“Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.” – Lyndon B. Johnson (address to the nation, Nov. 28, 1963)
In “As the Future Catches You” — a book that talks about how genomics and other things are changing the world — Juan Enriquez, director of the Life Sciences Project at Harvard University, predicts the following “future trends”:
1. The dominant language and “economic driver” of the 21st century is going to be the gene sequences of bacteria, insects, plants, animals, and humans. We have already done a good deal to figure out these codes. It’s only a matter of time till we’ll be able to rewrite them. A few years ago, digital code drove the Internet revolution (er, bubble?). The countries and companies that understood and took advantage of that change — including Finland, Singapore, and Taiwan — got wealthy in the process.
Example: The two nucleotide base pairs that code all life (A-T, C-G) have already led the smartest and largest companies — Monsanto, Dupont, Novartis, IBM, Hoechst, Compaq, GlaxoSmithKline — to declare that their future lies in life science.
Enriquez points out:
* There used to be one way of getting pregnant. Now there are 17.
* We have the technology to store frozen embryos for years and then bring them to life. That means children can be born decades or centuries after their parents die. The possibility exists today.
* As of January 31, 2001, it has been legal to clone embryos in Britain.
* As of February 12, 2001, anyone in the world with access to the Internet has been able to gain access to the whole human genome — the code of human life.
Enriquez’ bottom line: Anyone who doesn’t understand and capitalize on the genetic-code revolution will be left in the dust. Those who do will prosper.
2. The gap between rich and poor is going to widen. A lot. In 1750, someone working in the world’s richest country was about five times wealthier than someone working in the poorest one, because economic development depended primarily on agriculture. Today, the difference is 390 times greater. By 2012, that advantage will be up to a multiple of 1,000. In 1840, two great states, China and India, accounted for 40% of world trade. All this changed with the Industrial Revolution in 1850. Suddenly, one person’s labor could be multiplied 100 or 1,000 times because a machine was doing most of the work. Today, look at the difference in wealth as determined by how many minutes it takes an average person to work to buy a Big Mac:
* an American: 7 minutes
* a Canadian: 8 minutes
* a Spaniard: 11 minutes
* a Mexican: 60 minutes
* an Indian: 137 minutes
* a Brazilian: 215 minutes
Enriquez’ bottom line: Countries and companies that invest in science and technology will grow wealthier. Those that don’t will fall behind.
3. Education, particularly in science, will lead to extreme changes in relative wealth very quickly. The future belongs to small populations that build empires of the mind and ignore the temptation of, or do not have the option of, exploiting natural resources. In 1974, Mexicans were twice as productive as Taiwanese. Today, Taiwanese are four times more productive than Mexicans. The difference? Taiwan imposed university education on its people.
Enriquez’ conclusion: * The rules are different in a knowledge economy. It is a scary time for the establishment. Countries, regions, governments, and companies that are now dominant will soon lose their competitive advantage.
* The digital economy leverages the most powerful minds quickly. Small companies can generate a great deal of wealth very quickly, with ever fewer employees.
* Your ability to “understand and surf the waves of change” will determine how well you do economically this next decade, the next five years, and even the next few months.
* You have a choice: You can stand on the sidelines and assume that “fate will guide things through” or you can help yourself, your family, your company, and your country “navigate through this wondrous and scary adventure.”
MMF’s take on Enriquez’ predictions: I am quite sure the world is changing and have no doubt that computer technology and biology, including genomics, will be a big part of that change. I am also quite sure that those who will profit from these changes will be those who “understand and surf” them.
But here is where our thinking parts. For Enriquez, understanding this stuff seems to mean understanding the science — knowing something about DNA strands, Internet technology, and so on. I believe the kind of understanding you need is of another kind — the kind that can figure out how to apply these changes to do the same old thing: create and sell things of value.
Wealth has always gone to those who wake up early and work hard at creating and selling things of value (including ideas). That hasn’t changed in thousands of years, and it’s not likely to change in the future. Stick to your knitting. Early to bed. Early to Rise. Sell first. Ask questions later.
Or, put less sarcastically, don’t go back to school to brush up on biology. Take a course on copywriting instead (www.thewriterslife.com). And don’t pay too much attention to anything you hear from Harvard — except when it’s positively endorsed in ETR.