Martin Westerman: Thoughts on the Annual Meeting…and the Future

At the WCTA Annual Meeting, the two university presidents hinted at intriguing ideas that they didn’t develop:

  1. Research:  realigning university research toward outcome-based work that results in commercialization may dangerously narrow the academic purposes of the universities, and work against future, out of the box innovation.  Most of the academic appeal for researchers is the ability to sequester and noodle ideas that may not come to fruition for decades, if ever (e.g., fusion power, economic policies, genome mapping, climate change, or daVinci’s 1400s helicopter idea, not commercialized until the 1900s).
  2. In the great economic trajectory President Young described from agricultural to industrial to post-industrial to service to knowledge, money has been an object of obsessive hoarding, which truncates opportunities by enabling those who control most of it to block innovation they dislike with the excuse, “We can’t afford that.”  Yet, when we want to do something, such as win a war or build interstate highways, we ignore the money aspect and get the job done.  Often, the government prints money for the purpose.  How would a society without money look?  What if we freed ourselves of the fetters of that obsessive hoarding?
  3. The problem with the knowledge economy is that it leaves the vast numbers of moderate- and low-intelligence people, the computer-illiterate, and the non-academic out in the cold.  These people used to do manual labor, basic trades and moderately complex work that has disappeared through automation and other forms of procedure and process streamlining.  These people don’t go away; their numbers grow, they’re earning less, and they’re populating the cheaper land suburbs and low-income housing as the younger and wealthier people move back to urban areas.  How to we plan for them, use their energy, avoid internecine and class conflicts that may be on the horizon?
  4. The elephant in the room:  Everything the panelists and sponsors offer and describe is aimed at keeping life the same in the clean tech future as it is in the inefficient present.  Yet, life is already different:  The planet’s systems have changed; we’re hitting limits and we can’t consume in the future as we do now.  It would be interesting to explore the landscape of where we’re really headed, and how it will really look, rather than what we want to envision and hope it will be.  Are there any futurists we  could tap, such as Jeremy Rifkin?