The Industries of the Future
THE WRONG SIDE OF GLOBALIZATION
It’s 3:00 a.m., and I’m mopping up whisky-smelling puke after a country music concert in Charleston, West Virginia.
It’s the summer of 1991, just after my freshman year of college. While most of my friends from Northwestern University are off doing fancy internships at law firms, congressional offices, and investment banks in New York or Washington, I am one of six guys on the after-concert janitorial crew at the Charleston Civic Center, which seats 13,000 people.
Working the midnight shift is worse than jet lag. You have to decide if you want your work to be the beginning of your day or the end of your day. I would wake up at 10:00 p.m., eat “breakfast,” work from midnight to 8:00 a.m., and then go to bed around 3:00 p.m.
The other five guys on the crew were a tough bunch. They were good guys but beaten down. One carried a pint bottle of vodka in his back pocket, which was done by “lunch” at 3:00 a.m. A scraggly redhead from the hollows, the valleys that run between West Virginia’s hills, was sort of near my age. The others were in their 40s and 50s, at what should have been the peak of their wage-earning potential.
The way country music concerts work in West Virginia is people drink way too much. Our job was to clean up the result. The six of us canvassed the arena with enormous jugs of fluorescent-blue chemicals, which, when poured on the concrete floor, would just sizzle.
The last wave of innovation and globalization produced winners and losers. One group of winners were the investors, entrepreneurs, and high-skilled laborers that congregated around fast-growing markets and new inventions. Another class of winners were the more than 1 billion people who moved from poverty into the middle class in developing countries because their relatively low-cost labor was an advantage once their countries opened up and became part of a global economy. The losers were people who lived in high-cost labor markets like the United States and Europe whose skills could not keep up with the pace of technological change and globalizing markets. The guys I mopped with on the midnight shift were the losers in large part because the job they could have gotten in a coal mine years before had been replaced by a machine, and whatever job they could have gotten in a factory from the 1940s to the 1980s had moved to Mexico or India. For these men, being a midnight janitor was just not the summer job it was to me; it was one of the only options left.
Growing up, I thought that life in West Virginia was representative of life everywhere. You were doing your best to manage a slow descent. But the phenomenon I was witnessing in West Virginia really made sense to me only as I traveled the world and saw other regions rising as West Virginia was falling.
Twenty years after pushing a mop on the midnight shift, I’ve now seen the world and been exposed to the highest levels of leadership in the biggest technology companies and governments around the world. I’ve served as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation, a position she created for me just as she became known as Madame Secretary. Before going to work for Clinton, I served as the convener for technology and media policy on the Obama campaign that beat her in the 2008 presidential primary and had spent eight years helping run a successful, technology-based social venture that I cofounded. My job at the State Department was to modernize the practice of diplomacy and bring new tools and approaches to addressing foreign policy challenges. Clinton recruited me to bring a little innovation mojo to the tradition-bound State Department. We had a lot of success, and at the time that she and I left in 2013, we were ranked as having the most innovation-friendly culture of any cabinet-level department in the federal government. We developed successful programs to address nasty challenges in places as varied as the Congo, Haiti, and the cartel-controlled border towns in northern Mexico. In the background of all this was the role I played building a bridge between America’s innovators and America’s diplomatic agenda.
In this time, I spent much of my life on the road. I saw a lot of the world before and after my time in government, but the 1,435 days I spent working for Hillary Clinton gave me a particularly intense, close-up view of the forces shaping the world. I traveled to dozens and dozens of countries, logging more than half a million miles, the equivalent of a round trip to the moon with a side trip to Australia.
I saw next-generation robotics in South Korea, banking tools being developed in parts of Africa where there were no banks, laser technology used to increase agricultural yields in New Zealand, and university students in Ukraine turning sign language into the spoken word.
I have had the chance to see many of the technologies that await us in the coming years, but I still often think back to that stint as a midnight janitor and the men I met there. The time I spent gaining a global perspective on the forces shaping our world helped me understand exactly why life had grown so rough in my home in the hills and why life was getting so much better for most of the rest of the world.
The world in which I grew up, the old industrial economy, was radically transformed by the last wave of innovation. The story is by now well worn: technology, automation, globalization.
While I was in college in the early 1990s, the process of globalization accelerated further, bringing to an end many of the political and economic systems that defined yesterday’s economies. The Soviet Union and its satellite states failed. India began a series of economic reforms to liberalize its economy, eventually bringing more than a billion people onto the global economic playing field. China reversed its economic model, creating a new form of hybrid capitalism and pulling more than half a billion people out of poverty.
The European Union was created. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, integrating the United States, Canada, and Mexico into what is now the world’s largest free trade zone. Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa.
While I was in college, the world was also newly coming online. The World Wide Web was launched to the public, along with the web browser, the search engine, and e-commerce. Amazon was incorporated while I was driving to a training site for my first job out of college.
At the time, these political and technological shifts did not seem as important to me as they do now, but the changes that took place while I was growing up in West Virginia and that accelerated with the rise of the Internet have made the lives we lived even just 20 years ago seem like distant history.
Those people in my hometown with worse job security than their parents are still living a better life when you measure it up against what their money can buy today that it could not decades ago, including more and better communications and entertainment, healthier food, and safer cars and medical advances that keep them alive longer. Yet they’ve been through a raft of changes, both positive and negative. And all this change will pale in comparison to what is going to come in the next wave of innovation as it hits all 196 countries on the planet.
The coming era of globalization will unleash a wave of technological, economic, and sociological change as consequential as the changes that shook my hometown in the 20th century and the changes brought on by the Internet and digitization as I was leaving college 20 years ago.
In business areas as far afield as life sciences, finance, warfare, and agriculture, if you can imagine an advance, somebody is already working on how to develop and commercialize it.
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