[APPLAUSE] RAY OFFENHEISER: I want to thank Dr. McComas for the kind introduction. And I want to thank Wendy Wolford and Dr. Caldicott for the opportunity to return to Cornell and actually share this experience with all of you.
And I'd like to applaud the university leadership for launching such an ambitious exercise. I personally hope that in some sense as you go through the process itself that it contributes in a meaningful way to enabling Cornell to navigate with a clear vision the challenges of the coming decades.
I use the word navigate because I believe, as I think some of our other speakers have expressed, that our nation and the world are heading into a period of unprecedented paradox and change in which universities will have a critical role to play as preserves of civility, reason, and prudence.
The decades ahead, on the one hand, offer the promise of extraordinary breakthroughs in science, technology, and medicine. Yet on the other, shocks, disruption, and volatility threaten to become the new normal. The world as we have known it is changing in ways we can scarcely comprehend, and at a pace our traditional systems of governance and management may not be able to handle.
Thomas Friedman, The New York Times journalist in his new book entitled, Thank You for Being Late, sees hyperglobalization, climate change, and the technological revolution as the major forces change shaping the 21st century. He adds a further wrinkle to this story, however-- his deeper concern is with the speed of this change.
Unlike the Industrial Revolution which unfolded over a century or more, the changes taking place today are happening much faster, more akin to Moore's law of exponential growth. 10 years ago, we were told that we would not see the use of AI in driverless vehicles until 2050 or more. Now we are told we will see them on the road by 2020.
Similarly, we were told climate change would unfold slowly. Extreme weather events now appear weekly and with ever greater force.
And finally, we were told that globalization would be a boon for democracy and poverty alleviation. Instead, it has delivered increasing inequality at the national level, hollowed out advanced economies, and undermined democratic norms and institutions. Friedman fears that the pace of change and the interconnectedness among these three principal drivers will outstrip our ability to build a social and political infrastructure needed to manage them.
In the 1800s, enlightenment social philosophers debated how societies might manage the dramatic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, while sustaining a focus on the common good. Friedman worries that with a depolarization of our contemporary politics and growing loss of social cohesion, we are at risk of missing the urgency of the current moment with serious consequences for the future of civilization and the planet.
Friedman's vision is consistent with multiple global trend analysis from the World Economic Forum, the National Intelligence Council, and major global consulting firms. It is a challenging portrait, the one that I believe major universities, if they're going to be relevant in the 21st century, must embrace and act upon with a sense of urgency and purpose. Business as usual in these times may simply not be acceptable. With this frame in mind, let us turn to the notion of grand challenges and how to frame them in ways that suit Cornell's history and its unique strengths.
First, how should we define a grand challenge? I would suggest that a grand challenge should assume a 20-year time horizon. Begin with the question, what are the most fundamental challenges to human existence.
Be high level and represent a clear call to action. Insist upon innovation and collaboration, as well as launch potentially new structures and external partnerships. And assume some level of risk.
As a stimulus for further discussion, I'd like to offer five areas for consideration. Each presumes the need for the engagement of multiple colleges and departments and specialty research units. Some areas already have established leadership here at Cornell offering the potential for a fast takeoff. And others may require some investment and a review of hiring priorities.
So some thoughts on possible frames for grand challenges. The first is what I would call taming technology for work, life, and livelihoods.
Concern is growing in many quarters that the robots are coming, and they're going to take our jobs. While it was thought that this change would unfold gradually over this century, now the prognosis is that AI and the robotics revolution is moving at warp speed.
An Oxford University study concluded that 85% of jobs lost between 1997 and 2007 in the United States was due to automation and not trade. Meanwhile, McKinsey estimates that as much as 40.7% of American jobs are at risk of being lost to automation.
Among elites, there is a growing awareness of AI's impacts on notions of work, compensation, and very specific professions. But today, there is very little policy debate and concrete action beyond plans for reskilling a workforce for jobs that cannot yet be envisioned.
Evidence today portends the hollowing out of middle class jobs, replaced by a gig economy, with fewer higher quality and well compensated jobs. Those who try to present a positive vision for this future imagine what they call a caring and curating economy, in which many high wage jobs in medicine, law, and engineering will give way to a world in which individuals will interact with AI and robots, curating information to address problems traditionally managed by groups of humans.
Medical diagnostics and surgery, engineering, and architectural design, and legal research may soon be tasks done by AI and robots. Humans will curate the interface between AI and those robots. Other jobs will involve managing task robots are less equipped to handle. Labor will be replaced by capital, and the owners of the capital will be the big winners.
The technology sector encourages us not to worry. New jobs will emerge to replace the old. The gig economy will offer unprecedented opportunities for a more leisurely and high-quality lifestyle.
Indeed, there were new paying jobs that emerged during the Industrial Revolution. And very likely there will be new roles that emerge in this century. However, if the emphasis is on achieving greater efficiency and higher productivity through capital rather than labor, we need to ask whether the creation of new jobs will keep pace with the loss of jobs and incomes, or whether we will see a massive unemployment on a global scale.
Programs are developing in some universities to prepare for the philosophical, ethical, political, social, and psychological impacts of this new human-robot interface. However, these efforts are at a very preliminary stage, with little understanding and very little political buy-in among national political leaders.
To be truly prepared for the scale of this disruption, there will need to be highly ambitious initiatives undertaken by state and local governments working closely with regional universities, think tanks, companies, and foundations to define a future that will ensure decent livelihoods for millions of Americans and billions of others around the world.
Cornell is uniquely positioned to lead in this space. The combination of its programs in computing, business, engineering, labor relations, and social sciences-- has all of the elements that will be required to build a vanguard program in this area.
The second challenge-- ushering in the post-carbon world. Put simply, climate change represents an existential threat to the survival of the human species and civilization as we know it. This was the message of an impassioned diplomat I witnessed at the UN World Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals in 2016.
The recently released report from the International Panel on Climate Change now predicts that we will reach 1.5 degrees increase in global temperatures by 2030, with dramatic implications in terms of sea level rise, displaced populations, mass migration, and increasing costs and lost lives, homes, and infrastructure.
One simple example of what this will mean is, for example, a one meter rise in sea level in Bangladesh will displace 20 million people from its coastal areas. In the world's most densely populated nation, where will those people go?
The Paris Climate Agreement requires every nation to take ambitious but realistic steps toward reducing their national carbon emissions to the lowest levels possible. This is a multi-front battle in which the United States has a major responsibility. While our current political leadership is threatened to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, there is still wide agreement within much have the private sector, state governments, and civil society of the urgency of this mandate.
Universities have a critical role to play in leading this global endeavor. Massive investments must be made on multiple fronts if we are to accelerate the transition to a post-carbon future. Cornell is fully aware and committed to this task.
My challenge to Cornell and other universities is to ask, given the magnitude of this threat, are you doing enough, both within the university and beyond. Are you optimizing your role in aggregating your resources in areas that are critical to managing this transition? Are you exploring the possibility that, for what I will call trans-disciplinary research, in which your talented researchers at Cornell partner creatively with the private sector and civil society in advancing this agenda in the public domain.
At a time when the segment of our political class is willing to compromise the future of its citizens and the planet, I think it's important to ask if universities should step outside their normal roles and exercise their voice as leaders in science in the public interest. For those of us who have been on the front of the climate fight, it will be exciting to see presidents from America's most prestigious universities coming forward together and publicly to underline the urgency for greater investment and political action on the climate and energy transition agenda.
One of the extraordinary aspects of the Paris climate summit itself was to see the private sector and civil society joining in an unconventional alliance to demand action from political leaders. And that's, in some sense, what made it happen.
Cornell has the intellectual resources to make a major contribution to advancing climate smart agriculture, nutrition, public health, conservation, energy, transport, architecture, and urban design, all critical to managing the mitigation resilience challenges posed by the climate crisis.
Third challenge-- managing the migration century. Following a bit naturally, I think, from a discussion on climate change, I'm going to posit that the 21st century will be the migration century.
In 1973, the United Nations estimated that there were 173 million refugees. In 2017, that number rose to 258 million. Over the next three decades, we will likely see the largest movement of humanity in the history of the world.
What Europe has seen over the last three years may pale when compared to the movement of people over the coming decades. Future migration will be driven by multiple push-and-pull factors, and produce multiple forms of migration-- forced versus voluntary migration, internal versus trans-border migration, rural versus urban migration, and long-term versus short-term migration.
Climate change will certainly be a major driver. Early estimates are that crop losses on the African continent owing to climate change could reach 30%. While such estimates are still inherently vague, the World Bank, for example, estimates that 148 million people will become climate refugees in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050.
Currently, 1.5 million persons move to cities every day. And by 2050, 75% of the world's 9.5 million population will be living in cities. Will these cities be livable? What will it take for us to build sustainable cities on a global scale before 2050? Are we preparing adequately for a world of mega-cities and their needs?
Much of this movement of humanity will likely be unavoidable, owing to protracted conflict, to resource scarcity, and to large youth cohorts in Africa and Asia seeking opportunity. Leaders in Europe are already grappling with where they might invest to build opportunity and perhaps stem this expected tide of immigrants.
I believe universities have an important role to play in anticipating these flows, their variability, and their likely impacts and destabilizing effects. Given how migration is being used politically, both at home and in Europe today, it will be important in the future that scholars are contributing to the creation of a fact-based public narrative that combines sensible immigration policy propositions with a positive case for immigration. Best practices approaches to policy, diplomacy, science, and investment to moderate these flows, while tempering their impacts, will also be vitally important.
Fourth challenge-- feeding nine billion by 2050. Feeding the nine billion by 2050 is the challenge put before every strategic assembly of international agriculturalists I have attended over the last five years. The challenge came into sharp focus after the global food price crisis in 2008.
That year, global commodity markets faced a perfect storm of droughts in Australia and the United States, a heat wave in Russia, an oil price spike, and a global financial crash. Global prices for basic grains rose 300%, setting off food riots in 38 capitals.
The World Food Program could not buy sufficient food on the global market to meet skyrocketing humanitarian demand. And the World Bank had to intervene, setting up its first emergency fund for food purchases.
In the aftermath, wealthy nations with food deficits started taking long-term leases on vast amounts of irrigated land in Africa as a hedge against future volatility. And with uncertainty in the global equity markets, large pension funds-- American pension funds-- made speculative land investments all across Africa as well.
A sober analysis after the fact pointed to the vulnerability of the global food system to similar shocks over the coming decades. Not surprisingly, the World Economic Forum last year declared the current global food system as unsustainable.
Evidence would seem to support this assertion. Millions of hectares of arable land are going out of production each year. Food preferences in India and China are changing rapidly. Projections to date would suggest that we are not on track to meet this looming demand.
Serious action will be required to meet production requirements, ensure production targets are driven by nutrition priorities, restore depleted soils, protect forests and habitats, change food preferences to favor more plant-based diets, move away from heavily fossil fuel-dependent agricultural systems, manage food loss and waste, and explore entirely new frontier of manufactured foods.
Cornell's unique role in the launch of the Green Revolution, that deep historic links to the major centers of global agricultural research, positions it well to play a leadership role both domestically and internationally in tackling this major challenge. Its recently celebrated contributions to advancing the system of rice intensification across Asia and Africa is exemplar of the kinds of climate smart innovation that will be required.
Fifth and final challenge is a values challenge. And that challenge is to embrace agency, voice, equity, and inclusion.
Since the earliest days of the Marshall Plan, Cornell has been a leading university in preparing professionals to work in nations across the globe. What brought many of us to this work was a vision of a more just and peaceful world. The world we confronted on leaving Cornell was often far more complex than what we had imagined-- complex politically, economically, ideologically.
While we have seen over these decades billions lifted from extreme poverty, we have also seen today economic growth skewed toward the top 1%, political space for active citizenship closing, and the path to greater political and economic security diminishing. The rising expectations of billions of poor alongside the consolidation of a global economic lead capturing political and economic systems represents a serious threat to the stability of social and political order across the globe. And social contracts that have held societies together are being undermined by rising nationalism and rampant corruption. This is a moment when the world requires bold new visions for how societies must organize themselves, provide basic protections to their populations, govern the marketplace, and distribute the benefits of economic activity to their working populations.
My concern is that today's traditional humanities and social sciences may not be suited to provide the navigational tools for these coming crises. Some, like economics, are in need of a radical paradigm refresh that liberates it from its capture by neoliberal market ideology and reconnects it with a healthy debates about the common good. Other disciplines may need to find a path beyond postmodernist and post-structuralist critiques toward a more coherent propositional vision that can provide practical policy options.
If, as many commentators would suggest, liberal democratic values and commitment to human rights are in decline, what is the path forward for America and those around the world who have shared those values? Is the authoritarian default position the only option?
Perhaps the greatest paradox of this moment is that in countries across the world, civil society has become more alive, bolder, smarter, and engage in the exercise of their citizenship in pursuit of rights and freedoms than ever before. They are deploying new tools to hold governments accountable, challenge electoral fraud, oversee budget and expenditure processes, and challenge endemic corruption.
Yet at this very moment, governments across the world are legislating the closing of that civil society space, limiting voice and frustrating agency. Freedom House reports legislation in some 100 countries that limits basic freedoms of expression.
Those of us who've spent years working on behalf of the world's marginalized populations often come to a shared conclusion. We realize that true development in the end is about the realization of rights, about agency of citizens and defining their own future, and about inclusive economic systems. While the forms and structures may vary and the ideological battles may blur the path, this is the end game.
I have found it hard to define a final grand challenge for Cornell that embraces these various concepts in a neat and tidy agenda. So I share this last reflection as a values challenge. I come to this question of how Cornell might advance global citizenship in the 21st century with a particular perspective.
To be honest, I left Cornell like many development professionals with a technocratic mindset, bringing the hubris of a Northern hemisphere perspective to my life and work in the Global South. And that's when my real education started.
Some years ago, I had the occasion to be in a meeting with the foreign minister of Brazil in his office in Brasilia. On the wall of this grand office with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view out onto the Planalto is a floor-to-ceiling map of the world carved out of Brazilian mahogany.
The unusual thing about this map is that it is upside down. The Southern hemisphere is on the top and the Northern hemisphere is on the bottom. It is clearly a powerful visual statement of how Brazilians see and want to be seen by the rest of the world.
It says very powerfully we are not inferior. We are not the underdeveloped Global South that you imagine. We have ideas and a point of view. And we should be heard and we should be respected.
Over the years, this map has become a metaphor for me of what the perspective of a global citizen should be. What would it mean for Cornell to recognize that much of the world may view it through this upside down lens? Would it force us to think differently about how we prepare our students morally and ethically as they go out into the world? Would it cause us to recognize the limits of our technocratic mindset and prepare us to be more humble listeners, tuned to the nuance of history and context?
Would it cause us to see the failure of markets, the misuse of power and institutions and excessive focus on technology at the root of why our carefully designed technocratic interventions often fail to deliver the promised benefits? Would it cause us to see the importance of active citizenship and good governance as critical elements in shaping the common good and just society? What it cause us to shift our thinking to focus on values such as equity, inclusion, voice, and accountability as the starting point for how we teach and how we design all of our research?
Imagine for a moment you are a young Cornell-trained agronomist and you meet an Aymara peasant farmer in the Altiplano of Peru who speaks three languages fluently and can tell you in great detail the particular agronomic traits-- drought, disease, and pest tolerance-- of 24 unique varieties of potatoes that he grows in his small chacra. Might there be something important you might learn from him?
Would the Cornell of today have prepared its students to have the patience and humility to stop by his field and listen to him? Would the knowledge he possesses matter to what that young agronomist may later think or do?
A few final thoughts on universities. The challenge in any such foresight exercise is for university leadership to be true to their core mission, while making strategic adjustments to meet the challenges of a new era in both teaching and research.
In my new role within a university, I find myself struggling to determine if universities are fit for purpose for a 21st century world. Are they structured to lead in responding to the major civilizational threats of the 21st century? And I want to underline civilizational.
Universities are privileged in their freedom to pose the most urgent and pressing questions. Yet do the incentives in universities today reward those who ask and seek to answer the biggest and most vexing questions? Have we become an institution of brick makers rather than architects, visionaries, and builders?
Thomas Friedman argues we need quiet time and spaces to see the big picture, to notice the critical connections between things, and to unpack the complex systems that define our lives. He offers that we may need both bold new approaches and substantial moral and political will if we are to tackle the wicked problems that bedevil our world.
We will need to use our quiet spaces to make those connections and give wise guidance to those who must survive and thrive in this ever noisier and tumultuous world. Universities are privileged to have that quiet time and that quiet space. How shall they use it?
I would hope that Cornell will see the opportunity of this moment of historic transition to position itself to shape a positive future. I look forward to seeing what might come from your exercise in becoming Cornell in a 21st century world.
And my best wishes to the leadership and faculty at Cornell as you embark on this important journey. Thank you very much.
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Ray Offenheiser, director and Keogh School Distinguished Professor of the Practice at the Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development, University of Notre Dame, and former president of Oxfam America, presented “The Way Forward” keynote at the Cornell Global Grand Challenges Symposium in November 2018. He outlined five areas that are fundamental to human existence: taming technology for the workforce, mitigating climate change, managing the migration of people, feeding 9 billion people by 2050, and values.
During the 2-day symposium, panelists and keynote speakers laid out some of the most pressing issues of our times, as well as possible paths to solutions. One of the goals of the symposium was to identify themes to be considered for Cornell’s first Global Grand Challenge initiative, a dedication to a topic through new curricular, scholarly, and engaged work across campus. In October 2019, the
Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs announced the theme of the first global grand challenge: Migrations.