Alec Ross

Alec Ross is using his experience with Hillary Clinton at the State Department to shine a light into the future.

This story first appeared in the March 2, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Ross is now a distinguished visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University, but started his career as a sixth-grade teacher in inner-city Baltimore. In 2000, he cofounded the One Economy nonprofit organization, which now serves millions of low-income people on four continents.

His recently released book, “The Industries of the Future” (Simon & Schuster), quickly became a bestseller by taking a close look at emerging themes without being overtly optimistic or pessimistic.

“I wrote this to try to talk about technical content to nontechnical audiences without dumbing it down,” he said.

It’s a hunt for the next Internet.

And just as those who appreciated the importance of the Web 20 years ago were able to take advantage of the shift, Ross said there’s an opportunity for people to jump ahead by getting smart about today’s growing themes, including the importance of robotics and genetics, the code-ification of money and the weaponization of code.

 

How does one look into the crystal ball and think about the future?

Spend a couple years with your mouth closed and your eyes and ears open. It was interesting to transition from a presidential campaign life [working to get Barack Obama into the White House] to a life of government service. Transitioning from a life of talking to a life of listening. I traveled to dozens of countries and tested assumptions and learned a lot.

What were you doing at the State Department?

I was Hillary Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation. It was my job to focus on national security issues that involve technology. It was my team that set up the anonymous encrypted text messaging program in Mexico [that serves as a tip line] and helped take down the leadership of some of those drug cartels.

You write about companies building robots to be elder caregivers in Japan. Why would a society go after such a technological solution instead of opening up more to immigration?

They could solve their problems, lower-cost and human, but in this case that would involve them changing 500 years of practice.

It seems complicated to go after such a high-tech solution when a human one is available.

Technology is getting cheaper than human beings. That is why a lot of this is happening. Once you buy a robot, you never have to pay it a salary. With a human, maybe not that much of an up-front cost, you get them a computer and maybe business cards, but you have to pay them every two weeks.

Most people who talk about these things take either a utopian or a dystopian view. I don’t. But I do believe that the robots of the cartoons and movies of the Seventies will be the reality of the 2020s.

What are the opportunities ahead for companies trying to sell things to consumers?

We’re able to get more information than we ever had before. Land was the raw material of the agricultural age. Iron was the raw material of the industrial age and data is the raw material of the information age. If you’re in retail and fashion, I think two things: You’re able to get much more granular information about consumers and consumers around the world than you ever were before.

If you are trying to sell lots of things to lots of people, big data gives you incredibly powerful tools to do that because you’re able to pick up on trends more quickly than ever before. You’re able to pick up on very minute preferences, place to place, demographically. But by the same token, in a world that is increasingly data-driven, I think there will be a new importance placed on creativity.

There is an ever-more special place for people who are doing work that is highly creative and original. For a lot of us who during our workday might be working in finance or law, in whatever industry, surrounded by machines. A lot of what we want outside that technologically driven workday are wonderfully original products, whether it’s the food that we eat or the clothes that we put on.

‘Technology is getting cheaper than human beings.... Once you buy a robot, you never have to pay it a salary.’ Alec Ross

‘Technology is getting cheaper than human beings…. Once you buy a robot, you never have to pay it a salary.’ — Alec Ross  Kyle Fewell

 

You point out that big data can reinforce old biases. How can all this information be used to spur new ideas and fresh thinking?

You can’t just let the machines run on their own. Big data is inherently regressive. It looks at what’s already happened and it reflects existing behaviors and biases. So if you’re in human resources and you want to hire someone who you think is a good employee and one of the things that you test is how many existing social connections they have in the company, you’re going to have a bias.

You can lose your human judgment. It’s like a mixing board with a DJ where they’re constantly mixing things together. You have to mix the human judgment with the big data.

What is the one thing businesses around the world get most wrong as they plan for the future?

Big businesses tend to be too slow to change, which is why there are so many examples of start-ups and fast-moving companies eating the lunch of big companies, big companies that are too wedded to a way of doing business and a single mind-set.

Is it a long, slow, hard decline for the established businesses now?

In many cases, they’re getting blown up pretty quickly. Look at what Uber has done to taxis and Airbnb to hotels. Sure, there will continue to be taxis and hotels, but in a small number of years each of those industries got hammered by young start-ups from California. In a world where change happens so fast, there’s never been a time to be able to change quickly, to adapt quickly.

Retailers have been increasingly opening innovation labs. Can you set up shop in Silicon Valley and expect that magic to filter into your business?

What happened in Silicon Valley over the past 20 years is going to become more global. There won’t be Silicon Valleys all over the world, but I think we’ve learned enough about the Silicon Valley mind-set and way of doing business that I think we’re going to see those practices more broadly incorporated. Part of this is just a function of demographic change. People who grew up with Google and Apple and Amazon being the hero companies, as they go from being in their 20s and 30s and being in their 40s and being in charge of their businesses, I think we’re going to be seeing more of a Silicon Valley mind-set outside of Silicon Valley.

In what way is that good and bad?

I think there’s an openness to new ideas and youth, for example, that there oftentimes isn’t elsewhere. I think some people can be data-driven to a point of distraction, data-driven to a degree that is unproductive. To the extent that it’s bad, it’s that we shouldn’t only do what our algorithms tell us to do.

What’s the most important attribute for the chief executive officer of the future?

Being able to work on a 196-country chess board. If you want growth, you have to be able to reach into new markets. The story of the past 10 years has been the growth of China. Growth is slowing in China. We want to identify those developing markets that are going to be tomorrow’s markets and they’re not going to be as big as China.