Fletcher Features

Fletcher Experts Discuss Key Global Challenges at Boston’s HUBweek Festival

“Do you trust the digital economy?” Bhaskar Chakravorti, Senior Associate Dean of International Business & Finance at The Fletcher School, asked a packed crowd at Boston’s HUBweek at an interactive presentation last week. “This talk is posed as a question, but my purpose is not to give you an answer; rather to give you the opportunity to reflect on possible answers from all of your perspectives,” he continued. Chakravorti’s talk was one of four events led by Fletcher School experts at this year’s HUBweek, a weeklong festival that brings together the most creative and inventive minds making an impact in art, science and technology.

As it turns out, only a small fraction of Chakravorti’s audience trusts our digital economy. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority acknowledged they lead most of their lives deeply entrenched in it. “The digital economy is a force that most of us participate in, but don’t fully understand,” Chakravorti revealed.

You need only look at smart phones, self-driving cars, and stores without cashiers to see that our digital economy is evolving at a rapid pace. As technology changes, Chakravorti said it’s important for consumers to recognize that there are good uses of all the data that technology produces, and potentially dangerous uses as well. “Is the digital economy helping us or potentially taking our jobs away?” Chakravorti pondered.

Chakravorti discussed Fletcher’s research initiative, Digital Planet, which measures where a country is in its transition from a physical to digital economy and the momentum at which they’re moving. “We wanted to create a simple measure that would try to capture a complicated reality,” he said, explaining why The Fletcher School created Digital Planet.

By studying data, Chakravorti said we can discover ways to use technology for good and gain insight into the way people view technology around the world. As technology improves, more people begin to view it in a dissatisfied manner since they start to expect more. As our digital economy becomes increasingly advanced and vulnerable to attack, Chakravorti predicted that citizens around the world will become more intolerant and frustrated with slow or outdated technology. “As we continue to build our digital house, we’re building this Jenga tower that is a larger edifice with more doors and windows for people to break into,” he said.

Chakravorti ended his presentation as he started it: with a question. “The digital economy will continue to embrace us, but will it be a bright or worrisome future?” Despite all the uncertainty that rapid changes in technology brings, the good that technology can do makes Chakravorti hopeful: “Overall, there’s room for optimism.”

As our digital economy rapidly evolves, our global approach to security should, too; Dean James Stavridis discussed the state of security in the 21st century during his packed presentation.

With an abundance of threats facing our global security efforts, our goal of creating a viable and sustainable security plan for the 21st century has never been more relevant. However, before we jump into any haphazardly formed plans, we must evaluate what worked and didn’t in the last century, Stavridis explained.  Setting the tone for his presentation, Stavridis posited that “20th century security failed because we tried to build walls.”

He went on to share some of the most threatening challenges to global security, citing the Islamic State, Iran, North Korea, the opioid epidemic and nature. Despite all these forces threatening us, however, Stavridis is most worried about our vulnerability in cyberspace. “Cyber, like other security challenges, is best addressed as a team sport,” he said.

So, what can we do to address the biggest security problems of our day? “The number one thing we can do to create security is to listen better,” Stavridis said. We can also put an emphasis on education and reading, he went on: “books have a way of helping you create real empathy and that’s a big aspect of creating security.”

Reading and listening are clear examples of soft power and Stavridis believes combining hard and soft power is imperative to winning the war on security, reiterating that military force alone will not help us achieve our goals. “There are times when you need hard power, but the long game is on the soft power side,” he argued.

Despite our flaws, the United States is well-equipped to play a major role in the future of global security efforts. “As a hand of cards, the United States has a great deal to offer globally,” Stavridis explained. “We still have enormous political capital.”

In the end, the only way we’ll create a sustainable global security effort is to work together. “No one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together,” he said. “We can best create security by building bridges in this challenging but vital global world.”

Another undeniable global issue we’re all facing is climate change. Former Undersecretary of Energy for Massachusetts and Fletcher expert, Professor of Practice Barbara Kates-Garnick lent her voice to an environmental panel alongside Greentown Labs’ Dr. Emily Reichert, MIT’s Julie Newman, and Toyota’s Mark Yamauchi. The panelists discussed our rapidly evolving approach to climate change from a range of perspectives.

Boston is a key energy nexus, Kates-Garnick explained, and we need to find ways to reduce our gas emissions and use technology to make our grid more effective. “Boston is particularly well-suited to lead these efforts,” she said. “We must encourage partnership, focus on clean energy and mobility, and emphasize fast-charging battery technology to adapt our current models to our ever-growing needs.” 

The panel touched on the importance of entrepreneurship in helping to address issues of climate change, with Greentown Labs’ Dr. Emily Reichert advocating that “millennials are the key to our future in so many ways,” while MIT’s Julie Newman spoke about that university’s focus on transportation and mobility of people and goods to and from campus, now and into the future. Looking ahead to 2050, Toyota’s Yamauchi discussed his company’s “2050 Challenge” and its efforts to create a more sustainable future through their work.

Kates-Garnick closed the discussion by talking about the United States’ recent departure from The Paris Agreement, noting that although our current global climate is at risk, there’s still hope: “It’s terrible we’re leaving The Paris Agreement but the future should still be seen optimistically.”

Members of Fletcher’s Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World also feel hopeful about the future. They united for a lively panel discussion to explore news and social media’s role in combatting the effects of partisan policy debates to influence our country’s future. The panel featured Fletcher professor Michael W. Klein, Williams College professor Tara Watson, PRI’s The World reporter Jason Margolis, and Northeastern University professor David Lazer.

In an introduction, Edward R. Murrow’s grandson, Ethan Murrow, a professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts expressed his gratitude for his family’s partnership with Fletcher and Tufts University: “My grandfather would be so proud to know that the conversation associated with his name was not about the celebrity of who he was, but about culture and society, and how journalism and other fields can really support nuanced and exciting conversations about the world we live in.”

Richard Chacón, Executive Director of News Content at WBUR and Senior Fellow at The Murrow Center, moderated the conversation and explained how information sharing has changed over time. “We have moved swiftly from a time of news that informs a democracy to an era of news that we agree with,” he said. “I think this underscores the importance of organizations and of publications like EconoFact, places that we can rely on for factual, informative information and content to help us make decisions.”

“The HUBweek panel raised important issues about the role of news and facts in the democratic process, and focused on the efforts of EconoFact to provide information that is useful to journalists, policy-makers and the general public,” Klein explained. “The main point we wanted to make was that a well-informed public is vital for the operation of our democratic system.”

Edward Schumacher-Matos, Director of The Murrow Center, said conversations like these are key in today’s rapidly changing news atmosphere. “The work EconoFact does, and the conversation we’re having here now, is essential to us as news professionals and to the greater public at large because truth is what’s at stake. We must put a priority on creating news and sharing information that moves the conversation forward in an honest manner,” he said.