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World needs a Marshall Plan for technology

The great gap separating nations is no longer one between those that have and those that don’t, but between ones that are ‘connected’ and ones that aren’t

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The idea of economic planning dominated the imagination of 20th-century economists. Unlike the classical liberal view, the planning concept supports clear government intervention in the spontaneous course of markets. By implementing one plan or another, the theory goes, governments can speed up a process or correct a wrong course. Plans are a “shortcut” for a set goal.

In the past 70 years, one of the most successful of such strategies was the Marshall Plan, launched just after the Second World War. It transformed the countries that were defeated in the great conflict into competitive and prosperous economies.

Now, the phenomenon with the biggest potential to build cooperation bridges internationally, or, on the contrary, to further widen the development gap between countries, is the so-called Economy 4.0, a term that — even more perhaps than the designation “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — best describes the ecosystem of knowledge, technology, and entrepreneurship we are entering.

And, if it’s true that talent, rather than capital, is the determining factor of this new “Age of Adaptation”, as suggested by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, then it’s time to talk about a “Marshall Plan for Technology”. The great gap separating countries is no longer the one between those that have and those that don’t, but rather between the ones that are “connected” and the ones that aren’t. The talent-technology fusion allows for “serial adaptations.” Thus the imperative is to generate productive activity that goes beyond the traditional comparative advantages of Ricardian economics.

It’s worth underlining the fact that a new wave of international cooperation to support the flourishing of Economy 4.0 — a task that should be added to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals — would be full of challenges. For instance: What are the implications of the term “infrastructure” for Economy 4.0?

The conventional infrastructure in the industrial economy was usually represented by the logistics network: Ports, airports, railways, roads, etc. Now, our infrastructure includes fast and secure connectivity possibilities, research and development units and their translation into products for the market.

In this context, rethinking development policies becomes even more complex. The speed at which airports or roads become obsolete is dramatically inferior to the speed with which copper wire was surpassed by fibre optics, or fibre optics by the gradual use of satellite technology. A good example of this premature obsolescence that will have an increasing mark on Economy 4.0 is the programme ‘One Laptop Per Child’ created by Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the MIT Media Laboratory. Since the programme began, laptops have been completely overtaken by the rise of tablets and smartphones.

This presents any contemporary Marshall Plan with a big dilemma. On top of requiring a higher level of international cooperation within a global context, in which the world’s major powers are being particularly “individualistic,” there’s the risk of betting on certain technologies incapable of closing the gap between knowledge-based economies and those that are still going through the first stages of industrial development.

Akio Morita, the famous founder of Sony, once explained that Japan’s success was the result of “hard work and deep waters”. He was referring to Japan’s harbours, which favoured exports. The world clearly needs a Marshall Plan for technology, even if it means having to deal with the exponential rhythm — and risk — of innovation. There’s no way out of it. In Economy 4.0, development will be the result of “hard work and deep knowledge”.

We should understand this Marshall Plan for technology not as a specific programme that is designed, approved and implemented through a decision from the UN General Assembly, but part of a renewed call for international cooperation. Because in the end, if we fail to bridge the digital gap, all countries will suffer.

— Worldcrunch, 2017/New York Times News Service

Marcos Troyjo is an economist and writer. He serves as the co-director of the BRICLab at Columbia University.

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