Photo: wonderferret via flickr
Last month, I participated in the Wharton Global Alumni Forum in San Francisco, the fortieth such event held by the school and, ironically, the first ever held in the United States. Amid the discussions of Private Equity, Global Marketing, Customer Analytics and Investment Strategies, I listened to two Keynote Speakers who unknowingly connected two wires and illuminated a light bulb in my head.
Wharton Professor Jeremy Siegel, who once won the prize for being the best business school professor in the entire country, addressed a packed audience eager to hear about his investment advice. What struck me most about his talk was his discussion of the sources of long-term economic growth (Professor Siegel does not make short-term predictions). His conclusion, based on extensive research, is that the most important source of long-term economic growth is productivity. The primary sources of productivity, in turn, are discoveries, innovations and inventions.
So far, so good. Professor Siegel’s research also showed that the rate of discovery (and hence productivity and ultimately long-term economic growth) is strongly influenced by the number of individuals engaged in common research. Not surprisingly, the number of individuals engaged in common research depends on the level and ease of the communication they have with each other. One of the sources of the strength of the Wharton School (and other academic institutions) is that faculty members can walk down the hall and test hypotheses with their colleagues.
Professor Siegel is highly optimistic about the probability of long-term global economic growth because of the fluidity of global communication and the ease with which ideas and discoveries are exchanged, verified, amplified and increased. Now a professor can virtually walk down the hall of any academic institution in the world and test ideas with any professor. Since this ease of communication has multiplied exponentially only within the careers of the most recent generation of scholars, the impact of the new technologies is only in its infancy and the future benefits are also likely to multiply exponentially.
Another Keynote Speech at the Forum was delivered by Dr. J. Craig Venter, well-known for being the first to sequence the human genome and also for being the first to create life in the laboratory. These achievements, while considerable, for me mask the true genius of this scientist. Less well-publicised is his voyage by ship, tracking Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle.
Using more finely calibrated filtering devices and recently-developed analytic techniques, that were unavailable to Dr. Darwin, Dr. Venter discovered that the biodiversity of our oceans is vastly greater than previously assumed. This one voyage alone yielded an astounding discovery: he found evidence of life forms that multiplied by a factor of five the human awareness of the total number of different life forms on the planet.
He has also learned that our mouths contain over one thousand species of microorganisms. A drop of sea water contains over one million bacteria and 10 million viruses. The human body contains over two hundred trillion (200,000,000,000,000!) microbes. These are dizzying numbers by themselves, but the practical outcomes of his research are truly dazzling.
Today the production of vaccines requires incubation using chicken eggs. The process takes months, while humans stand by helplessly and pandemics potentially spread world-wide. Using methods of synthetic biology developed in Dr. Venter’s laboratory, with the collaboration of many scientists around the world, the incubation process can potentially be circumvented and new vaccines will probably be created in as short a time as 20-four hours. Potentially, public health officials will have the capacity to respond instantly to outbreaks of new strains of disease anywhere in the world. This is a game-changer on a whole new level.
Another research project taking place in Dr. Venter’s laboratory (and collaboratively with researchers in other countries) focuses on the creation of algae that contain sufficient lipids to be convertible into fuel. His hypothesis is that the petroleum era will not last for more than a decade longer. Whether or not he will be able to achieve this outcome, the idea is exciting beyond belief. Imagine a world that no longer had to depend on fossil fuels.
During his speech at the Wharton Forum, Dr. Venter displayed the abstract pages of many of the scientific papers written on the topics of genome sequencing and synthetic biology. In every case, there was a long list of the names of the scientists who had collaborated on the research. Dr. Venter’s name was usually last, not because of humility but because the names were listed in alphabetical order of family name in (or as transliterated into) English.
This is when the light bulb illuminated in my head. Dr. Venter is a genius without any doubt. But he cannot do all this by himself. His lab includes researchers from all over the world. He also described how research is now a 20-four hour a day phenomenon, with Chinese researchers picking up ideas just as Americans go to sleep, and then passing the results of their cogitation to the Europeans as they wake up, and so on endlessly. This brought me back to Professor Siegel’s conclusion, namely that long-term growth depends on productivity, which depends on discovery, which depends on communication.
If we extrapolate this hypothesis to the global economic arena, the possibilities are equally tantalising. What would happen if the nations and businesses of the world looked at economic development as a function of cooperation rather than competition, and used the existing and evolving communications tools to enhance productivity and hence to spread prosperity? What if we looked at economic development as baking a bigger pie instead of arguing about dividing up the existing pie?
I would argue that the future of peace and prosperity in the world will be more stable and widespread if we re-engineer our thinking about collaboration. Innovation, creativity and imagination will all be enhanced if we understand that breakthroughs and advances will benefit everybody. We need to step beyond antiquated notions of sovereignty and focus on the immense benefits of using new communications tools to enhance collaboration, which will then lead to productivity gains, followed by economic growth.
While it is true that most of us will not have the ability to analyse the long-term forces influencing the global economy with the same perception as Professor Siegel, or to create life in the laboratory with the same ease as Dr. Venter, we all have access to the communication networks that will allow us to draw on the knowledge and enthusiasm of others worldwide. We all have the tools, at trivial cost, to collaborate globally and to contribute to long-term economic growth.
Indeed, the Wharton Global Alumni Forum in San Francisco itself could not have taken place a generation ago. Drawing on over 50 speakers and more than 750 participants from 20-six countries, this Forum almost casually assembled a group that would have been impossible to identify, much less to convene so easily, a generation ago. Although the stock market dropped like a stone in a lake during the three days of the Forum, I came away tremendously optimistic about the prospects for long-term economic growth, global collaboration, and the future for all mankind.
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