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 (New York City 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, New York City 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 New York City 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?

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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 New York City 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 New York?

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.

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