December 13, 2012

The Economist looks ahead at ‘World in 2013’ festival

Posted by: in North America

“Predictions are necessarily bullshit,” Jeff Jarvis, author of Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, told a packed audience at the NYU Skirball Center for Performing Arts last Saturday. Despite the bold declaration, a parade of experts across sectors ranging from economics, energy and technology to food, music and the arts shared ideas about the year ahead at The Economist’s The World in 2013 festival.

China was a big topic, with speakers noting its slowing growth. NYU economics professor William Easterly predicted an end to the “authoritarian growth miracle,” pointing to China’s government as a major impediment to lasting progress. “If leadership only allows fawning over the leadership, the flaw is that you have no feedback, and you need feedback to autocorrect,” he said. “You need an honest, open debate in society to continue the growth miracle.”

Economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World, said she doesn’t expect the same type of hard landing that Easterly envisions and disagreed that “political structures are a prerequisite for economic growth.” She also expressed bullishness about the “frontier markets”—high-growth markets outside the BRICs like Kenya, Nigeria, Argentina, Vietnam, Egypt and Ukraine—pointing to their young labor forces, urbanization and lack of exposure to the developed markets. “The delineation between the BRICs and the frontier markets is how much exposure they have to the developed markets. … The real engine of growth in these markets isn’t going to be trade, it’s going to be domestic demand.”In a panel with Jarvis on the future of social media, musician Amanda Palmer, who funded her last album on Kickstarter, predicted that more people will begin to measure the human costs of constant connection.

Amanda Palmer plays the Ukelele

“There is this terror that our lives are being compromised by this constant connection,” she said. Before she concluded the session with her “Ukelele Anthem,” she also forecast a “move to a more Twitter-like atmosphere, where accountability and personality on the Internet will demolish the age of the troll.”

In terms of food, chef Dan Barber, co-owner of Blue Hill and other restaurants, projected that, “We’re going to have a fundamentally different food system, one that’s more regional and more local. … We’re going to have to change our diets. And because of that, it’s going to be infinitely more delicious.” The current industrialized food system—built on cheap fossil fuels, abundant water and a predictive climate—is broken, he said, and will be replaced by one that is more diverse and will require us to cook more.

Another category touched on was health care. Daniel Kraft, executive director at FutureMed, forecast a rise in genomics, digitization of health data, better imaging, telenostics, neurotechnologies, 3D printing of organs and the appification of checklists in the operating room. He championed the idea of moving from “health care that’s episodic and reactive to continuous and proactive,” as did Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings. “Incentives are slowly turning towards keeping people healthy,” said Dyson. She also spoke to the “quantified self” movement, in which the empowered consumer proactively monitors vital signs and physical data through smart wristbands and apps. She envisioned a day when employers provide these tools to make the workforce healthier.

As consumers generate more of this measurable data and data analysis becomes more cost efficient, organizations will increasingly be able to predict consumer behavior, needs or wants. This shift—which we refer to in our Predictive Personalization trend—was discussed by New York City chief digital officer Rachel Sterne Haot. She detailed how the city is applying predictive data analytics toward “preemptive government,” shaving off a minute from ambulance response times, for instance. For more on how predictive data analysis is saving lives and taxpayer dollars in NYC, go here.

Haot advocated sharing data across government agencies and with citizens, who then hack it and mash it up in innovative ways to provide consumer-friendly solutions. “Big data creates the potential where we’re able to achieve so much more together than alone,” she said.

“We’re shifting from data as a commodity to data as a resource,” said Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She forecast that new economic models will arise around data, as well as “debates around the monetization of data, particularly around ownership, privacy and security.”

The Big Data movement will be driven in part by the Internet of Things, or “smart objects.” While the Internet of Things exposes us to infinite possibilities, it also exposes us to vulnerabilities—a point hit home by Richard A. Clarke, author of Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It. When it comes to cyber war, or “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption,” Clarke painted a bleak picture. If Iran is bombed by the U.S. and Israel, it could retaliate by knocking out banking and electricity, he said. Clarke also cited U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta as saying that “we’re at a pre-9/11 moment” when it comes to cyber war.

Image credits: Ann Mack

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