Higher Education and ‘The Industries of the Future’

An excellent book that is missing the most important industry of the future.

February 22, 2016

The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross

Published in February of 2016.

Higher education is the industry of the future. 

The revolution in postsecondary education will not occur in today’s rich but old countries.  This revolution will unfold throughout the emerging world - in countries that are today both young and relatively poor.

If you want to see the future of global higher education you should visit Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.  Spend time in Lagos, Cairo, Kinshasa and Alexandria.  Headquarter your edtech startup in Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou or Shenzen.  Visit tomorrow’s students in Sao Paulo, Manila, Jakarta, Karachi, and Istanbul.

This is an argument that you will not find in Alec Ross’ important new book, Industries of the Future.

The fact that higher education does not make Ross’s list of industries of the future is both a serious flaw, and one the (many) reasons that you should read this book.

Why is it that robotics, genomics, digital currency, big data analysis, and cybersecurity are included as industries of the future, but higher ed is not?

How do we capture the popular imagination, and the attention of thought leaders such as Alec Ross, about the story of the future of higher ed?

One thing that I love about this book is how Alec Ross, who came to prominence as a Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State Clinton, grounds his story of the industries of the future in the past of Charleston WV.  Charleston WV is Ross’ hometown, and it is a city that I spent time, as my wife is also from Charleston.  When Ross (and my wife) were growing up, Charleston was one of the wealthiest cities in the country.  This wealth was powered by an agglomeration of chemical and mining companies and by the presence of lax environmental and labor laws.  By the time that Ross (and my wife) reached adulthood in the 1990s, these extractive industries had almost all migrated to places with lower labor costs.

The Industries of the Future is a guide for how today’s cities (and countries) can avoid the fate of Charleston WV.  Ross argues that a strategy built around low labor costs and lax environmental laws is absolutely the wrong way to go.  Nor is it a viable strategy to try to copy Silicon Valley (he thinks it can’t be done), or to focus only only attracting ‘creative class’ professionals in downtown loft spaces. Rather, places would be better served by investing in human capital skills around tomorrow’s industries (Ross’ industries of the future), rather than trying to train workers for jobs that are likely to be automated.

Here is where I wish that Ross gave some thought to who would be doing that training.  Every industry that is discussed in Industries of the Future relies on the brain power and creative acumen of future employees.  The global demand for postsecondary education, a demand that already outstrips the legacy campus-based supply of schools, is set to grow exponentially in the decades to come.  Hundreds of millions of people in the cities listed above will need access to quality affordable postsecondary education.  Supplying that global postsecondary education will be an industry of the future.

We don’t know what higher education will look like in 2050.  But we do know that it will not look like it does in 2016.  Will higher education in the world’s young megacities move from a place-based to a digitally-mediated mechanism of delivery?  Will traditionally diplomas be replaced by micro-credentials?  Will higher education follow the same path as communications, banking, and entertainment - morphing from a service restricted to the few to an app (on a mobile device) accessible by almost everyone?  (There are today almost 400 million unique mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa).

The Industries of the Future is a book that is actually quite positive about the future.  Ross believes that we should be up to the challenge of robots replacing people in service and manufacturing jobs.  He believes that the transformation in the 21st century to a global information economy will bring far more benefits, and fewer costs, than the transition to an industrial economy in the last two centuries.  Ross believes that the worry that China will overtake the West is overblown - as he is skeptical that China will be able to grow rich before it grows old.

In fact, my only complaint with this engaging and smart book is that higher education does not play a larger role in the story that Ross tells.

What are you reading?



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