Wire Up, or Miss Out on Tomorrow’s Jobs

Thomas L. Friedman | January 05, 2012
The Jakarta Globe

Two things 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 IT 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, Levin says. 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 says, “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,” IBM chairman Samuel Palmisano said in a speech in 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 MRI 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 to the Internet at one gigabit per second. “That would be a 10-fold increase from the already blazing national standard, and more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the United States,” The New York Times reported in 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 don’t remember any candidate being asked in those entertaining GOP 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?”

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 1:09 am

    ///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.///

    If ultra-high-speed networks and applications in university towns of America maintain a middle class, wouldn’t the ultra-LOW-speed networks and applications in Malaysia maintain only a working class?

  2. #2 by trublumsian on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 5:13 am

    Republicans generally want smaller government and traditionally they’re hands off on the tech front. In fact private industries do much better on innovation w/o big brother’s interference. It should remain that way. Yes, America is slow in building bandwidth and the false start in optical channels underground a few years ago is an example. It requires infrastructure upheaval and the government has no appetite for it. America’s huge infrastructure built in the last 2 centuries was the wow of the world but is now the ten ton drag that’s holding back any easy overhauling. Less developed countries merely have to make the jump from smoke signals to wireless.

    Wired technology is also taking a back seat as the industry scramble to out muscle each other on the mobile front. That’s where all the rage is.

  3. #3 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 7:03 am

    Some time ago, I read a book on Microsoft R&D development in China. An incident related to the question asked by Bill Gates [?] on “How on earth did the Minister of Technology of China kept asking question on nanotechnology?”. His CHina Rep asked if he remembered meeting the President of Zechiang [?] University some time back? Indeed he remembered! The Minister, though not a member of the CPC was given the post for his technical competency! Indeed USA would be in trouble, looking at the direction they are going! As Lau Lee likes to say, their top 5% are as good as any from the rest of the world but their high school graduates are good to flip only Big Macs! Can we see it? or even feel it here? Indeed China is producing more than 10 times the techical graduates than US today! Back to earth, if we don’t change, then we will be caught even in within the ASEAN region!

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