The Challenge of Harnessing Change in a Global Economy

As the news media know better than anyone, the great story of our times is change – dramatic, accelerating, and often disruptive change.

The key question is whether our economy, our educational institutions, and our system of democratic self-government can harness this change for everyone’s benefit – or whether the tidal wave of change will overrun us.

To meet the challenges of change, we must think big and act boldly.  Our growing divisions, however – our self-selecting news bubbles, the tribalization of our politics, the noxious contempt each side has for the other – are making it harder to solve big problems.  The environment is certainly not conducive to serious dialogue or to constructive problem solving.

All too often, we are obsessed with “small-ball” disputes – and not the historic challenges that we face.  As daunting as these big-picture challenges are, it is still possible for us to harness all this change – and come out in a better place.

Consider the cable industry by way of example.  At the beginning of this century, many in the media industry dreamed about 500 channels.  Today, such a small number of choices sounds almost quaint.  With the massive growth in both real-time channels and on-demand content – on cable, satellite, and broadband – consumer choice can feel almost limitless. 

That explosion of choice has transformed our industry and required an entirely new approach to competition in order to meet the needs of consumers.  And it has created challenges for content producers who need to adjust their business models to take advantage of the explosion of opportunities available.

Just as we work to master change in our industry, and just as competition forces us to continuously up our game, it is incumbent upon America to up its game, too.

And in managing change, it’s also critical that we are sensitive to its impact on vulnerable communities and citizens.  If we master change, but leave behind millions of our fellow citizens, we haven’t really mastered change.

Preparing for Global Competition

We must ask whether, as a country, we can meet the challenge of change.  Are we looking around the corner?  Are we Thinking Big?  Let’s try to answer those questions by comparing ourselves with a leading economic rival: China.  Chinese leaders think in terms of a 10-year plan, while America often seems to think in terms of a 24-hour news cycle.  In a generation, China’s economy is predicted to be roughly twice the size of ours.  

One key reason is that we are losing ground in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Since 2000, China has more than quadrupled the number of science and engineering degrees awarded every year at its universities.  As of 2016, China reportedly had at least 4.7 million recent graduates in STEM – more than any other nation on earth – and nearly 10 times as many as we have graduated in the United States.  

In 1975, China claimed one percent of world trade flows.  Now, it’s closer to 25 percent.  China’s Made in China 2025 project, started in 2015, is a 10-year top-down strategic plan to move China from a manufacturing-based economy to a world-leading technology-based economy.  Clearly, China is racing full speed ahead, not merely to prepare for the next moment of transformative change, but to create it.

The point is this: Global competition is intensifying.  And change is happening fast.

We are in the midst of what Tom Friedman calls the “Age of Acceleration.” The exponential improvements in chips, software, storage, networking, and sensors are enabling revolutionary new applications such as remote surgery, gene editing, driverless vehicles, and artificial intelligence.

The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has also spoken of what he calls the “Law of Accelerating Returns.”  With each passing decade, the pace of technological change is roughly doubling.  Kurzweil says these “paradigm shifts” create “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”

Right now, one of the most important – and sometimes even unsettling – aspects of that revolution is the development of Artificial Intelligence, or AI – in other words, super-smart machines doing things that human beings would otherwise do, with our minds as well as our hands.

Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) predicts that AI will add $15.7 trillion to the global GDP by 2030.  That’s almost the size of the world’s largest economy – ours! – today.

But who will benefit?  And who will suffer?  PwC predicts that China will take $7 trillion of that growth, the United States and our North American neighbors will take $3.7 trillion, and the rest of the world will be left to divide the remainder.

At the same time, tens of millions of Americans could lose out.  In his recent book, AI Superpowers, computer scientist and business leader Kai-Fu Lee foresees that artificial intelligence will replace 40 to 50 percent of all existing jobs in the United States.

China’s government is funding and increasing the status of the AI industry.  Its tech startup culture is more aggressive than other countries.  Its large population produces more AI engineers.  And, because of its huge population, Lee explains, “If data is the new oil, then China is the new Saudi Arabia.”  China is Thinking Big, thinking about the future, looking around corners.

This all means we need to address some fundamental questions: How do we lead – rather than follow – change?  How do we manage the impacts of technological change and harness them to improve our quality of life, maintain our economic leadership, and rebuild our national sense of community?

Right at the top of our list should be the readiness of our workforce.  That task will require bold leadership – a Marshall Plan, if you will – to prepare our workforce for what economist Klaus Martin Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

If readying our workforce and fixing our politics are our Big Think challenges, we must keep in mind three guiding lights that will help us shape that undertaking.

First, we must sit down together, stop shouting at each other, start listening, and chart a common course to move America forward.  In short, we need to bring civility back into our political discourse and move past what Arthur Brooks has termed our “culture of contempt.”

Second, we must make sure that in our increasingly diverse society, all communities have a seat at the table.

And, third, we must make sure that, at a time when our public square is situated in cyberspace as well as physical space, we get everyone connected to the fountain of information and ideas – something we otherwise call the Internet – and train them to be able to hold down 21st-century jobs.  Let’s look at these guiding lights in turn.

Addressing Polarization and Partisanship

At a time when technology is hurtling forward, our political system is gridlocked and policymaking is paralyzed.  In such an environment, how can government play a constructive role in helping all Americans adapt to accelerating change?

We have to face the fact that accelerating changes in society have played a role in polarizing public debate.  While social media may bring friends and family closer, they also help to drive citizens and voters apart.  Conflict gets more clicks than consensus.  But our democracy often suffers from a less informed, and more inflamed, citizenry as a result.

The culture of perpetual conflict may help build fundraising lists and social media followers, but does it move us any closer to common-sense solutions?  As Americans are increasingly preoccupied by our divisions, we are failing to address the policy changes we need to succeed in the global contest for leadership.

Our nation needs to move beyond scorched-earth politics to finding common ground for the common good.  We can begin with issues that are not about veering Left or Right but moving forward as a nation – together – with a common purpose.

Getting Everyone at the Table (Diversity)

While we need more problem solving and less shouting, we also need to ensure that every segment of our increasingly diverse society has a seat at the table.

If any group of Americans is not fully engaged in the next phase of global competition, then we risk leaving large segments of our population behind – and disaffected.  That makes us weaker as a nation.

In less than a quarter century – by around 2045 – we expect America to become a “majority minority” nation.  Building an inclusive society will help ensure that the rapid change we are experiencing leaves no one behind and becomes a source of our strength – not conflict.  We enthusiastically embrace this concept at Comcast.

Forty percent of our board is diverse.  Sixty-two percent of our workforce is diverse.  At the level of vice president or higher, more than half are diverse.  At the end of 2018, 53 percent of Comcast’s workforce reported to a diverse leader.  Inclusiveness is a critical north star at Comcast NBCUniversal – and it needs to be a critical north star for our country.

Getting Everyone Connected (Internet Essentials)

We also need to make sure that everyone is prepared to compete in the 21st-century economy – and that starts with getting everyone digitally connected.  With the accelerating pace of technological change, those who are not connected to the Internet – those who do not develop 21st-century digital skills – are most at risk of being left behind.

In 2011, Comcast launched its acclaimed Internet Essentials program to help connect low-income Americans to the Internet.  This research-based program offers an integrated, wrap-around approach to closing the digital divide.  It provides significant digital literacy training programs through a network of tens of thousands of nonprofit and governmental partners, as well as deeply discounted broadband service and computer hardware.

And this approach is beginning to show progress.  Since 2011, Internet Essentials has connected more than 8 million low-income Americans to the Internet at home.  Ninety percent of them did not have a home broadband connection at the time they signed up for the program.  Getting everyone connected – through programs like this and in other ways – must be one of our guiding lights.

Conclusion: Making the American Model Work

We have big problems that require big solutions.  And that will require civil conversations focused on the big picture.  Once we’re talking, we need to focus on inclusive solutions that minimize the disruptive impact of technological change on vulnerable populations.

As a hero of my youth, President John F. Kennedy, famously said of his goals for the nation: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days.  Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days – but let us begin.”

As a country, we need a bit of an attitude adjustment.  We need to begin to address our big problems.  We need to set aside our petty politics and small-bore solutions.  Or else we will find ourselves in a place we don’t want to be.

On the other hand, if we work together to solve our problems, if we embrace the diversity that is America’s strength, if we provide all Americans with an opportunity to share in prosperity, then we can make the decades ahead a great chapter in our unfolding history.

Coming from Philadelphia – the birthplace of our great experiment in democracy and, I would add, America’s original capital – I’m a passionate believer in the promise of this great endeavor that was first declared more than 240 years ago.

We have it in ourselves to break out of our political funk and rediscover some semblance of our common sense of purpose, embodied in our nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum.

And we must begin now – because the next wave of ground-shifting, world-changing technological progress is coming.  If we’re not ready for it, large swaths of our country will be left behind.  And that is not an outcome that is, or should be, acceptable to anyone.

We must not cede our global economic and technological leadership.  We must be true to our finest, founding ideals – to be the most prepared, most forward-looking, and most freedom-fulfilling people on this planet.

That is our destiny.

David L. Cohen is senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast Corporation in Philadelphia.  This article is adapted from his address to a Media Institute Communications Forum luncheon in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2019.  His complete luncheon address can be viewed here.