Sun, Jan 08, 2012 - Page 9 News List

White House hopefuls ignore digital economy

Lost in the Republican debates has been the need to foster innovation with ultra-connected technology clusters

By Thomas Friedman  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Two things have struck me about the Republican US 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 campaign were actually about the world in which we are 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 information-technology revolution is giving individuals an increasing number of 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,” says 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 said 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 said, “it will be access to abundant bandwidth and abundant human intellectual capital,” he says — places like Silicon Valley, Austin, Boulder, Cambridge and Ann Arbor.

However, 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 healthcare, education, manufacturing and retailing.

“We’re all aware of the approximately 2 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 will get.

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