Over the last decade, MIT Sloan researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have become adept navigators of our digital future, and their most recent book, Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future pretty much guarantees their place at the helm. The best selling authors of The Second Machine Age (2014) have taken the lead in making sense of the technological advances that are confounding the rest of the world.
In their new work, McAfee and Brynjolfsson, codirectors of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, help the average citizen understand what the integration of machines, platforms, and crowds will mean to our collective tomorrow. Robots are front and center in that digital future-scape. The authors talk about restaurants in which customers order, pay for, and receive meals without interacting with human employees. Ordering, they point out, is something that a robot—or a computer interface—can accomplish very adeptly if the programming is smart enough.
Thad Allen, SF ’89, is known as something of a superhero when it comes to turning around major disasters. Barack Obama chose Allen, the former Commandant of the Coast Guard, to serve as the National Incident Commander for the coordinated response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As successful as he was in mitigating that disaster, Allen, who is now a senior executive at Booz Allen Hamilton, is perhaps best known for turning around another national crisis—Hurricane Katrina.
Days after the storm barreled into New Orleans in the late summer of 2005, Michael Brown, President George Bush’s FEMA head, was finding the situation increasingly unmanageable. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff tapped Allen, then chief of staff of the U.S. Coast Guard, to turn the disintegrating situation around.
“The hurricane made landfall on the 29th of August. I dispatched on the 5th of September,” Allen remembers. “What I found was a complete breakdown of law and order. Chaos in the Superdome. Press reports were showing the same human remains on street corners day after day. We were dealing with the equivalent of a weapon of mass effect—but the terrorist was nature. New Orleans, in effect, lost continuity of government.”
The first step in any turnaround, Allen says, is to correctly identify the problem. “One of the things that crippled the government’s initial response was that the leaders in charge did not get the problem right. We were dealing with the loss of civil institutions and the lack of local government capacity—not a hurricane. You must understand the challenge before you can even begin to turn a situation around.”
A recent report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) found that 27 million working-age Americans—nearly 14 percent—are starting or running new businesses.
Impressive though that number is, says Mark Anthony Thomas, SF ’14, the uptick leaves many Americans behind.
Senior Vice President of Partnerships at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Thomas says that while high-tech startups produce innumerable benefits, they tend to create jobs for college graduates. “In the United States,” he notes, “universities have sophisticated entrepreneurship programs that help students bring their new ideas to market.” But entrepreneurship opportunities, Thomas says, should not be limited to those moving along an academic track.
Outside the digital marketplace, Thomas says, relatively few American-born citizens appear to consider starting a new enterprise. In fact, foreign-born Americans outpace those born in the U.S. in developing new businesses.