Christopher Dickey: Around The World in Six Ideas

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Feeding Africa

In ferocious cycles worthy of the Old Testament, Africa continues to face years of plenty and years of famine. But over the past decade economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin has worked to solve that problem in her native Ethiopia, and she’s now extending her activities across the continent. The key concept: a commodities exchange that allows farmers—even those in a “frontier economy”—to track prices, warehouse their products safely, and get guaranteed payment. “How do you trust people in a market that’s like the Wild West?” says Eleni. Farmers were unsure they’d ever get paid. Buyers had to worry they’d get bags filled with sand and rocks. And who knew what a fair price might be? Now scores of tickers have been installed across the country to give farmers current prices on the exchange in real time, and dial-in quotations are accessible over the country’s ubiquitous cellphones. The price line gets more than a million calls a month. Commodities are weighed and graded in exchange warehouses, so buyers no longer need to be so wary. Farmers get their payment within a day of sale. And surpluses can be stored today to feed the hungry tomorrow.

Art and Innovation

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One definition of art is that it shows you something you hadn’t quite imagined but can’t quite forget. John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, believes that art is an essential component for innovation in this digital age. You may not be Van Gogh or Beethoven (and might never want to be), but learning the way artists perceive—and change—the world around them creates mental and intellectual agility. Students of art and design are often innovators, says Maeda, “people that can see differently, that can solve problems differently.” Maeda should know, having gone to art school and MIT at the same time. He also understands that the impact of art is hard to measure. But that shouldn’t be a negative. Precisely because the effect of art is not quantitative—it is so un-digital—it is the human element that’s vitally needed as people and machines work ever more closely together. When art is integrated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—think STEAM instead of STEM—you get “new ways of knowing and new ways of thinking.” In fact one thinks of Steve Jobs, whose innovations were quite remarkable works of technology, of design, and, yes, of art.

The Absent Professor

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At one panel during the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, the star was 12-year-old Khadija Niazi from Lahore, Pakistan. She was only 10 when she first took an online course about artificial intelligence taught by big thinkers Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig from the Google firmament. And she now says she intends to be a physicist. The audience was so charmed by Khadija that when she gave up her seat on the panel to Bill Gates there was an audible sigh of disappointment. In fact, Khadija is more than precocious; she’s the prologue to a future. Innovators such as Daphne Koller, cofounder of Coursera, which launched a year ago and now has 33 university partners around the world, are transforming higher education. Online learning is disrupting one of the last bastions of true traditionalism, challenging its assumptions, breaking down its structures. What’s the role of professors teaching courses that are just as easily taught online? What is the function of a lecture hall? A classroom? A campus? All of those questions are now up in the air … along with the stunning cost of tuition. Once again, this is a story of adapt or die.

The End of Workers?

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At least since the early 19th-century Luddites, workers have raged against machines that took their jobs. But during the Industrial Revolution, economies grew, wealth spread, and people adapted. And it’s been assumed the same thing would happen with the 21st-century digital revolution. But the phenomenal speed of change as computers double their power every couple of years is leaving many people behind. In 1995, futurist and polemicist Jeremy Rifkin predicted “the end of work” as technology outpaces the ability of labor forces to adapt. The 2008 crash, and the failure of employment to keep pace with other signs of economic recovery, highlighted the issue. In the 21st century, write MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, “our skills and institutions will have to work harder to keep up lest more and more of the labor force faces technological unemployment.” As factories automate, huge Asian economies originally built around cheap human labor—China and India in particular—are likely to suffer from even greater dislocations. The only way out of this vicious circle is to keep educating humans to be ever-better thinkers and innovators,working not for the machine, or against it, but with it.

Who You Gonna Trust?

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Edelman, the world’s largest public-relations firm, takes a global survey every year asking people who they trust—and who they don’t. And the latest edition shows that government and business better start rethinking old concepts of leadership. Trust in “government” as such is low (41 percent), but “trust in government leaders to tell the truth” is abysmal (13 percent). The trust gap on the business side is on the same order of magnitude. “The research confirms the democratizing trend of recent years—the redistribution of influence from traditional authority figures such as CEOs and prime ministers toward employees, peers, and people with credentials, including academics and technical experts,” says Richard Edelman in his introduction to the 2013 Trust Barometer. “A professor or person like yourself is now trusted nearly twice as much as a chief executive or government official. The hierarchies of old are being replaced by more trusted peer-to-peer, horizontal networks of trust.” The core lesson: managers and leaders need to work with this diversity of trust and opinions, not against it. Hint: one important way to do this might be to bring more women onto corporate boards and into the executive suite.

The New Energy Map

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Three years ago, Fatih Birol, the authoritative chief economist of the International Energy Agency, started predicting a stunning shift on the global energy map: thanks to a combination of conservation and new extraction technologies—including those given the unfortunate, expletive-like label of “fracking”—the U.S. would soon become self-sufficient in energy, and very likely an exporter. Furthermore, Australia would ship more liquid natural gas than Qatar. Iraq would rise from the ashes of war and occupation to become an energy powerhouse. China would exploit hitherto untapped resources of coal gas that, instead of blowing up miners, would run power plants. Month by month, events show those forecasts are on course to become realities. “This is the biggest change in the history of energy since nuclear power in the 1970s,” Birol said recently. Clearly the United States is the big winner. And the losers? Many of those countries that thought they had the world over a barrel will now find it impossible to dominate the energy market. Middle East oil will have much less influence. But those countries that still depend almost entirely on imports—most notably Japan—are likely to be in for a rough ride.

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