-Mark Drury, Senior Director
Pulitzer Prize winning author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman made his way to Nashville to promote his new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to the Future in An Age of Acceleration, and in a one-hour lecture jam-packed with research and profound ideas to ponder, tried to make the case that the accelerated pace of technological development is scary, but buried within are potential answers to many of the problems plaguing mankind.
Friedman has spent a lot of time thinking about the future and the polish of his remarks demonstrates he’d spent a lot of time rehearsing his speech (“he seems awfully full of himself,” said my 17-year old daughter who accompanied me. “You would be too if you wrote for the Times and had three Pulitzers” I replied). His remarks, however, gave his audience of supporters of Lipscomb University’s College of Leadership and Public Service much to think about.
Friedman begins looking at the future by talking about the recent past. To him, the year 2007 was one of the most profound inflection points in the history of human innovation. The iPhone was launched, Amazon introduced the Kindle, “big data” began to emerge with the launch of software programs like Hadoop. The only problem is, we didn’t notice it. Our attention was instead turned to the Great Recession of 2008, the biggest financial calamity to hit the U.S. since the Great Depression of 1929.
“If the same amount of innovation had been focused on my 1971 VW Beetle instead of on the capacity of computer microprocessors,” Friedman says. “The Beetle would be able to travel at 300,000 mph, use only a single gallon of gas during your lifetime and cost a measly 4 cents to purchase.”
Friedman’s theory is that our ability to adapt to rapid changes in markets, technology and climate will largely govern our ability to continue as successful coherent societies. The Internet has changed the world economy from interconnected to interdependent and that makes operating in the modern world much more challenging and difficult.
“Our country can deal with a rising China,” Friedman says. “But, a China that collapses would be catastrophic.”
As America grapples with a growing divide between haves and have-nots, a significant number of our countrymen are struggling with how to adapt to new requirements of a new labor market. Friedman believes a commitment to lifelong learning will now be the linchpin of the social contract between employer and worker. Acquiring new skills and adapting to new market demands are the only way to survive in a volatile economy. How America deals with those who can’t or won’t may become the most perplexing problem facing business leaders and policy makers. We’re now required to adapt to changes in technology or markets in 10 or 15 years that used to take generations to master.
Friedman argues our success as a nation will hinge on our ability to respond like nature, to be “highly adaptive” to the problems we face. “I don’t put Congress in the category of ‘highly adaptive’” Friedman says. He wasn’t joking.