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The Five Debates We Need in 2016 


Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies


There's something stately, almost languid, about the gap between the Presidential election and the inauguration. And it's a great time to reflect, looking back and looking ahead.


Here's what I've been thinking. As noted in these commentaries before, the core challenges facing Washington, DC, are only indirectly related to the problems at which it is conventional to point fingers. These are not venal, lazy, crazily partisan people - by and large. They - from representatives to staffers to senators and the prez himself - are mostly hard-working, smart, and well-meaning. Lobbyists, who sometimes do indeed have too much clout, are there to represent interests that don't fit neatly onto party platforms - of which there are many - social, cultural, corporate. If we have to sum up the dysfunction, it is a "corporate culture" issue rather than anything else:  the kind of problem that decent hard-working people can find impossible to shift; the result of deep-rooted assumptions about how things should be done, and what things matter.


One way of setting up the problem - and the possibility for change - is around a package of "leadership" matters, about which I wrote on election night (thanks for some great responses to that email, which was indeed written at around 2.00 a.m. eastern time). I stated that leaders intuitively connect the future and the present; and that they define the questions, set the conversation. What are those questions? What is their priority, their weighting? C-PET's motto - tying together the twin themes of leadership - is "Asking Tomorrow's Questions." That's what great leaders do. And that's what Washington needs.


So: next time around, what should our candidates be debating? Here's my plan: five debates on questions that define our vision of the future, and therefore our capacity to govern in the present. You may have your own list - please send it and we shall share. For my part, unless the wannabes on both sides (and in the middle) can handle these questions, I shall not have much confidence they can handle America.


1.     We need a debate on the meaning of exponential change for political and business systems designed for stasis. The pace of change is picking up and will not slow down.


2.     We need a debate on the imperative need for our technologies to power rather than eviscerate the "human" element in the human future. Will innovation create jobs for those who will never be "knowledge workers"? How can we leverage digital power while deepening our humanity and avoiding a cyborg dystopia?


3.     We need a debate on the extraordinary ways in which the U.S.-led tech revolution can prove the most beneficent force planet Earth has yet known: As MOOCs deliver free global college education, nano enables pure water for every family, and social media reshape the possibilities not merely for revolt but for a new and deeply accountable governance - in both politics and our great corporations.


4.     We need a debate on global risk. The more interconnected we all are, the more risks are global. From antibiotics (WHO says they may soon be over - a scenario with human impact as great as the worst climate scenarios) to tsunamis and rogue nanobots and AIs; and the risks of our good ideas turning bad - like our choosing step by step to "evolve" into machines. I want the candidates to stand before a white board with a simple risk matrix and tell us where they plot these issues and how they will handle them. (As I said to the Rio+20 science prepcon, we need to reframe the climate debate in these broader global risk terms.)


5.     We need a debate on how we handle asymmetric threat - threats from small groups with small resources who using our global communications media and aspects of our other technologies can now challenge great nations with deadly, David-and-Goliath, results. This is the al-Quaeda story, the Assange story; asymmetries will come to occupy the best efforts of governments. Unless we understand them we shall always lose. How to sustain American leadership in an asymmetric world is the most difficult of all questions.


Now, would not that be interesting? And separate tomorrow's leaders from yesterday's.


In case you missed them, here are my reflections on leadership, sparked by the election campaign and circulated on election night. They have relevance both to the United States and our many readers around the world.
Great leaders have many qualities, but above all two. First, a commitment to the long term. Second, a capacity to shape questions. 
These two are related. They mark great leaders as those whose responsibilities are not confined to the immediate concerns of their constituencies and the present day. They rise above time and place, and intuitively bring into alignment present and future. It is how great companies have been established that have shown resilience over time. It is how great nations have been shaped and enabled. While the leader is day by day held accountable by followers (and, indeed, investors) afflicted with the short-sight of the immediate, the leader's eyes are constantly scanning the horizon for threats and opportunities that may have no immediate significance to the myopic crowds of today, but that will determine their tomorrows.


It's plain that in a democracy, especially one as responsive as that of the United States, the disjunction between the long view and the short may be great. Where it has been well-bridged, it is the quality of leadership we need to thank.


And while this has always been true, what is new in the 21st Century is the pace of change. We are familiar with the compounding mathematics of Moore's Law. And just as Moore's Law does not drive everything equally, so new exponential forces, chief among them globalization in its several forms, are also drivers. Yet the logic of an exponential pace for change still tends to elude us. We assume a steady pace, and judge tomorrow's likely challenges in light of yesterday's experienced ones. We assume that past changes have brought about a "new normal" that will long prevail. Such assumptions drive much of our thinking. The faster change is taking place, the more important it is to look ahead - where change will be faster and more disruptive - for the ground of today's decisions. Leaders look into the future, and bring back their vision to frame the decision-making for today.


It was Margaret Thatcher who stated succinctly that European nations are founded on history, while America is founded on philosophy. That single fact has been America's greatest strength. It is today America's greatest opportunity. This nation, of all nations, should not be locked into its past.


Seven keys to future-focused leadership.


1.     It is all about the questions. Washington, as I have written more than once, is a city of smart answers where hardly a soul is asking what the questions are.


2.     It is all about the future. All 600 think tanks and 635 Hill offices and who-knows-how-many lobbyists have their focus turned toward the next 2, with one eye on the past. What if next time around we had presidential debates premised on future scenarios - for 10 or 20 years out?


3.     It is all about technology. While technology is not everything, everything is shaped by technology and shall be more every day. Every choice, personal, business or policy, will be framed by pervasive and constantly evolving technology issues.


4.     It is all about exponential change. Moore's Law, which essentially declares that change gets ever speedier as computer chips get smaller and cheaper, is not driving everything equally (think farming or interior decoration), but is driving everything.


5.     It is all about asymmetry. Osama bin Laden and Julian Assange, in different ways, have grasped the point that in a world of immediate diffusion of news and low-cost access to technology, the old controls of the strong and powerful no longer rule.


 6.     It is all about globalization. This term has been used to mean many things, and is enthused about and despised. Point is: We shall not be going back on it. Global information, global trade, the breakup of blocs that controlled their citizens and dictated to others, the divisions of language and culture -we are moving on fast from the predictable patterns of the Cold War generation into a dynamic situation where the BRICS and ad hoc G groupings operate in a fast-changing geo-political situation.


7.     It is all about knowledge. That does not mean it is all about traditional expertise. We need deep experts in every discipline, but the innovators and shapers are those who grasp more than one and also grasp how the pieces fit together. A new inter-disciplinarity rules. And, as we learned to our great cost in 2008, groupthink may be our the greatest enemy. Knowledge emerges at the interface of disciplines, opinions, and rival interpretations.


To rephrase: It's about The Long View - Asking Tomorrow's Questions. The faster the process of change, the more significant the constant probing of the future. That has always been a mark of great leadership. It has become a more significant mark of it every year. Leaders frame the questions, they anticipate the future. We have never needed such leadership more.





Nigel Cameron