Maybe — Unless you are practicing to fight disconnected; and, making your network dependent opponent — ‘deaf, dumb, and blind.’ RCP, fortunascorner.com
Digital Generals Are As Important As Military Generals (Because The U.S. Is Losing The Digital War)
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- June 20th, 2017
There are some economic realities that are inescapable. The very structure of the US economy has shifted dramatically in just fifteen years. Look at the list of the most valuable companies then and now. In 2001, GE, Microsoft, Exxon, Citigroup and Walmart were the top five US companies by market cap; but by 2016 the list was Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. During the same fifteen years, Internet growth increased from about 50% to over 90%, and the number of Americans accessing the Internet via high speed connections grew from less than 5% to over 75%. Growth has been consistent across age, race, education, income and gender. Online banking and retailing has exploded; digital content is everywhere in all forms, including especially music and video, and delivered by new exploding channels, such as augmented and virtual reality. When everything is tagged with a smart sensor (which will be sooner than we think), the “Internet of Things” will literally define how we live.
Obvious trends point to a digital economic future, as US politicians talk about 3% – 5% annual economic growth rates. Aside from the difficultly of increasing the growth rates of mature economies, there’s only one way to achieve 3% – 5% growth rates – and that path does not include re-opening coal mines or re-populating non-automated factories.
“Debates” about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education are – I’m sorry – ridiculous. What is there to debate? Without STEM citizens, cities, regions and partners, the US will fall behind global competitors that create wider and deeper STEM skills and competencies. Who’s already on the list?Business Insider, reporting on what the BBC describes as the findings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which ranks the US tied for 28th in science and mathematics: Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korean, Japan, Taiwan, Finland, Estonia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada are the world’s top ten STEM leaders.
There’s nothing profound about the obvious importance of the digital economy or the role that STEM and related education plays in digital readiness. What is profoundly disappointing is the US government’s failure to aggressively invest in its very economic future or to create an organic, physical and digital infrastructure that will support economic growth based on the expansion of the digital economy. As politicians know, talk is cheap. As most citizens understand, however, large, targeted investments pay dividends in the form of jobs, careers and global competitiveness. So what should the US do?
First, the US must increase STEM education and training funding at all levels. This is as clear a national moonshot as there is. “We’re #28!” is not an acceptable outcome. This should also be a national priority to avoid imbalances across the US which will arise if the states have control over their STEM investment strategies. Does the US want to encourage its citizens to leave states to find better STEM education and professional opportunities in other states? Does the US really want some states to economically benefit more than others from STEM investments?
Next, the US must invest much more in its communications and Internet infrastructures. The World Economic Forum has the US as #5 in information technology on its “networked readiness index” (Singapore, Finland, Sweden and Norway are #1 through #4). But more disturbing is the absence of the US from the top ten list of “most tech-savvy governments” – the same list that ranks Singapore, the UAE, Bahrain, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Estonia, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom higher than the US. These investments should also be top-down versus bottom-up to prevent pockets of digital and therefore economic inequality across the country, especially across urban versus rural areas.
The US should also slowly-but-surely “decommission” investments in declining industries. The trends are clear, right? The fossil fuel industry – that will be remain vital to the US economy for probably a couple of decades – will eventually contribute virtually nothing to US economic growth (not to mention health and environmental well-being). (Please let’s not debate this too!) When most if not all the recent growth in the energy sector has been in wind, batteries, fuel cells, storage and solar, where should new investments go? Massive technology investments in renewables is the obvious strategy here, especially if the US wants to lead these sectors. Fracked natural gas and nuclear power will provide the handoffs. Yes, this means that self-driving cars, smart sensors, energy networks and automation should consume the lion’s share of our energy, transportation and related technology dollars. Many manufacturing jobs will disappear over time to automation and other digital technologies, so investments should not focus on building new manual manufacturing plans (or re-opening old ones), but on the automated solutions that will enable global competitiveness, and on the re-education and retraining of displaced manufacturers (and others displaced by digital technology). If the US wants to lead (or even just compete) in the digital global marketplace, it must make the hard social, economic and political decisions it’s been reluctant to make. The very idea that old school manufacturing and mining jobs will return to the US is obviously as ridiculous as debates about the importance of STEM education, climate change or human evolution. Manufacturing and mining have already redefined themselves around automation, robotics and AI, among other enabling digital technologies. The US must become a leader in the development, application, optimization and sale of technologies that enable and power the digital economy. The US should become the store where the world shops for its digital consumer and industrial technology, especially renewable technology, one of largest economic opportunities for the US in decades (after the ongoing sales of weapons and munitions which is already a massive US industry). The US should also invest in the education, re-tooling, re-training and direct financial support of citizens displaced by these trends and the inevitable strategic digital positioning of the US. Sadly, this all gets very political very fast. Whenever money, power and careers are involved, there’s partisanship. Clearly, government-industry partnerships are better than government versus industry partnerships. Both forms of leadership are needed, but there needs to be clear accountability on both sides of the table. For example, if net neutrality is weakened (as it recently was), then the infrastructure investments industry argues it can make with less government regulation must be made, and if ISPs are permitted to collect browser data (which they recently were), what that data reveals about specific individuals who visit specific web sites should be regulated and not just sold to the highest bidder for whatever purposes the highest bidder has in mind. These should be trust-but-verify protocols.
Compromise is possible (if not naïve in the current political climate) if negotiating partners are good actors acting in good faith in the national interest. But today the US is way behind where it needs to be. It’s easy to list what should be done, like increased investments in STEM education, digital infrastructure, digital innovation and renewable energy – especially given where the US ranks in the world in these and related categories – but it’s much tougher to agree on the paths to success (though I hope not the objectives). Said a little differently, since digital economic readiness will be compromised by Americans with conflicting vested interests, decisions must be made about where those vested interests begin and end, and they should be made with specific reference to global rankings in digital readiness and the long-term global competitiveness of the US.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget, however, “calls for a $9.2 billion, or 13.5 percent, spending cut to education. The cuts would be spread across K-12 and aid to higher education, according to documents released by the White House,” as reported by NPR.
The US Department of Education reported the following (which is now “archived” information with lots of dead links to previous programs and funding proposals): “The United States has developed as a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers, and innovators. In a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, where success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know, it’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information. These are the types of skills that students learn by studying science, technology, engineering, and math – subjects collectively known as STEM. Yet today, few American students pursue expertise in STEM fields – and we have an inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects.”
It should be obvious that the only way the US remains competitive is through a long, wide and deep commitment to digital technology and the STEM education and training that enables it. We can let our entrepreneurial “stars” try to do this – as we’re largely doing now – or we can help them with a series of national digital moonshots. If we need a rallying cry, how about “We’re (tied for) #28!”?