Alec Ross travelled the world while working as a Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and he is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. Alec is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Industries of the Future (Il nostro futuro in the Italian edition, 2016) in which he explores the technological and economic trends and developments that will shape the next ten years.
In your book you wrote “Land was the raw material of the agricultural age. Iron was the raw material of the industrial age. Data is the raw material of the information age”. What is the infrastructure of the information age?
Ports were the infrastructure of the 18th century. Rail was the infrastructure of the 19th century. Highways were the infrastructure of the 20th century. Broadband digital networks are the infrastructure of the 21st century. This is as true in fields like energy and transport as they are in communications. The electricity grids that will most efficiently fuel tomorrow’s world are IP-based networks. In transport, the world’s best transport systems – like what we see in Singapore and other east Asian countries – are enabled by digital networks. While most of the innovations that came with the 25 years of digitization from 1993 to 2018 mostly enabled changes in communications and information services, those that will be most impacted by digitization over the next 25 are in fields that we could consider “traditional” ranging from agriculture to mining to transportation.
Connectivity is made of hardware (physical infrastructure) and software: standards to let data flow and algorithms to turn data into useful information. Do you think that a distributed capitalism will guarantee interoperability between software providers? If a winner-takes-all emerges, who should regulate it?
First, I think we should endeavor to ensure that there is not a winner-takes-all marketplace. That is, if anything, against the tenets of capitalism which have competition and market entry as two of its most important foundations. As economic power concentrates, I think there should be a multi-stakeholder model to regulation and governance that comprises: government, the private sector, academia and civil society. In a perfect world, government would regulate but I think that what we see is that government lacks the understanding of technology. There are 535 members of the U.S. Congress and I would estimate that 90% of them are technologically illiterate. When I go to Brussels or most European capitals (with certain exceptions) that belief holds true. I think no one segment of society should establish the norms and governance of our technologies, it should draw from the skills and perspectives that exists across disciplines.
National sovereignty and protectionisms have become buzzwords in some developed economies. How can the political variable affect a necessary connectivity in the information age?
Protectionism is regressive and bad economics. The cry for more protectionism comes from those segments of society that failed to adapt to a more global world. The responsibility of government should not be to build walls between countries when we should be building bridges; it should be to ensure that people from every postal code in every city have access to the kind of education and opportunity it will take to compete and succeed in tomorrow’s economy. I have little patience for governments that want the clock to stop – for nothing to change. I’m sorry but if you are not willing to make politically difficult moves to do things like modernize education and workforce training then YOU are person responsible, not some other country. The countries that have had the political courage to make the bold, smart moves have done the best and those that will not reform because of the regressive tendencies of its existing institutions and stakeholders – these are the places with high youth unemployment and angry, ineffective politics.
Do the next ten years of innovation push us closer to the “end of history” as Francis Fukuyama described it, i.e. the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy?
I like Frank (Francis) Fukuyama, personally, he is a nice guy, but I bet he regrets writing about what he called the “end of history”. I do not think humankind will ever stop evolving ideologically and I think that humans are too diverse culturally to ever conform to a single political/economic frame such as Western liberal democracy. Having said that, I think that those people who are saying that Western liberal democracy is dead are fools. These are like the people in the 1950s, 60s and 70s who said democracy was dead and we would have a global system of communism. Wrong.