Imagine yourself one hundred years from now. Yes, you’re still alive, breathing through genetically engineered pig lungs, and having dinner at your favorite restaurant. A robot waiter rolls up to refill your glass of wine, which is equipped with a sensor that allows the restaurant to automatically deduct $10 from your Bitcoin account.
Your companion, who doesn’t actually speak the same language as you, is saying how much she loves her salad, which comes from a farm that uses precision agriculture techniques to boost productivity by effectively dividing fields into one-inch square plots that each receive customized fertilizer mixes based on their specific conditions. You understand her perfectly thanks to a small device in your ear that instantly translates her words and perfectly mimics her voice.
Or who knows? Maybe all this will take place only twenty years from now. And thanks to advances in genomics, your replacement lungs could come from a de-extincted bucardo goat. The future is sooner and stranger than you think!
Ross describes a world in which technologies like those described above are defining the way we live. Specifically, he identifies cloud robotics, the commercialization of genomics, digitized money, cybersecurity, and the data-ification of everything as the significant factors that will drive change over coming decades.
But Ross, who served as Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is hardly a high-tech Pollyanna. While he saw first-hand how start-up hubs in developing countries can unleash prosperity, he also understands the dislocating and potentially destructive possibilities inherent in a world that depends on computer systems to run. In the future, everything from your toaster to your pacemaker will be optimized through networked efficiencies – and also potentially hackable.
Thus, Ross is bullish on cybersecurity. In his view, it must function "as a central feature in all the products being developed and commercialized for tomorrow."
But ultimately Ross is even more bullish on openness as the core value that will determine the future success of countries, cities, and individuals.
Globalization will continue to create competition, but it will also create opportunities for those who adopt a collaborative, non-zero sum mindset. When you can communicate fluently with anyone on the planet, and transfer digital money as easily as text messages, new opportunities for economic growth emerge.
Of course, not everyone embraces the core value of openness.
Here in the U.S., as we move toward the presidential election in November, the question of America’s openness has been a consistent campaign subject.
Donald Trump wants to build a massive border wall whose proposed dimensions fluctuate wildly. Ted Cruz promises to build a wall as well, and also to "triple the number of Border Patrol agents" guarding it. Even Hillary Clinton – with whom I agree on many things, though we differ here – has noted her past votes in favor of border "barriers" during campaign events.
But a border wall is just the most physical manifestation of a closed, zero-sum mindset that could potentially undermine America’s ability to innovate and grow its economy in the 21st century.
Cruz, who says he supports free trade, won’t necessarily go that far – but he has yet to endorse the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the 12-country trade agreement President Obama has been pursuing to improve U.S. export opportunities. In this instance, he’s in rare alignment with Bernie Sanders, who opposes TPP and most other free trade agreements as well.
With his proposed bans on Muslims and his promise to build a "massive deportation force" to expel undocumented immigrants from the U.S., Trump has added an element of xenophobia to his particular vision of American isolationism.
But he’s hardly alone in championing policies and perspectives that promote a more closed America at precisely the moment America should be pursuing greater openness and connectivity.
As Alec Ross suggests, prosperity goes to societies "that don’t just double down on the past but that can adapt and direct their citizens toward industries that are growing."
Ross also notes the role openness plays in the technological advantages that the U.S. continues to enjoy. We’re still the number one destination for foreign
scientists from nearly every country in the world because they want jobs at our universities. And ultimately the research they do here impacts America’s broader culture and economy in ways that benefit us all.
Similarly, as data has evolved into the world’s most valuable global resource, a bias toward openness delivers greater economic rewards. In Ross’s estimation, restricting access to data now is strategically akin to "regulating land use during the agricultural age or regulating what factory owners could build during industrialization."
Again, Ross is careful to emphasize that states are never 100 percent open nor 100 percent closed. Openness can and should be applied judiciously, with security as well as prosperity in mind.
But it’s crucial to strike the right balance, because openness is what leads to innovation. Just look at recent history. In the 1950s through the 1970s, American citizens attempted to breakdown walls and barriers through feminism, the Civil Rights movement, the gay rights movement, and more. Various global policies liberalized international trade. All of this helped create a growing culture of openness and innovation that in turn created economic growth.
Instead of building border walls, we should be building networks and alliances that leverage the power of tightly connected global markets. Instead of trying to figure out how to "close that Internet up," we should be focusing on how to extend high-speed Internet access to all. Instead of encouraging racial animosity and religious intolerance, we should be cultivating the diversity that leads to innovation.
Closing borders, erecting trade barriers, and cracking down on free speech won’t improve America’s fortunes – it will just make America more like North Korea. In today’s rapidly shifting world, we need more openness, not less of it. That’s the real key to making America great in the 21st century.
This article was originally published here on April 19, 2016