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Five Challenges for Florida

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Education, the less fortunate, the rich, new economic growth, rising sea levels.

Darwin, Einstein and Five Challenges for Florida By Juan Enriquez - 9/1/2008

Next year marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein. It is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. You may not see how Florida’s future is connected with either man, but let me explain why I believe Darwin offers a better example for Florida to follow than Einstein.

In their time, both men advanced theories that were radical. Today, however, the enduring image of Einstein is that of a beloved old grandfather, while Darwin remains a boogeyman for many; some schools, community leaders and politicians continuously try to banish his name and works from impressionable young minds.

Objectively, it should be the other way around; Einstein messed up our notions of the entire universe, space and time while birthing atomic energy and weapons. Darwin simply said all living things, including humanoids, gradually change. And in the process of change most do not survive if they do not evolve.

But consider the two men’s course through life. Einstein, an extraordinary radical in his youth, became more conservative in thought and deed as he aged. Nothing he achieved during his decades at Princeton comes close to matching even one of the three key articles he published while a patent clerk in 1905. Eventually, Einstein spent time at conferences railing, in the nicest possible way, against new theories and young scholars. When faced with quantum mechanics, with mounting evidence that on a subatomic level all remains uncertain, Einstein never wavered. He had a faith, a story, a narrative, and he stuck to it. He remains a beloved figure, one on a par with very few folks, folks like Gandhi, Mandela and John Paul II. But few of his advisees went on to become great rule breakers or great rule makers. Physics and the world, using the extraordinary foundation he built, moved on.

Darwin, ironically, was much more religious than Einstein. In his personal life, the Englishman was far more of a family man, a man of unwavering values and truths than Einstein. But Darwin never quit learning, questioning, evolving. A man who once thought of becoming a preacher eventually came to believe that God does play dice. And because of this he never found comfort or peace or contentment. He lived with the consequences of unflinching honesty in his observations and conclusions. As a result, instead of being universally loved and admired, Darwin often is feared and reviled.

What might this all have to do with Florida and its future? Florida can grow, Einstein-like, into a satisfied, content, comfortable old region. Or it can follow Darwin’s path, one filled with uncertainty, one that makes many uncomfortable and leaves many behind.

Most fabulously successful countries and regions eventually end up like Einstein. They bask and worship the extraordinary and radical transformations achieved in their youth. Comfort, tradition, deeply held beliefs gradually ossify even as the world gradually changes, gradually evolves. After all, there is so much already achieved, so much to protect and preserve. Homeland history, homeland security, becomes the primary raison d’etre, the primary value.

Part of Florida’s challenge stems from its spectacular success. Against all odds, a difficult, stormy, pestilent, swampy land became an extraordinary breadbasket and then morphed into a place where so many old folks found comfort. Eventually youth learned and followed; football and South Beach thrived. Other countries and cultures came to enjoy and add to the extraordinary growth and energy. Florida is the capital of so many things, of Latin American beat and businesses, of oranges, art deco, tropical cuisine, sport fishing, space launches, planned communities and tourism.

There is so much to celebrate, to preserve and to protect. So the understandable tendency is to be conservative, to stick with what has worked, to banish radical and uncomfortable ideas.

But archeology museums, as well as countless ruins of once great civilizations, provide examples of where a rejection of evolution, of where an emphasis on comfort over continuous change, leads. Various cities and regions of Europe are as beautiful and manicured as any on earth. But many of its once great universities have become mediocre, diluted examples of equality at the expense of excellence. Many former centers of innovation and growth have focused on preserving an eroding industrial and agricultural base at the expense of new businesses. Many parts of Europe have become what a friend of mine describes as a Disneyland for adults.

And while Florida does so many things well, it still has to adopt and adapt. It has to evolve. And it has to do so rapidly because over the course of the next five years we will double the amount of data generated throughout human history. This presents an extraordinary opportunity to launch new businesses, new industries, but only for those prepared and willing to embrace change. What happens to the state and to the region over the next 50 years depends on how today’s leaders deal with five challenges.

Challenge 1: Education

The first challenge, and perhaps the greatest, is education. It is not surprising that Florida occupies a national leadership position in incarceration and lags almost all in education. There is a correlation between these two facts.

Low state taxes attract many retirees, but they make it very hard to adequately fund schools. And unless Florida quickly reforms its school system, and unless it is able to attract more smart people, it is not going to remain competitive in an ever-growing number of knowledge-driven businesses and industries. The state has, justifiably, spent a great deal of money on attracting and building a series of world-class institutions like Scripps and Torrey Pines. But the main obstacle to recruitment of some of the best minds remains schools. Folks with Ph.D.s from the world’s great institutions, the kind of minds that birth whole new industries, revere education. They are not going to relocate to a place where their children end up in mediocre grammar schools or high schools.

A corollary to this challenge is the always uncomfortable debate over elitism. Florida’s education has to embrace and celebrate elitism. Contrast what has happened in Florida football and Florida test scores. In football, the state, along with places like Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, is nationally competitive. Not just in one high school or college but in a growing number of places, some with little history or tradition. Startup schools can compete with the old, established, with the rich, powerful and storied.

The secret to rapid growth and success in football turns out to be a willingness to invest, to commit, to be accountable. Hard work is not just expected but demanded. “Optional” summer workouts, two-a-day practices, giving up Saturdays and Sundays builds strength, character, excellence. Communities celebrate and support results. Not everyone gets to play. Some are even sent home. Coaches are rewarded and fired depending on outcomes. Those students who do not perform, those who do not wish to compete are free to play touch football, or free to just watch, cheer or ignore.

Contrast this with many politicians’ and many community leaders’ attitude toward public education. No matter the degree of effort, of commitment, of results, everyone gets to play. No child left behind. Nice slogan. But accurate only if graduation is a right instead of an achievement; in practice this slogan implies everyone shouldn’t just try for a high school diploma, but everyone is entitled to a diploma, regardless of commitment, work, effort, outcome.

There are two ways of looking at a high school diploma. If it is an entitlement, and if everyone gets one, then Florida could save a lot of money by printing birth certificates with a high school diploma on the backside. These diplomas would automatically vest upon one’s 18th birthday. A second option is to take the position that a diploma actually means something. The graduate worked for it, achieved an acceptable standard of reading, writing, arithmetic and was a student who contributed to his or her community. Therefore, he or she earned a diploma.

To remain competitive, Florida has to treat basic and high school education as seriously as it treats football. It has to apply similar standards; it has to have various leagues. Above all, it has to become elitist and focus on excellence. Enough money and effort are spent on special education, special needs and problem cases. Far less effort and attention are dedicated to preserve, protect, develop, reward and celebrate the best.

Florida football has nothing to fear from Chinese, Korean, Singaporean or Indian players. But unless education starts getting treated like a varsity sport, many of Florida’s businesses are going to get their lunch handed to them on the field of free trade.

Challenge 2: What to do with those left behind

While we are on nice, uncontroversial topics like elitism and accountability in schools, a second critical challenge to Florida’s future is what to do with those left behind. Not in the religious, rapture sense but in the growing divisions between who is successful and who is not. Turns out standards, measurement and outcomes matter not just in schools but across society, and the objective outcomes for an ever larger pool of Floridians are not good.

The old economy, one based on agriculture, unions, manufacturing and services, floated all boats. In the ’50s and ’60s, the incomes of those at the bottom rose in parallel to those at the top. But as knowledge began to drive wealth to those at the top, those who got to the top of the educational gauntlet became much richer while the bottom had to take a second job just to survive. For many, a medical emergency, a job loss, a divorce became an insurmountable obstacle. As the real income of many dropped to where they were in the 1970s, many understandably reacted by saying: Katie bar the door. We need fewer foreigners, less foreign trade, fewer folks with newfangled ideas. We need a more conservative approach summarized in two words: Less evolution.

Unfortunately that is not the way the world works. One area may quit evolving, teaching, learning, adapting. But the rest of the world goes on. One may wish to go back to the 1950s, when only 6% of children were born out of wedlock. But according to Northeastern University, as of 2006 a majority of the births for women under 30 are out of wedlock. The rate for black women is 80%. Statistics are telling us, regardless of your political beliefs, that killing sex-ed programs, cutting birth control and promoting abstinence isn’t helping. It’s not a good strategy.

Politically, I am more of an independent, observing curmudgeon than a partisan of any party. I think we all have to focus more on outcomes and less on rhetoric. What works is far more important than what should, in theory, work. It is far too easy to obscure the facts with partisan speeches that, Einstein-like, say this is how it should be regardless of the evidence instead of remaining a careful Darwin-like observer. We have to quit stereotyping people and places according to their political labels and focus far more on their actions and on the results of their actions.

Challenge 3: Entrenched interests

A third challenge is how to tame huge existing, successful, entrenched interests. These folks want to keep things as they were in the good old days. When Florida’s economic growth first exploded, in the ’50s and ’60s, one-third of the world economy was agriculture, one-third was manufacturing and one-third was knowledge and services. Today, agriculture is less than 5% of the wealth produced globally. Yet, despite the recent commodity boom, many agribusinesses continue to cry out for subsidies, tariffs, protection and undocumented/cheaper workers. No sugar or ethanol from Brazil is a battle cry of the inefficient and the less than productive.

Florida, as well as the U.S. as a whole, is spending a lot of money and resources maintaining the income and businesses of a series of folks who are rich and powerful but who are not generating a lot of value. This is not a good long-term development strategy. In Europe’s case, it led to half of all of the European Union funds being spent on agriculture subsidies. This is a strategy reminiscent of Detroit. Keep making uncompetitive products and use legislation to protect yourself from change. But eventually the delta between what you produce and what people want to buy gets to be so large that no amount of protection, subsidies and 0% financing or employee pricing can keep you alive.

Challenge 4: New economy

A fourth issue is how to adapt to a new economy. Again, take agriculture as an example. There is a role and future for agriculture in Florida. But it is value-added, knowledge-driven, competitive agriculture that should be emphasized and strengthened. As manufacturing plants begin to produce nutraceuticals, energy and chemicals, and new textiles, money spent on subsidies for the old should go to research and application of the new. The state should be a beacon for life science research and development. There are farmers who are growing medicine-producing, cloned goats. They each sell for a million dollars. And then there are farmers who produce wonderful goat cheese. Guess, 50 years out, which ones will be rich and which will be poor. If Florida’s traditional agriculture and manufacturing are to survive, it will depend on rapid evolution, on using technology, discoveries and patents as a means of competing.

Knowledge-driven economies grow very fast; they generate enormous wealth in rapid bursts. But they are inherently unstable and can be rapidly overwhelmed by new discoveries. Florida requires a careful nurturing and fertilizing of its emerging but still delicate clusters, of knowledge creation. There are some good life science, nanotechnology, defense and IT research centers. There are a growing number of startup companies and even a few venture capitalists. But one has to remember that the key, the indispensable asset, is the knowledge in people’s brains. And this is far from a fixed asset. Just as Florida has raided high schools nationally to attract some of the country’s best athletic talent, it has to do the same in terms of brains. And it has to keep building and investing.

Challenge 5: Global warming

Finally, the weather is becoming a critical challenge to Florida’s future. Some still believe that global warming, like evolution, is an unproven theory. Many more disagree as to exactly what combination of factors is behind the phenomenon. And there is even more disagreement as to exactly what should be done about it. But the fact is we now know that the sea level is rising, and a recent recalculation of long-term data shows us it is rising faster than we previously thought. Over the next century, this could have real consequences for Florida.

A rising sea level has similar consequences in Florida as it does in the Maldives, Venice and New Orleans. A one meter rise in sea level means a big chunk of south Florida goes underwater. Not a good outcome unless you really want to get rid of a lot of excess condo inventory.

Unlike most evolution, it is possible that a change in sea level could occur very rapidly. There are two main reasons for this. Each meter of polar ice lost has real consequences because ice is really good at reflecting sunlight. (That is why it is easy to go snow blind without sunglasses). About 90% of the sun’s energy on an ice pack is reflected back. Seawater is the opposite. It absorbs most of the sun’s energy and rays. That is why you can see the pretty fish and sandy bottom 40 feet down off the Keys. So losing a meter of ice implies a much faster warming of that patch of ocean and consequently an ever more rapid melting of the surrounding ice.

The second factor that could lead to a rapid discontinuity in sea level and storms is the volume of ice involved. Antarctica’s ice pack is so thick that one could take Europe’s highest mountain and bury it under parts of Antarctica. Not even the tip of Mont Blanc would emerge. Because the Antarctic has no rivers, as parts of the Antarctic melt, the water often runs down, creating a Swiss cheese effect. It is possible that large chunks of ice, say pieces the size of a small state, could become unstable.

While the causes and outcomes of climate change remain uncertain, Florida has more to lose than most. Over the course of the next 50 years, Florida should take a far harder line on coastal building, seaside critical infrastructure and subsidized coastal insurance. It should also become a center of excellence in the development of nuclear, wind, solar, biological and other alternative sources of energy. In the best-case scenario, global warming turns out to be a discredited theory. But this is a risky bet for a state where many could end up scuba diving to their homes if we do not begin to address the issue right now. It would be intelligent, and profitable, for Florida to challenge California as a leader in environmental legislation and business.

As Darwin argued, it is not the big and powerful that will eventually survive. It is those best able to adapt and adopt. It is those who continue to question, experiment and learn. Regions, even entire countries, can become irrelevant and even disappear because they refuse to adapt and change. Florida has shown a singular capacity to reinvent itself time and again. It has to continue to do so. Evidence has to trump dogma for Florida to remain at the forefront.

Juan Enriquez is Managing Director at Excel Medical Ventures, a life sciences and healthcare venture capital fund. He was the founding director of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project and author of the global best seller “As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth.”
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Five Challenges for Florida Education, the less fortunate, the rich, new economic growth, rising sea levels.