Navigating the New Renaissance


Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization and development at the University of Oxford and the founding director of the Oxford Martin School, is one of the world’s leading voices on issues of sustainable development. He has coauthored, with Chris Kutarna, a new book entitled Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance (St. Martin’s Press, 2016). The authors argue that humanity is in the midst of a revolutionary era whose potential for human progress and cultural and scientific change is as great as that of the Renaissance in Europe 500 years ago. BCG partner and managing director Massimo Portincaso recently sat down with Goldin in Oxford to explore this historical analogy and to discuss the opportunities—and the risks—of the new Renaissance for society and business.

It’s my great pleasure to be here today with Ian Goldin. Can you tell us a bit more about these opportunities and why this analogy is, in your view, so on point?

My coauthor and I believe that we are in a new Renaissance, that we live in a most remarkable time: a time which is an age of discovery; a time in which we are seeing changes in our understanding of the world, of the planet, and of each other in ways which are really quite fundamental. This happened in the original Renaissance 500 years ago, and we celebrate the discoveries of that time today. The Renaissance is regarded as the period of the most extraordinary progress, and our time is also a period of the most extraordinary progress.

One of the things we need to appreciate, however, is that when the world changes rapidly, and it is changing more rapidly and we show lots of evidence for this, you see people being left behind more quickly. The faster things move, the more quickly people get left behind. That is why inequality is growing in all countries in the world. But it’s not just that inequality is growing; it is also that people feel that change is not for them. They see some people do extraordinarily well from this change, but they don’t feel their lives have improved. That’s exactly what happened in the Renaissance. People saw the gold coming back from the New World being put on to the domes of their cathedrals. They saw people in the street in silks, they saw the spices in the markets, but their own lives had not changed. So, that feeling of relative deprivation—that change is for someone else, not for you, that it’s benefiting others—leads to anger.

In reading the book, I was really fascinated with the quotes taken from the Renaissance that sounded actual and real. You describe the era as an eruption of genius.

For me, the real driver of that explosion of genius was the printing press. It was the sudden sharing of ideas and information, and, with that, the desire to have literacy. Before then, only monks could really read and write in Latin the handwritten manuscripts in their monasteries, and the church had a monopoly of knowledge. This revolution democratized information in the same way the internet has today. But, of course, the numbers of people today are so much greater. We go from a world of only half a billion people connected in the 1980s to 5 billion people connected now. When I first went to China in 1980, only 78 people had doctoral degrees. Now there are hundreds of thousands. That’s a quantum shift in the number of incredibly gifted people around the world who are sharing ideas. If you believe in the random distribution of exceptional creativity, call it genius, there’s a lot more today—only the new Einsteins will not emerge from the streets of Vienna or New York or London; they will emerge from Mumbai and elsewhere.

It’s not just individual random genius; it’s also collective genius. When people come together as diverse teams, that’s when you really get sparks, and that’s happening across the board. It’s happening virtually—look at YouTube videos of people learning to hip-hop dance, sharing the latest moves around the world, or see what’s happening in the labs in the Oxford Martin School on new cures for cancer on a 24-hour research cycle around the world. It’s that collective endeavor which is totally unlike anything that’s ever happened before.

If I add to that a cognitive layer of artificial intelligence, this should give us the possibility to really reach the unreachable. What is that? A possibility? A risk? Both?

Both, because the speed of innovation, the speed of collective endeavor, is not only human brains now, it’s going to be artificial intelligence augmenting that. The interaction of human and artificial is what’s really creative and interesting. It will accelerate, but, yes, it comes with risk. It comes with much greater risk. We can solve cancer, we can solve many of the terrible things that have afflicted humanity, but if this is associated with growing inequality and with growing new systemic risks, it could kill us all.

Systemic risk is when systems connect and become interdependent. Not only good things travel between them, but really bad stuff travels as well. Nodes and networks become very important. Complexity grows, and therefore attribution and cause and effect are less and less easy to discern. These very complex integrated systems lead to cascading risk or a contagion of systems. That’s the systemic risk that I talk about, and the age of discovery leads to it. It’s intended and unintended. Good examples of unintended consequences are climate change, the exhaustion of fisheries, and antibiotic resistance, just as the unintended consequence of the voyages of discovery 500 years ago was the death of most Native Americans from new diseases which they hadn’t encountered before. But there are also the intended systemic changes which are very scary, like people finding new ways to destroy systems.

In the book you speak a lot about how this modern world is becoming more and more complex. And the technologist Danny Hillis at MIT speaks about “the age of entanglement” after the age of enlightenment. How can we leverage these stages for the better of society?

Connectivity implies a choice. It implies, “If I don’t want to do what you want to do, I’ll just disconnect.” But we have no choice. The forces that affect me, my country, will come from somewhere else, and no wall I put up is going to stop those forces. It’s not going to stop the pandemics, it’s not going to stop the cyberattacks, it’s not going to stop technological change. So, we need to manage them collectively, and I do believe that it’s a source of possible benefit that we realize and recognize interdependency. I believe this will lead to a change in the way we think when we realize our interdependency, but we need to accelerate it because it’s happening too slowly. What seems to be the political and social reaction is the opposite: “Let me try and disconnect, let me build walls.” It’s not sustainable, it’s not going to solve the problems. If you disconnect, you become less—not more—able to manage your problems. Cooperative behavior is absolutely needed to manage these common issues and, certainly, systemic risk, but it might take some time to get there.

In your book, you speak about virtue. What is the virtue, what are the ethics that we need to drive society and business in this new world?

One of the things we learned from the Renaissance is that ethics became a fundamental part of the challenge, and angry people used ethics as the basis of their challenge for authority. Now, I believe that in our time we’re going to have to have a much more virtuous society. We are going to have to recognize like never before that my actions affect you, that the actions of our firms, of our consumers, of society affect the planet. This recognition of interdependency leads, I believe, to a need for a new understanding of ethics and the ethical basis.

Of course, we also have much more transparency. There’s no hiding anymore. We can’t claim innocence. One of the amazing things that’s happened in this new revolution in technology this last 20 years or so is the advances. We never knew what was happening with climate change, we never knew what was happening with antibiotic resistance, we never knew what was happening with the oceans, we never knew many, many things. So, our innocence is lost. We know now what our impact is. With that loss of innocence, if you say you are an intelligent person, an informed person, you can’t say “I don’t know.” Brands, identities, us as individuals, firms, we need to worry a lot about the integrity of what we’re saying, because there’ll be no hiding place. And that’s a good thing.