‘Industries Of The Future’: Alec Ross Unveils The Winners by [email protected]
Alec Ross on ‘The Industries of the Future’
In Alec Ross’s new book, The Industries of the Future, he takes a deep dive into the specific fields he believes will shape our economic future, including robotics and the codification of just about everything. The book is based in part on his four years serving as senior advisor for Innovation to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as on his travels, which took him the equivalent of “25 circumferences of the globe.”
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: When you were coming up with the industries to highlight in the book, was it immediately obvious what would make sense to put in there? What was your process of deciding which ones to include or how to categorize what you were seeing into clear industry sectors?
Alec Ross: It was a long process, actually. My assistant totaled up my travel, and apparently over the last handful of years, I’ve traveled the equivalent of two roundtrips to the moon with a side trip to New Zealand. The process of identifying the eight to 10 specific industries that I profile in The Industries of the Future is a byproduct of that travel — 25 circumferences of the globe. Some of the ideas that I had going in didn’t stick. Then there were things like the commercialization of genomics, which I would not have necessarily intuited would be a trillion-dollar industry in the future, but by virtue of my research, it emerged.
[email protected]: One of the things I thought was really fascinating about the book is you see two different things at work here. You see emerging economies where they are developing industries from the ground up that are cutting-edge. You also see more developed economies where their economies were basically shaped on the innovations of the past, and they are having to retool. What were the lessons you took from each of those? Is it easier for one versus the other?
Alec Ross: The process of imagination that becomes innovation, which becomes commercialization, is fairly similar country to country. But the problem is that [some] countries have the wherewithal — the access to capital, the employee base — to take something from imagination to reality, and others don’t.
“Over the last handful of years, I’ve traveled the equivalent of two roundtrips to the moon with a side trip to New Zealand.”
In the most highly developed countries, you do have baked in a set of advantages that don’t exist in frontier markets or in developing economies. More often than not, it’s in the developed economies. It’s in places like Silicon Valley where they’re going to create entirely new platforms that billions of people will eventually use. Whereas in developing economies — at least to this point and it could change — it’s been the case that what I see is building a tool, building an application, developing that solves a very specific problem as opposed to building platforms that serves hundreds of millions of people.
[email protected]: So for those economies it’s more about whether they can take the tool and really develop an industry around that or an industry around that type of innovation?
Alec Ross: That’s exactly right. I think about mobile payments and how mobile payments emerged in Kenya. The reason why mobile payments emerged in Kenya was in part because there weren’t mainstream banks on Main Street in Nairobi. It was innovation born out of scarcity. But the interesting thing there is because it’s so good and because it appeals to consumers around the world, it’s something that can scale from developing economies into developed economies. So there are examples of that.
[email protected]: When you look at developed economies, for example, you talk a little bit in the book about your background growing up in West Virginia and about what happened to the community when coal became not a dominant industry anymore, when it moved overseas to other places. I lived in a place very similar to that in Indiana, which had been an industrial economy, and one of the things that I found interesting is that the government tried to pivot to something new, to what was coming next. But you have this pushback from the population that they want the jobs back that were there before. They want it to be the way it was before because that was very sustainable, it made a good life for generations of people. With developed economies, how did you see governments or people trying to get beyond that?
Alec Ross: One of the lessons of the past 40 years of globalization is that you can’t click your heels together, and say, “There’s no time like 1965.” It just doesn’t work…. That kind of regressive worldview when it becomes a regressive set of policies tends to lead to nowhere. One of the reasons why I wrote The Industries of the Future, was as a response to how poorly the state of West Virginia did respond to globalization and technology-driven innovation. [They] clung on to coal even as coal became automated.
This is where leadership is necessary. People cannot curl into the fetal position and wish for the prosperity of yesterday. It’s not the strongest of the species that survives or the most intelligent, but those most adaptable to change. That’s as true in most highly developed Western economies as it is anywhere.
[email protected]: In the book, you talk a little bit about how the people ask you, for example, “How does my community become Silicon Valley?” Your answer is they can’t — that you can’t be Silicon Valley because Silicon Valley had a special set of things that made it that way.
What you can do is take the deep knowledge in your own community and leverage that. You have a community like Detroit where their deep knowledge is in automobiles, and in some sense, that’s become antiquated…. How do you pivot an industry like that that’s very much based on the innovations of yesterday and focus them on some of these industries that you talk about in the book? Do you see economies that are doing that well?
“The process of imagination that becomes innovation, which becomes commercialization, is fairly similar country to country.”
Alec Ross: First, let’s go right back to Detroit…. In my opinion, the next generation of automobiles will be increasingly internet-connected, which will be driverless. [Detroit] ought to assert their own domain expertise in automotive so that they can be a part of that economy tomorrow.
Secondly, again sticking to Detroit, there are going to be emerging fields like drones. Marc Andreessen from the venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz suggested that Detroit become Drone Valley. If you take the industry out of it — the car industry — but think about what the skills were that made Detroit what it was for as long as it was, that can lend itself to a set of future-oriented industries. When I think about the Rust Belt more broadly, I think about deep domain expertise in manufacturing. Supply chains are growing more