Our Future

An Interview with Alec Ross

«I was a poor student, my parents could not afford to support me during the summer to let me take part in the prestigious but free internships in the political offices of Washington (D.C.), so I had to roll up my sleeves and clean the local stadium in my hometown after baseball games while I tried to figure out what kind of career I wanted to pursue».
These words have meaning especially because they come from Alec Ross, a former advisor on innovation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is considered a guru on the new dynamics of the labor market and whose books have sold the world over. “We Build Value” met him during a promotional tour for “The Industries of the Future”, a new book that the 44-year-old hopes will be used by young people as a guide for their own careers. At the heart of his analysis is innovation, the role that public and private investors have in supporting development in some regions where today’s talent is concentrated.

What are the great places of innovation?

«Innovation is found in cities and areas where companies as well as governments have invested to support the process of modernization. If you look at Silicon Valley, it is an area that is 30 miles wide and 50 long that benefited from billions of dollars of investment to bring to life the most innovative companies in the world and attract talent from all over the world. Silicon Valley should not only be admired but act as a model to be replicated in many other areas».

How important was your past in influencing your thinking?

«A lot. I started worked as a cleaner. A swept the floors at the end of concerts or baseball games. The work, at the beginning, allowed me to move from rural poverty to urban poverty and this taught me a lot, especially that every young person has in his or her hands tremendous potential».

Is there a privileged place for talent?

«Talent is the same everywhere in the world. Young Americans are no more intelligent than Asians, Europeans or vice versa. But the big difference is their state of mind. Californian kids - those who grow up near Silicon Valley - when they find a problem they confront it and, if they can, turn it into a business. I know personally all the billionaires of Silicon Valley. Some of them are geniuses while others are not, but all of them at the beginning of their entrepreneurial careers deeply believed that they could change the world. And that is why they succeeded».

What is the best way for young people to build a career?

«Having an academic diploma is no longer the end - it is only the beginning of a journey of continual improvement that should last a lifetime. The old model in which a degree defined a career has long past its purpose in a labor market dominated by mobility and knowledge. So for those who want to succeed in the future, they must not only focus on results but also continue to learn new skills».

Where are the places where these innovative processes are at an advanced state?

«I would name four. Some of the cities in Sweden, Tel Aviv in Israel, Singapore and Seoul in South Korea. These are places with great intellectual ferment and a desire to do new things. It is the best atmosphere for innovation».

Is there space for others?

«There is space for everybody. My argument is that only an open society can aspire to host industries of the future, and I can state that the majority of the people who work in sectors that provide the most income like hi-tech agree with me. Recent history has already validated this theory with the destiny of two former Soviet republics: Belarus and Estonia. Both gained independence at about the same time, but the first refused to open itself up to the world, while the second defined Internet access as a constitutional right for its citizens and equal to other rights. Today, the first has an average annual income per capita of $7,500 a year, while the second has $18,800».  

And China?

«China opened itself to commerce but remain closed politically and this choice has forced it to pay a high price in terms of missed growth opportunities. Up until now the country has not reached the world stage of technology. Fortunately for it, things are changing in the field of genomes where Chinese companies are at the vanguard in international collaboration. They have understood that if they do not want to remain in second place forever they have to accept the principle of the interconnectivity of research».

In the search for places that attract and nurture talent and develop industries of the future, what role will emerging markets play?

«As far as job opportunities are concerned, the competitive advantage that emerging countries enjoyed in past decades has already started to wear thin, and its destined to disappear because wages and standards of living are rising in these newly industrialised countries. What will remain will be a high level of competition among new knowledge industries. Those that will suffer will not be countries of high labor costs but those of low levels of specialization. New educational initiatives will be required, a school that moves in parallel with the evolution of the world of work, and educational programmes focused on the local market. It is far from me to encourage students to give up school to follow the example of Bill Gates and Marc Zuckerberg. But for those who have difficulty accessing educational systems of excellence, the Internet is populated with an enormous amount of free courses of great educational value».

Where is the future closest?

«There are some countries that are better prepared to confront change. The Scandinavian region for the moment is the second pole of innovation after Silicon Valley. Then there are countries on the South American Pacific Coast like Chile and Colombia. And now also Argentina. Europe is in a good position with northern countries but there are also the Balkans. And a very interesting area is Sub-Saharan Africa which for the first time is passing from a state of assistance to a market economy. And lastly the South Koreans, who are coming out of a 30-year crisis focusing on robotics. There are many markets and many opportunities for the industries of the future».