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How Genomics Changes Everything

Nations, leaders, and companies that speak the language of genomics will soar; those that don’t will fail. It’s just that simple, says Juan Enriquez, a globalization guru at Harvard who fears a growing chasm between scientific haves and have-nots.

Futurist: Juan Enriquez
Affiliation: Senior research fellow and director of the Harvard Business School Life Science Project, Enriquez will speak at Fast Company’s signature event, RealTime, next month in San Diego. He is also working on a new book: Flags, Borders, Anthems, and Other Myths: The Impulse Toward Secession and the Americas.
Home Base: Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Scenario

“Size really doesn’t matter. In a knowledge economy, you don’t need a lot of resources to generate a lot of wealth. You need quality, not quantity, of ideas.”

According to Juan Enriquez, director of the Life Science Project at Harvard Business School, the preeminence of innovation over immensity explains why small countries like Israel, Singapore, and Luxembourg are pulling ahead of the United States in number of patents registered, amount of wealth created, and economic equality of citizens. As the world grows smaller and global trade increases, the size of a country’s internal market matters far less than the number of its external trading partners, he says. And in the European Union, that number is growing every day.

In this global economy, Enriquez says, the countries that export the best ideas will win, regardless of size. According to him, one measure of a nation’s intellectual capital is the number of patents generated per capita. Alongside tiny countries like Switzerland, Sweden, and the Netherlands, the United States tops the list with one patent generated for every 3,000 citizens. At the other end of the spectrum is Argentina with just one patent for every 880,000 citizens. That, Enriquez says, points to a larger and more troubling trend among Latin American and African nations.

“Most of the world doesn’t generate a lot of new knowledge,” he says. “There are very few patents coming out of Latin America that are globally productive. There are even fewer coming out of Africa. One consequence is that you are delisting companies in the stock markets. That’s a fancy way of saying you have ever fewer companies in those stock markets. If you have fewer companies, you also have fewer jobs, and less wealth.”

So What?

Argentina’s patent shortage suggests that it missed the essential transition from an agriculture economy to a manufacturing economy and then to a knowledge-based one. Like many struggling nations, Argentina counts among its top exports old-economy items like meat, wheat, corn, oilseed, and manufacturing equipment.

“Argentina created an awful lot of wealth at the beginning of the last century,” Enriquez says. “But the country remained mostly agricultural at a time when the price of commodities dropped to 20% of what it was 150 years prior. Argentina doesn’t understand that we live in an economy based on ideas and that if they keep doing what they are doing, they will die.”

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Argentina’s failure to enter the knowledge economy highlights an even bigger problem: The second-largest country in South America is not investing in its people. “Most failed states don’t realize that the most important thing they have is people,” Enriquez says. “That sounds silly, but they really don’t get it. Typically, these states say, ‘We have diamonds, or gold, or rubber, or oil.’ And they focus on how to export oil, rather than on how to educate people.”

Citizens in these failed states often do not receive adequate training in the sciences, Enriquez says. And that deficient education leaves countries like Argentina without any thought leaders who can march the country into the next economy, the next century, the next world of opportunity. It’s crucial not for every citizen to be a Nobel Prize winner, but rather for every citizen to respect and understand how important scientists are to the future.

“It doesn’t matter what Argentine interest rates are, who’s running the finance ministry, or what their basic inflation rate looks like,” Enriquez says. “Argentine people don’t have the ability to generate the wealth to back up what they say their currency is worth. And that is a transaction that a bunch of countries are getting wrong.”

What the Future Holds

In the future, says Enriquez, science education and exploration will be dominated by one theme: genomics. And most new patents and business ideas will revolve around the branch of science that studies, decodes, and modifies the human genome. Nations that understand the significance and speak the language of genomics will soar; nations that don’t will fail. The same goes for companies.

“Genomics changes material science,” Enriquez says. “It changes the biggest chemical companies in the world. It changes cosmetics companies. It changes food companies. It changes seed companies. It changes energy companies. If you are ignoring these trends, you’re not understanding where the biggest databases ever generated by mankind are being created: in genomics.”

Not only does Enriquez warn countries to wake up to genomics, but he also urges regions, companies, and individuals to embrace these scientific advancements. He believes the pregenomic and postgenomic eras will be divided by a time of hyperactive scientific experimentation and innovation — and that time is now.

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“This is the biggest language shift that mankind has ever suffered,” he says. “And we’re doing it at a time when the nation-state system is terribly fragmented.”

Within the past 50 years, the number of nations in Africa, Asia, and Europe has tripled, bolstering Enriquez’s theory that small nations can compete alongside the largest behemoths in a global economy. But that trend toward secession could take a turn for the worse if the chasm between scientifically educated and uneducated peoples continues to grow, he says. Strong, smart regions of certain countries may begin to secede with greater speed and frequency, leaving behind failed nations without any ties to the future.

“Failed states have no ability to establish a monopoly on violence, much less on education, growth, and health,” Enriquez says. “If a country can’t guarantee that its citizens will be safe on the streets, it’s very hard to establish anything else that might follow in that society, like a health-care system, an education system, or a tax structure.”

Enriquez says he saw that happen in 1991, when the Republic of Slovenia officially declared its independence from Yugoslavia. The wealthiest region of Yugoslavia, Slovenia chose to split off so that it could join the European Union. “They knew the rest of Yugoslavia had little, if any, hope of joining the EU,” Enriquez says of Slovenia’s leaders. “So they said, ‘We make most of our money. We make it off our brains. We don’t need your resources. Good-bye.”

Though a similar secession is unlikely within the United States, Enriquez warns that 50% of the country’s wealth is generated by about 2% of its territory. Those pockets of innovation create the most patents, scientific discoveries, and economic value. They also differ greatly from most other regions in the country — in ideals, priorities, and hopes for the future.

“There are four genomic regions in the United States: the republic of Torrey Pines, in San Diego; the kingdom of Cambridge, in Boston; the farm of Rockville, in Maryland; and the let’s-try-it-again mecca of Silicon Valley,” Enriquez says. “Those four regions are the largest sources of new patents in the United States. And then there are places here that still put warning labels on high-school textbooks saying that evolution is merely a theory. There are whole ethnic groups that are not science literate.

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“We’ve got very different agendas dominating different regions of this country. The United States has succeeded so far because it has been able to reconcile those agendas and welcome people to live under one government and to maintain disparate opinions.

“Does that mean the United States, unlike every other country, is immune to secession? No. It means the United States must be very conscious and careful about things like tolerance, economic success, spreading wealth, and including a variety of people in the nation’s leadership.”

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Juan Enriquez is the author of As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth (Crown Publishing, 2001), as well as of several groundbreaking scholastic articles. Learn more about his work and writings on the Web.

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