Futurists, Executives Talk Innovation At 30th Emerging Issues Forum

By John Murawski
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)


Technological change is rapidly bringing about a hyperefficient society where entrepreneurs will enjoy maximum freedom to shape the world, a popular futurist told more than 1,000 people in Raleigh at a two-day conference focusing on innovation.

The Emerging Issues Forum, attended by the state’s business and political leaders at the Raleigh Convention Center, was largely a celebration of the seismic changes underway, featuring testimonials and remarks from local startup founders, technology executives and policy wonks.

Speakers gave an occasional nod to the dark side of technological disruptions — such as terrorist networks, security breaches and chronic unemployment for people replaced by robots or cheap foreign labor. For the most part, however, technology boosters struck a triumphalist tone about the societal boon of Big Data and the Internet of Things.

“We have the first generation to grow up digital and these kids are different,” said futurist and author Don Tapscott. “Youth are the authority on something really important.”

The Emerging Issues Forum, now in its 30th year, brings together thought leaders to discuss timely developments in economics, business and social policy. Previous sessions were dedicated to health care, alternative energy, high-tech manufacturing, teacher recruitment and Generation Z.

The first forum, in 1986, was dedicated to the challenges of innovation and competition, and this year’s confab revisits those perennial concerns.

If there was a sour note, it was that state and federal governments aren’t doing enough to promote technology, particularly in North Carolina. Several speakers lamented that school systems are not producing enough graduates in science and technology, a recurring motif among technology advocates.

Jim Goodnight, CEO and co-founder of Cary data analytics company SAS, said one solution to is to pay higher wages to attract and retain teachers in the STEM fields, a reference to science, technology, engineering and math.

“So many of them can go out to industry and get a better paying job,” Goodnight said.

Goodnight also said that universities need to raise STEM graduation rates by 10 percent to keep up with foreign competition and market demand.

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, warned that the United States is losing its edge because of cuts in federal and state investment in research and development. He noted that the Internet, GPS and search engines were developed with federal research funding.

“The government does pick winners,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson said North Carolina would be receiving $4 billion more in federal grants today if U.S. agencies invested at 1960s levels. He said technological and scientific research is too complex to be sustained by private industry alone.

He also said North Carolina is in the middle of the pack, as ranked by his organization’s economic measures, despite highly competitive economies in the Triangle and Charlotte. He advocated for more generous R&D tax credits, raising the benefit from the current 14 percent to as much as 35 percent.

John Allison, president and CEO of the Cato Institute, countered that innovation is best served by removing the government from the equation.

As an example of government inefficiency, Allison cited the Food and Drug Administration, the federal regulatory agency that holds up medications because of safety concerns. This FDA’s focus on safety, and zero tolerance for patient fatalities, drives up the cost of medications for everyone, he said.

He said the FDA’s quest for safer and more effective drugs runs counter to the dictates of the free market, which doesn’t necessarily favor quality over cost.

“What is better?” Allison asked. “In terms of reliability, early cell phones were worse than landlines. Huge innovations can be simply cheaper, but they’re not necessarily as good.”

Tapscott, the futurist, said that some of the biggest changes ahead are already shaking up the education field. He characterized the professorial lecture as a relic from the 15th century and offered a personal testimonial about how effectively he learned statistics studying solo.

In the future university, he predicted, professors will facilitate debates and discussions instead of wasting time on lectures.

“This is the silliest form of pedagogy,” he said.

He also raved about Joe, a Rhodes Scholar whom Tapscott met in 2008. Joe had a 4.0 GPA and confessed that he didn’t read books.

Joe didn’t mean he read tablets instead of printed books — he meant that he did not read a book in its entirety, preferring to scan for information and opting for digital materials.

Tapscott cited Joe’s rejection of an archaic technology as an inspiration to embrace the future.

“It’s time to wake up,” Tapscott said.

After lionizing Joe, Tapscott, who has authored multiple books, was available for a book signing.

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