Talking Innovation in Italy - Envisioning the World in 25 Years

I was invited to give a couple of talks in Italy last month … and I never refuse an invitation to Italy! The topics and audiences were very different, and I was able to participate in lively discussions with my peers from my perspective as a hydrologist and engineer and then share my insights as Georgia Tech’s provost. I have included a summary here on my second talk.

I gave keynote remarks entitled “The Future of Higher Education.” The audience was students, faculty, and administrators of the University of Perugia and other Italian universities. I spoke to them about Georgia Tech’s focus on entrepreneurship; the ideas of the Commission on Creating the Next in Education; the reinvention of the libraries in the Library Next project; the role in economic development that universities such as Georgia Tech play; the impact of public-private partnerships and Tech Square; and about technology in education, particularly online education.

It is fair to say that the audience had never discussed such a variety of topics together nor strategized about how their universities engage with a vision of this breadth and depth. But they were very interested. They were particularly curious about a problem-driven and project-driven education model and the creation of opportunities in entrepreneurship. They also showed interest in online education and a model where the campus library is the center of intellectual exchanges and pursuits with few, if any, books.

To promote the need for change, I spoke about the implications of human knowledge quintupling in the next 25 years, making our current knowledge base look primitive to the next generation. This statement generated a lot of discussion. Someone asserted that technology would change, but that fundamental knowledge would not see the advances of the past.

I disagreed, arguing that most revolutionary technologies are founded on new fundamental knowledge and that much is yet to be discovered and ascertained in our universe. The human genome, the detection of gravitational waves, and the discovery of thousands of planets are just a few examples of the new knowledge discovered in the past few decades.

I asked the audience to envision the world 25 years from now and tell me what they saw. They were reluctant to be expansive, so they asked me to answer the question myself. I told them that I see a society of driverless cars and devoid of laptops and keyboard-driven computers. I foresee a society without money the way we know it. I see stores and restaurants without clerks and retail stores reduced to little more than places to augment the “augmented reality” that will be available everywhere.

Many fatal diseases will be cured, or at the very least managed, by building on stem cell therapies and targeted delivery of “smart” drugs. There will be minimal use of fossil fuels within our energy mix. “Intelligent agents” will operate many things and interact with humans all the time. I imagine the advent of predictive medicine as well as the understanding and use of our immunological system to manage and cure diseases. Smart buildings, cities, and clothing will be seamlessly integrated to users. The human life span will approach 100 years for newborn children. The world will be very different, requiring a major rethinking of economic and social policies to fit that new reality.

As excited as I am about the wonders and advantages of that future, I am worried about society, nations, and the world keeping up with the social, educational, and economic policies that fit that new reality. Following a wonderful discussion filled with agreement and disagreement, I noted to the group that it is easy to predict when you know the chances of being around to be proven wrong are not too high!

I continue to be very encouraged about the exciting momentum building here at Georgia Tech and was proud to share that vision with our peers in Italy. 

 - Rafael L. Bras

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