South African Ian Goldin is the Founding Director of Oxford University’s Martin School and its Professor of Globalisation and Development. In a new book with colleague Chris Kutarna, Age of Discovery, they suggest that humanity is living in a golden age. They draw a very clear parallel with another such golden period - Europe’s Renaissance, which ran roughly between 1450 and 1550. Ian Goldin spoke

The Renaissance was the most extraordinary period in European history. Europe went from being one of the world’s most backward places in the 1450s to by far the most advanced within a 60- to 70-year period. We celebrate it 500 years later as the period that brought us Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and many others, but also because it was the period of the most rapid scientific invention.

Copernicus discovered that the earth goes around the sun, not the sun around the earth. The inventions which facilitated the voyages of discovery, the circumnavigation of the globe, the discovery of the Americas and most other parts of the world, except Australia, within that period of time. We moved from a world with basically dragons on a flat earth to a Mercator projection, a round globe.

All of this driven by perhaps the most significant of all these inventions: the printing press. We moved from a world where only a tiny fraction - maybe 1% or less of Europe - were literate, where hand-written manuscripts in Latin held by the church dominated information flows, to a world where over 250 million books and millions more political pamphlets were printed in a 50- year period. Suddenly, the cheapening of print and accessibility in people’s own languages led to information revolutions and democratisation of knowledge. This is why you had this flowering of arts and sciences in Europe.

That Renaissance ended in tears: the Bonfire of the Vanities, the burning of books, the hounding of intellectuals, the Inquisition, and religious wars - jihadists led by Savonarola throwing out the Medicis in Florence. Extremism grew, and one of the reasons the period is so interesting, the parallels so compelling, is that tumultuous change was associated not only with extraordinary creativity and beauty, but also with a very rapid rise in extremism, religious wars and with the unintended consequences from globalisation. Such as the killing of most Native Americans through diseases spread by the voyages of discovery.

What is the similarity with today?

We live in a golden age, a period which we can define as the second or the new Renaissance. Some would describe it as the fourth industrial revolution, but I think that’s too narrow because it focuses on manufacturing, on processes, on businesses. I see this as a much broader, more rapid period of change, and one with an extraordinary potential to improve the lives of all humans: increase our life expectancy and health, eliminate poverty, and all the other potentials associated with this; a period of the most rapid change that the world has ever known.

It starts in about 1990. A period of globalisation, of commerce, of ideas spanning the world and transport systems in a way that is similar to the revolutions that happened 500 years ago. But this is global, that was less so. The upside potential is that the creativity, the release of genius that I talk about in Age of Discovery is amplified in this period now because it’s global. Much more significant than it was then.

This new Renaissance is threatened by the same forces of change which led to the collapse of the previous Renaissance. When things change more rapidly, people get left behind more quickly; when things go through tumultuous change, it requires more active worrying about inclusion and the unintended consequences of our discoveries and successes. This current period of extremely rapid change is associated with the walls coming down between societies but going up within them. Inequality is rising and people are getting left behind in virtually all countries of the world. The benefits of this rapid change are being increasingly unevenly distributed, leading to many people feeling that these changes are not helping them. People in the mid-west of the US, for example, who supported Trump, have a lower life expectancy and higher rate of unemployment than their parents did 35 years ago. The same is so of certain parts of the UK. People are rejecting change and saying that the process is one that’s benefiting the big cities and the élite, that it is not benefiting them, and that’s exactly what happened in the Renaissance.

The second big consequence is that when we connect, not only good things connect, but really terrible things connect as well. With openness and integration comes interdependency and, increasingly, we need to recognise that the spill-over impact of our rational decisions can be irrational. We all want to climb the energy curve and that’s fantastic. But without us changing our models we can get dramatic negative, perhaps catastrophic, consequences from climate change. We all want to have access to antibiotics and that is a very good thing. At the same time, as the number of users of antibiotics grows and they’re increasingly fed to animals, antibiotic resistance also grows, and so all our antibiotics might become ineffective when more and more people enjoy them. We all want to have access to wonderful sushi, but this will lead to the extinction of the tuna. So the sum of individual, rational action leads to spill-overs and common failures, and that is another sign of interdependency, a sign that we need to think much more about the consequences of the way that we are developing, and worry about those being left out.

So just like during the original European Renaissance, there’s a fine balance between extraordinary genius and terrifying risk?

That is absolutely central. The subtitle of the book is Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, which is the central ambition of the book.

Whether we are going to be able to harvest the benefits of this Renaissance and have this as the best century ever for humanity, a century associated with the elimination of most of the diseases we know, the elimination of poverty and living lives which are in harmony with the planet, or whether this will be one of the most catastrophic, if not the most catastrophic, century. Some would argue it could even be humanity’s final century. That’s really the decision we face and the purpose of the book is to lay this out.

What do you mean by genius?

We simply mean exceptional talent, creativity, and we mean it in a broad sense: the incredible ability to break through barriers, through knowledge, political and other barriers. But we use it in two senses. The one is individual, exceptional creativity, ground-breaking, idea-breaking potential. And there’s just more of that because we believe there’s a random distribution of exceptional people, and we move from a world of only half a billion connected and only about one and a half billion literate people in the 1980s to a world today of five and a half billion literate people and six billion moving towards connectivity. So if you believe in a random distribution there’s just a lot more exceptional talent out there and the new Einsteins, Shakespeares, Mozarts will emerge from the streets of Soweto, Mumbai, Shanghai, and elsewhere, and will change our lives.

More significant is the concept we introduce of collective genius. That’s because we know that what really changes the world and leads to breakthroughs is not actually the individual – although there are individuals that are very significant – it’s teams, people sparking off each other, people who are able to learn very quickly and transform the way others think; diverse teams, particularly, we know lead to major innovations and breakthroughs, which is why diversity is so significant as a driver of innovation.

We know that from the evidence of Silicon Valley and from the psychological and management literature. But this is happening at warp speed in all dimensions. For example, the groups in Oxford working on new cures for cancer are working not only with diverse teams in Oxford but they’re working on a 24-hour research cycle with teams in Mumbai, San Francisco, Shanghai and many other places, with data in the cloud. The nature of their inventions and breakthroughs are very, very different to anything that could have been imagined even 20 years ago, facilitated by connectivity, levels of education, the spreading of these capabilities around the world, sparking off each other.

The same is happening in the arts and other areas. For example, you can go to YouTube and look at the exchange of YouTube videos between hip hop dancers in Mumbai and hip-hop dancers in Harlem, Soweto and elsewhere, and see how these people are learning from each other, and that their art forms and capabilities are transforming because they are part of a collective movement of innovation, which is very substantively different to anything that happened before. That’s what we call collective genius. Smart, interested people, sparking off each other, leading to innovation breakthroughs, and it’s the reason we argue in the book that today is the slowest day you will know for the rest of your life, that the pace of innovation and change is accelerating because of this ideas factory around the world being switched on to a much higher level of engagement and participation.

The important thing to remember is that as much as most of this innovation is for good, there’s also very bad innovation. ISIS, for example, and various jihadists, are an example of how exceptional talent and ability doesn’t only lead to the spreading of good ideas. It can lead to the spreading of very bad ideas. ISIS is the largest recruiter of foreign fighters since the Spanish Civil War on the basis of social media platforms.

You say that we need to 'Find our Florence', that place matters. But if, as you say, we are all so interconnected 24/7, why does place still matter?

Strangely, place matters more than ever. Although you can access information and participate from your home-office wherever, in many activities the world has become more mountainous and spiky in terms of where the action really is at, and particularly where jobs are. The history of taking jobs to people has been proved to be an extremely difficult and ineffective way of creating employment and reducing inequalities. The most dynamic places, with the most employment and innovation, are the dynamic cities: the New Yorks, the San Franciscos, the Londons, the Johannesburgs and Cape Towns, and other cities. And if you can’t get to those cities, because you can’t afford the housing, because the transport costs are too high of commuting there, because you’ve got dependants in other places, you can find yourself disconnected from where the jobs are, and increasingly your income and your physical networks fall behind.

That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing this rise in resentment in the US against the coasts and places like Chicago and Atlanta, and in the UK against London. Basically, the people that voted for Brexit in the UK were not the people from the dynamic cities like London, Bristol and a few others. They were the people who felt left behind by change and they can’t get the sort of incomes and access outside the big cities. It’s the same in the US. Only 3% of people in New York voted for Trump. The same is true in places like Boston and San Francisco. Where change is happening, people are embracing it, but where change is not happening and people are being left behind by change, and increasingly the distance between them and the frontier is growing, people are angry and resentful. And they cannot get to where the change is because they cannot afford to or they don’t want to and that is a major, major problem. It’s is why things like housing markets, transport and health systems, schooling, really matter, because they determine whether you can seize the opportunities of these times or not.

Find your Florence means get to the place that leads you to be most creative. Florence became the absolute magnet for people from across Europe who wanted to be part of the future. The city was 30-40% immigrant, as were other big cities that were changing and part of the transformation, like Amsterdam. In that process, the melting pot is the engine of innovation and change, together with the – then - dissemination through books, pamphlets and other things of the ideas and the feedback loops that people like Erasmus, for example, created in the realm of ideas. The same thing is happening now. Although we can find out about what’s happening through the Internet, still being in the right place at the right time matters more than ever.

How can we mitigate the risks associated with this new Renaissance?

There are responsibilities on all of us at different levels. There are actions that individuals, businesses, cities and governments can take. That international collective action by governments working together, with each other or with businesses and others, can take.

As individuals, we need to be much more aware of the momentous changes that are happening in the sciences and begin to form views as to what we think about these. We need to be aware of what we’re learning from science. Like the undisputable facts around climate change, around biodiversity loss, around antibiotic resistance, even around the extinction of the tuna. We need to understand that our actions shape the future of the world, and we need to get much more active. We need to ensure that our government does the right thing, and at the city level we need to create communities that are more conducive to the good science, and mitigating the risks. We need to worry much more about those being left behind.

We also need to ensure that we pay our taxes and don’t offshore tax monies in our companies or as individuals, because governments need the revenues to pay for inclusive societies. We need to stamp out corruption wherever we see it, because that is corrosive to creating inclusive societies; it means those with privilege and access can break the rules. As business, I’ve mentioned tax responsibility, but there’s a much wider set of responsibilities, ranging from water and energy use of the business to how one treats one’s citizens. And, of course, moving towards increasingly recognising the inequalities within our own firms, and overcoming them, whether they are gender inequalities or other discrimination.

Cities have a huge role to play. They are the organising actors for most of our lives, and there are many, many things on the energy front, on the water front, on the organisation of transport systems, of housing systems, etc., which are really the domain of cities.

Whatever the challenge is, the answers are different, but we all - at different levels - have responsibility, and whether this turns out to be our best century ever, or our worst, doesn’t depend on some sort of abstract force out there which we have nothing to do with. In the end it’s about how we make it happen or don’t.

That Renaissance ended in tears...

...the new Einsteins, Shakespeares, Mozarts will emerge from the streets of Soweto, Mumbai, Shanghai... is the slowest day you will know for the rest of your life...

...get to the place that leads you to be most creative...




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