The Industries of the Future: a book review

As a former Senior Advisor for Innovation to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State – a role that was specifically designed for him – innovation in all its forms and across the globe used to be Alec Ross’ bread and butter for several years. No wonder he’s turned this knowledge into his first book!

When he told me that The Industries of the Future was finally out I could sense relief blended with excitement in his message. So I got myself the book, curious to know which industries and which regions he would be focusing on.

Here’s my honest review of the book, together with a 6-page summary (with some memorable quotes) which you can look at too.

It’s all about the data, stupid!

The states and societies that do the most for women are those that will be best positioned to compete and succeed in the industries of the future. (p. 226)

Alec looks at several sectors which according to him – and the experts he’s interviewed for the book – will drive the largest economic growth and offer the most sought-after jobs in the next 10-20 years.

These are:

  • robotics;
  • genomics and other medical advances such as xenotransplantation, reversing the effects of age and bringing extinct species back to life;
  • mobile banking,
  • the sharing economy and cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin);
  • cybersecurity;
  • big data and big analytics, leading to innovations such as universal machine translation, precision agriculture and fintech; and
  • future market expansion, looking at the role of culture (open/closed), women, youth and the special case of Africa. 

For each of these sectors, Alec offers valuable data, stories and projections of what the business world would look like in 2020 to 2030, and the book is easy to read, despite some parts being quite technical. Thanks to his clear and precise writing I understand the concept of Bitcoin at last 🙂

What strikes me most in the book and his account of future industries is how much they rely on a world that is mobile and data-driven, with Internet access as a precondition for economic success. This is always a double-edged sword, and Alec warns us at the end of each chapter about the dangers of technology and data’s growing hold over our lives. With genomics comes the risk of eugenics, with the Internet of Things comes the risk of hacking of our daily appliances (imagine your fridge or toaster being hacked!), with big data and AI comes the risk of singularity – when machines become more intelligent than men; and so on.

Alec is globally positioning himself on the positive side of things – after a rather bleak introduction on what the future could look like – and he points to opportunities more than threats in the industries of the future he describes.

Another interesting theme of the book, which reminded me a lot of The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, is Alec’s focus on the weaponization of code and the loss of control by states over their traditional turf (politics, war, money). He rightly reminds us that control freaks, especially in government, will have a though time in 2020 and beyond, just as we are witnessing a shift in the perception and understanding of the concept of privacy.

What the book misses out on

Unlike the previous wave of digital-led globalization and innovation, which drew enormous numbers of people out of poverty in low-cost labor markets, the next wave will challenge middle classes across the globe, threatening to return many to poverty. (p. 6)

A couple of passages made me cringe, in particular the one on precision agriculture and big data, which I thought were very ‘American’ in their worldview (sorry Alec!). This made me realise that the book lacks one important sector and builds on a premise which I believe is flawed. The sector that Alec doesn’t touch upon at all is energy and more generally the ‘green’ economy. I’d be interested to know from him if he had considered adding that sector and if yes, why it was not included in the final version. It might well be that this sector is not included because, contrary to all the other sectors presented in the book, it does require a more radical shift in the way we understand business and its relation to society and the environment.

Which brings me to the only proper criticism I have about this book: it offers a view of the future world as a continuation of current business practices, as if in 20 years time, the Earth and our societies will be in the same situation as today. This certainly won’t be the case: climate change and our environmental footprint will only get worse, forcing us to look at solutions that are not just innovative and adapted to our future needs, but which also ensure no harm for the environment, or better, which help us revive our environment as we cater to our basic needs and do business in a more responsible and sustainable way. In my view the book focuses too much on technologies to serve existing emerging industries vs. alternative industries or sectors that challenge the business status quo in a more radical way.

Agriculture is a good example of this: Alec explains how Monsanto, Dupont and other agribusiness companies are developing solutions to increase agricultural productivity by using big data. What this statement completely misses out on is that:

  • these technologies are not environmentally harmless, on the contrary, and
  • farmers in developing countries (and developed countries) will become even more dependent of agribusiness through big data than they are already with Monsanto’s controversial sterile seeds for example. 

And all this while there are sound alternatives that have already proven their low-tech reliance and at the same time offer productivity gains AND environmental benefits, such as agroforestry, agro-ecology and permaculture, techniques which can be easily adopted by ALL farmers, whatever their country, wealth and access to finance. The book is instructive and I really recommend it, although I find that it doesn’t question at all the current fabric of our economic and business environments.

But maybe I’m just being an idealist, and Alec is right that within the next 20 years, the world is not really going to change to become more humane and caring for all, people, Earth, animals… and we can say goodbye to a more sustainable future in the longer term.

What do you think?

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