Economists are now commonly referring to our modern post-industrial economy as the “information economy”. I suppose I understand that. But I’m not sure it’s the best possible label for what is (or should be) going on in the post-industrial modern world. And I don’t mean just America, but Western Europe, much of Asia, and key parts of the rest of the world as well.
I think the reason economists are hung up on information is that, in their estimation, “information” has become and will increasingly continue to be the currency of trade between nations and corporations and people. Thus, they feel it drives the economy. In many ways, they’re probably right. But to me, an economy isn’t named by what it trades or produces, it should be named by what drives the economy forward, causes it to grow, makes it successful, etc.
The agricultural economy of the 19th century was driven by agriculture. Yes, we traded fruits and vegetables, cows and chickens as the currency of the day (even after gold, silver, and paper bills became common), but the economic time was labeled “agricultural” for the powerful influence hunting, gathering, and farming had over the growth of the economy. The key roles were the farmer (production) and the eater (consumption).
The industrial economy of the 20th century was driven by industry. We were builders of things you can see and touch and feel. Once built, we sold them, and that produced money, which we moved around in huge quantities to represent “value”, because it was impractical to trade cows and chickens any longer. Smart people created marketing, which in turn created “consumerism” to tap into the insatiable desire of the human heart to have. So we bought and produced and bought and produced. The key roles here were the manufacturer (or engineer) and the shopper.
The modern economy – which will shape our thinking and our wallets well into the 21st century – is an economy driven by technology. Information technology, computer technology, mobile technology, cloud technology. Medical advances, social networking, and other factors will play huge roles as well, but they will all be driven into existence (or not) by technology.
People seem to be creating a philosophy about this new economy that implies the key role is the CEO. And sometimes it feels like everyone else will either work at Starbucks (so the CEO can get his coffee in the morning) or be on welfare (because the CEO replaced all their jobs with A) robots or B) outsourcing). I understand how people have come to this conclusion, and like you, I feel the Orwellian theme music playing in the background when it’s given voice, but I fundamentally reject this view of the future as a necessary answer to “what’s next?”.
It’s up to us to make the world something totally different. Not with bigger government or more programs that somehow try to even things out, but with innovation. Rather than invest in shuffling around what exists, let’s make more for everyone.
How? Well, I submit that the engineer is still the key role. But it’s a different kind of engineer. The engineer of the 20th century was industrial or mechanical or electrical. They built buildings and roads, plastic moldings and bridges, assembly lines and monuments – ever striving for bigger and more visible. The engineer of the 21st century are the computer scientists and ECE’s (electrical and computer engineers) – the guys making everything smaller and writing invisible software to run on it. These are the artists of the social, cloud, and mobile movements. They’re the guys who figure out how to slam together Google maps, the iPhone, and GPS technology so that my wife knows when I leave work and can get dinner started. These engineers are tackling the challenge of Big Data so that companies can manage reputation on line and governments can add cyber divisions to their anti-terrorism units. It’s these advances that will lead to nanotechnology and cars that drive themselves, augmented reality glasses and evensmarterphones.
But I also submit that it isn’t these science-soon-to-be-non-fiction cases that are the most interesting. Perhaps the most impactful to the modern economy is the potential of information, mobile, cloud and other technologies to move your existing businesses forward. For example, if you’re a $50-100M business in America today and cloud, mobile and social haven’t made what you do cheaper and created opportunity to do things you couldn’t do 5 years ago, then you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. Right now, today, technology holds the power to increase your revenue, reduce your costs, lower your risk, improve your employees, expand your reach, and much more. And at cost models that are shrinking on the same curve as the cost of your favorite TV at your favorite big box store.
How? If it’s so easy, why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, it’s not “easy”, but it is “straightforward”. It’s a matter of right placement of the investment. It’s a matter of understanding business and the technology, and knowing how to make technology work for you. Like you trust a financial planner to make your money work for you or a tax attorney to make the tax code work for you, so should you invest in the right resources to make technology work for you. That guy isn’t the easiest person to find, but I submit, you’ll know him when you see him.