Free access to knowledge is fundamentally transformative: Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz, futurist and senior vice president of strategic planning at Salesforce, talks about his views on disruptive technology, governments of the future, oil price and standard commodity behavior (Photo: Courtesy of World Government Summit 2016)

In this exclusive interview with Al-Arabiya English, Peter Schwartz, futurist and senior vice president of strategic planning at Salesforce, talks about his views on disruptive technology, governments of the future, oil price and standard commodity behavior. The interview was conducted on the sidelines of the World Government Summit 2016, being held in Dubai from 8-10 Feb. 2016. Here are the excerpts:

Question: What brings you to an event like the World Government Summit? Is it exchanging and networking with people in the government and industries?

Schwartz: Well I’ve been involved for many, many years with many governments around the world, including the government of Dubai, on trying and helping them to think about the future. Where the future is really dependent on good public policy, whether it’s about infrastructure or education or national security, and I’ve had the privilege of being involved with many governments including this one and Singapore over the years. So for me it’s an opportunity to learn more and to contribute based on my experience.

Question: As a futurist and innovator and someone who’s watched the industry closely, what’s your take on disruptive technologies?

Schwartz: Well, we’re in a period of dramatic and disruptive change. Our company, SalesForce, was one of the disrupters; we invented cloud computing that’s transforming computing. But when you look around the world, whether its 3D manufacturing, new kinds of robotics, and the new crisper gene technology and so on, we are in a period where technology is going to transform human existence for the next 20- 30 years. I am surprised, for example, how rapidly the idea of the automated vehicle is taking over; the end of the personal auto-car you can see coming in front of us, so we’re in a period of really dramatic technological transformation.

Question: But is balance lacking when it comes to the spread of technology and access to technology?

Schwartz: At the moment, there certainly is. I mean, technology is concentrated in terms of its development in relatively few places in the world; the United States, UK, Germany, Japan, Singapore, places like that. But what’s different now is that knowledge is accessible to any kid on the planet with a smart phone and internet connection. Wikipedia is the most important anti-poverty tool we’ve ever invented. If you’re connected; and now you can get connected to some of the remotest villages in Africa or Latin America or Asia, and what you find is that young people everywhere are now accessing through the web all the world’s knowledge. That’s fundamentally transformative.

Question: You’ve been warning governments to think and plan for the unthinkable. By its very definition unthinkable is something you don’t think about; what exactly are you referring to?

Schwartz: So what we’re thinking about when we think about the unthinkable are those big surprises that really challenge governments; financial crises, national security crises, natural disasters, major outbreaks of disease and so on. Well, one of the things we’ve now learned is that you can actually think the unthinkable. It takes a bit of rigorous analysis and a fair amount of imagination. You bring those together and you can see some of the big surprises coming. If they’re unhappy surprises, you can try to prevent them, you can be better prepared, and you can create maneuvering room for a government agency. The last place governments want to be is having no maneuvering room.

Question: As a business strategist, if you look at an industry such as oil, which is the predominant industry in this part of the world, what unthinkable can happen apart from what is happening already?

Schwartz: Well, in fact, I was head of scenario planning for Royal Gulf Shell in the 1980s and it was quite possible to see, for example, in 1982, as we did, the price crash of 1986 coming. We saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, we saw it in ’84, and it was coming in the 90s. So many of these kinds of events can be anticipated and what is so surprising about today’s oil price crash is that it’s the fourth time in my history in the industry that is has happened. It’s amazing, people forget when supply grows rapidly and demand does not, the price falls. This is not a surprise. What is surprising is that everybody’s surprised! This was fully predictable.

Question: Have you seen any difference in the approach that has been adopted this time?

Schwartz: No! It’s amazing! What I find astonishing is the ability the industry to forget. We had a price crisis about a decade ago or so and another one a decade before that. High prices trigger new supplies and kill off demand. When that happens the price collapses again, and then you have another price cycle. This is standard commodity behavior.

Question: And you don’t see that behavior changing anytime soon?

Schwartz: Well, I thought the industry would learn but they don’t seem to have learned. I mean if anyone is surprised by the current circumstances is amazing to me.

Question: What about positive surprises, things that have been imagined and anticipated?

Schwartz: Well, there are also positive surprises, we shouldn’t forget that. Improvements in health care; there was just a major breakthrough in diabetes for example. I have synthetic eyes, the eyes of a five year old. I had cataracts. I have a hip that was replaced about a year ago so I’m already part cyborg. So, we’re improving life rather dramatically through medicine. So that sense of an old age that is, in fact, not so old and decrepit as we once thought, is actually one of the big surprises that will shock people.

Question: What is your message to an event like this? What is the big idea that can end conflicts in the Middle East?

Schwartz: Well look, you’ve touched on what I think is one of the greatest crises the world faces. It’s the conflict that goes all the way from Pakistan to Nigeria, and one can only hope that leaders within the Islamic and Arab worlds can find a way to achieve some kind of peace or stability in the region. It can’t come from outside it has to come from the inside, from the leaderships of the governments in this part of the world.
 

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