Below are some themes that I believe might shape the next 50 years, and need to be addressed. With each, consider what new product opportunities (if any) might be created, the challenges and opportunities for the global and U.S. economies/political systems, and the implications for entrepreneurs.

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Peter Thiel . Zipcar, Warby Parker, and other recent successful start-ups are great companies, and will earn well-deserved fortunes for their founders. But none of these companies, singly or collectively, will have as much impact on civilization as the invention of penicillin. Have we entered a period of reduced productivity growth, as Robert Gordon (“Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?“, NBER 2012) and others suggest?

Are Google’s driverless car and Siri just the beginning for applied machine intelligence/Big Data? Automated trucks, for example, could eliminate millions of jobs. Will this type of automation be good or bad — economically and socially? How will it transform society?

Many projections have China’s GDP surpassing the U.S. in the 21st century. New York City became the world’s business center because, in the early 20th century, America became the world’s largest economy. As the U.S. becomes the world’s largest regional market, and China becomes the world’s largest market, how will America and NYC adapt?

The U.S. population is aging. Between now and the mid-21st Century, the number of Americans over 65 will double; by 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65. Is mid-late 60s retirement really appropriate anymore? What kinds of new non-medical products and services will be developed to serve an aging boomer population? Given America’s current health care system (which costs 18 percent of GDP), how can it afford this demographic transition?

When the media industry stabilizes, what will it look like? Will feature films, news and music be crowd-sourced? Will all the global/national brands (e.g., New York Times) be gone, and the survivors be smaller, nimbler participants with extensive use of User Generated Content? Or will the future have a few giant global participants (e.g., Google, Facebook, Amazon), the collapse of the middle, and a forest of small niche players?

If anthropogenic climate change is real and nothing is done, disastrous occurrences like Hurricane Sandy will become commonplace. Will America’s coastal cities start to shrink, in population and importance?

Over the last two generations, the gap between the top 1/3rd (particularly the 1 percent) and the bottom 1/3rd of America’s population has widened to a chasm. For example: In April 2013, the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 4 percent, but exceeded 11 percent for those with less than a high school education. Can America survive as two countries — one affluent and the other marginalized?

Is the rejection of secular humanism merely a short-term bubble or a long-term trend? Francis Fukuyama famously declared “The End of History”, and that Western liberal democracy had triumphed. Well, history’s returned with a vengeance. In parts of the developed world (and even more strikingly in emerging markets), we see sharp, sustained rejections of liberal democracy, market economics and secular humanism. What do these developments mean when world views, values and goals diverge so radically?

We may be on the threshold of a scientific revolution in human genomics, giving us (for better or worse) an incredible ability to shape our genetic inheritance. In what ways should we utilize these abilities? Who will decide how these capabilities will be developed? Will we use these new powers wisely? For more on this important topic, see the recently published book Regenesis.

Emergence of global ‘superbugs.’ Will decision-makers respond rapidly, and wisely, to potential pandemics? How will such events (and their aftermath) affect commerce, travel, individual rights, and other features of our economy and society, particularly in global cities, such as NYC?

What will be the next 9/11 event? Will it come from the Middle East, North Korea or a failed state? Will it be cyber warfare, nuclear, chemical, biological, or something else? Are we preparing sufficiently for the next generation of risk?

The list above is far from exhaustive, and some items are contradictory or ambiguous. I don’t claim to have answers (and, I’m not even sure these are the right topics). But discussing and debating topics of this type is the best way I know to prepare to live in the unknown country that is our future.

Steven Strauss is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Immediately prior to Harvard, he was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Steven was one of the NYC leads for Applied Sciences NYC (Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to build several new engineering and innovation centers in NYC), NYC BigApps and many other initiatives to foster job growth, innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2010, Steven was selected as a member of the Silicon Alley 100 in NYC. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University, and over 20 years’ private sector work experience. Geographically, Steven has worked in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter at: @Steven_Strauss

This piece is cross-posted from the Huffington Post with permission.

7 Responses to "Preparing to Live in That Unknown Country: The Future"

  1. JStC   May 13, 2013 at 10:33 am

    priority on the list….for all the unemployed….create an alternative way to live w/o money….

    • JStC   May 13, 2013 at 10:40 am

      the unemployed..at anytime since 2007…..i will repeat….must be absolved/amnestied of their debts and dues….call it…. financial crisis debts relief….

      • JStC   May 13, 2013 at 10:46 am

        there need to be new laws..updating old laws….that relieve the unemployed during financial crisis times……

        economic financial crisis times…….unemployed need laws that "protect" them………. until they secure a new job…….which means….heck of a lot better recruiting mechanisms than currently exist….

  2. JStC   May 13, 2013 at 10:37 am

    and….add to list…adult dependents…..underpaid/low wages…..also need an alternative way to live….parents can not uphold where the economy is failing….

  3. Pissoff   May 14, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Just wait for Bush 3 and Gulf War 3 and 9/11 two._They also need some color like Bobby Jingle (sp) of Mr dry mouth to show how they care for the little people.

  4. Dean   May 14, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    To JStC. I'm truly sorry that you are unemployed however I worked in the employment/unemployment business for nearly 30 years and I can tell you that "You" are the answer to your problem not the government or the American taxpayer. Start where you can and work each day. It will actuallyl feel good to you. Stop your belly-aching. Most of us have been where you are. Good luck.

  5. fred   May 15, 2013 at 5:19 am

    "Is mid-late 60s retirement really appropriate anymore?"
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/02/05/171008

    "The perception is that the baby boomers are very active — they are, you know, climbing up mountains, and they are a very healthy bunch," says King, a professor in the department of family medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. "We actually see people that are burdened with diabetes, hypertension, obesity, [and] who are taking an awful lot of medication."