January 3, 2012
So Much Fun. So Irrelevant.
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Two things have struck me about the Republican presidential candidate debates leading up to the Iowa caucuses. One is how entertaining they were. The other is how disconnected they were from the biggest trends shaping the job market of the 21st century. What if the 2012 campaign were actually about the world in which we’re living and how we adapt to it? What would the candidates be talking about?
Surely at or near the top of that list would be the tightening merger between globalization and the latest information technology revolution. The I.T. revolution is giving individuals more and more cheap tools of innovation, collaboration and creativity — thanks to hand-held computers, social networks and “the cloud,” which stores powerful applications that anyone can download. And the globalization side of this revolution is integrating more and more of these empowered people into ecosystems, where they can innovate and manufacture more products and services that make people’s lives more healthy, educated, entertained, productive and comfortable.
The best of these ecosystems will be cities and towns that combine a university, an educated populace, a dynamic business community and the fastest broadband connections on earth. These will be the job factories of the future. The countries that thrive will be those that build more of these towns that make possible “high-performance knowledge exchange and generation,” explains Blair Levin, who runs the Aspen Institute’s Gig.U project, a consortium of 37 university communities working to promote private investment in next-generation ecosystems.
Historians have noted that economic clusters always required access to abundant strategic inputs for success, says Levin. In the 1800s, it was access to abundant flowing water and raw materials. In the 1900s, it was access to abundant electricity and transportation. In the 2000s, he said, “it will be access to abundant bandwidth and abundant human intellectual capital,” — places like Silicon Valley, Austin, Boulder, Cambridge and Ann Arbor.
But we need many more of these. As the world gets wired together through the Web and social networks, and as more and more sensors run machines that are talking to other machines across the Internet, we are witnessing the emergence of “Big Data.” These are the mountains of data coming out of all these digital interactions, which can then be collected, sifted, mined and analyzed — like raw materials of old — to provide the raw material for new inventions in health care, education, manufacturing and retailing.
“We’re all aware of the approximately two billion people now on the Internet — in every part of the planet, thanks to the explosion of mobile technology,” I.B.M.’s chairman, Samuel Palmisano, said in a speech last September. “But there are also upward of a trillion interconnected and intelligent objects and organisms — what some call the Internet of Things. All of this is generating vast stores of information. It is estimated that there will be 44 times as much data and content coming over the next decade ...reaching 35 zettabytes in 2020. A zettabyte is a 1 followed by 21 zeros. And thanks to advanced computation and analytics, we can now make sense of that data in something like real time.”
The more information and trends you are able to mine and analyze, and the more talented human capital, bandwidth and computing power you apply to that data, the more innovation you’ll get.
When eight doctors from around the world can look at the same M.R.I. in real time, said Levin, it enables the acceleration of small breakthroughs, which is where big breakthroughs eventually come from. Big bandwidth, he added, would enable these same doctors doing high-risk surgery to practice the life-saving procedures in advance over network-enabled simulators, leading to better results, new kinds of surgical innovations and new forms of medical education. Big bandwidth, combined with 3-D printers, would also allow for the rapid prototyping of all kinds of manufactured products that can then be made anywhere.
Right now, though, notes Levin, America is focused too much on getting “average” bandwidth to the last 5 percent of the country in rural areas, rather than getting “ultra-high-speed” bandwidth to the top 5 percent, in university towns, who will invent the future. By the end of 2012, he adds, South Korea intends to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second. “That would be a tenfold increase from the already blazing national standard, and more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the United States,” The Times reported last February.
Therefore, the critical questions for America today have to be how we deploy more ultra-high-speed networks and applications in university towns to invent more high-value-added services and manufactured goods and how we educate more workers to do these jobs — the only way we can maintain a middle class.
I just don’t remember any candidate being asked in those really entertaining G.O.P. debates: “How do you think smart cities can become the job engines of the future, and what is your plan to ensure that America has a strategic bandwidth advantage?”