The Second Renaissance, Part 2

Now that the US election season is behind us, I wanted to continue my thoughts on the Second Renaissance.

The idea of a perfect society built on technology is not new. It’s an idea that goes back thousands of years.  One of the first accounts, as a symbol, was the Garden of the Hesperides, a land in the far corner of the West that contained golden apples that conveyed knowledge and powers of the gods.  This symbol helped drive the First Renaissance forward, with the three goddesses that guarded the Garden becoming synonymous with the Renaissance’s “Golden Age.”  It was with this idea when experiencing the first of the agricultural bounty of the New World, that the Italians christened the tomato as a “pomodoro” or apple (pomo) of gold (d’oro).   The main point was that until the Renaissance, people assumed that the Golden Age was somewhere in “the great beyond.”  In the Renaissance, they took the Garden’s fruits and created such a land in their present.  The humble pizza actually became a symbol of that Golden Age benefitting all, with exceptional chefs being knighted.

The Golden Age will come from Technology

For those of you who do not believe that the tomato or other agricultural goods brought to the East from the West were technology, I highly suggest that you read Jack Weatherford’s masterful Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. In his work, Weatherford articulates that the agricultural goods that ushered in the modern age were products of hundreds, if not thousands of years, of sophisticated cultivation, something we call “biotechnology” today.  The author correctly points out that the New World’s biological bounty significantly outweighed the benefits that came from any physical gold mined from the New World, conveying improvements in human welfare through improved medicines and diets. This, of course, includes things such as Quinine “discovered” by Jesuit priests in its use among the indigenous Quechua people, but it also includes things such as cocoa, whose formal name Theobroma cocoa, literally means “food of the gods.”

So, what technology will help usher in our new Golden Age, the Second Renaissance?  I’ve already identified those technologies earlier in this blog, the DARQ Technologies, but what industry will serve as the cultivating garden from which the fruit will go out to the rest of the world?  Biotechnology will, of course, play a part, but it was evident to me when I spoke to Lee Hood at his offices in Seattle that finance is a generation ahead of medicine and biotechnology.  Thus, logically the cultivating garden will be the financial industry.  The main problem in finance lies in bringing technologies cultivated in elite hedge funds’ secret gardens to the broader world.  This is incidentally not a new problem, as it was also encountered during the first Renaissance with valuable financial technologies.

Where will the Cultivating Gardens be located?

There has been a lot of speculation about where geographically this cultivating garden that brings these secret technologies to the broader world will be.  Some have argued that it will be China, Canada, or Texas.  Some have even argued that the question is no longer relevant because the Internet makes it possible for technology to come from anywhere now.  While this cultivating garden’s location has not been revealed yet, I argue that it won’t come from the established centers of commerce, but from disruptive corners of the world.  For my money, I think one of the greatest cultivating gardens will be here in the Mountain West. 

While Jon Huntsman, Jr. did not win his bid to become governor of Utah again, in his recent election platform, he said that Utah would become a future technology hub and that, if proper support were gained, the entire economy would double in the next decade from the technology industry.  In an amazingly prescient manner, Huntsman focused his discussion on biotechnology, defense technology, and financial technology.   For those of you who think identifying Utah as a key future financial technology hub is madness, let me take a short stroll down memory lane, describing technologies developed at Utah universities that are now common worldwide.

Utah’s Universities

It is well known that the University of Utah was home to one of the first four nodes of what became known to the world as the Internet.  What is less well known is that simulation technology was first commercialized on the edge of campus by two professors (Evans & Sutherland), and that company and its professor/founders taught fathers of some of the greatest commercialization efforts of technology of our times.  These companies led by former Evans & Sutherland students defined industries including video games (Nolan BushnellAtari), word processors (Alan AshtonWordPerfect), desktop publishing (John WarnockAdobe), web browsers (James ClarkeNetscape), and animation (Ed CatmullPixar).  Additionally, suppose technology from Utah had not been effectively transferred to Xerox’s PARC.  In that case, it’s unlikely that we’d ever had seen the GUI-based systems that Apple and Microsoft gave us (Alan Kay).  I’m excited about the University of Utah’s past and its future under its current leadership, including Provost Dan Reid.

As important as the University of Utah has been, there have been several amazing commercialization efforts of “academic technology” that have come from BYU.   Two of the most successful BYU efforts include BYU Professors Alan Ashton and Scott Smith.  In the first case, Ashton’s music program developed at the University of Utah was adapted to word processing by his student Bruce Bastion.  Ashton and Bastion were an amazing duo in their day, just as BYU Professor Scott Smith and his son Ryan Smith are more recently with their company Qualtrics, Ryan having adapted an academic program his father developed to a commercialized product.  In both cases, while the professor built the technological foundations, the commercialization partner put it all on the line, dedicating himself to bringing that technology to the world.  Considering how BYU professors cultivated technologies on campus that have been so vital to the development of open source technologies such as the foundational libraries of Python and the Open Source Economics Laboratory, I expect to see more great things from BYU in the future.

Utah as a Blue-Red “Win-Win Model”

When I was a student at Brigham Young University, one of my mentors, Lee Radebaugh, was instrumental in founding the joint Brigham Young University-University of Utah Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER).  Lee believed that Utah could be a technology center for the world.  Pursuing this vision, Lee worked tirelessly, eventually receiving a multi-year federal grant to establish an institute. Understanding that only a united plan could deliver the future he saw, Lee used his grant money to develop the state’s two greatest educational institutions’ joint effort.  This was a bold approach when business leaders in the state were defined by being “BYU Blue” or “Utah Red.” Sadly, it was that vision that drove the development of a joint CIBER ended when Lee retired, but the BYU CIBER never would have done what it did under Lee’s leadership without being a joint BYU-University of Utah endeavor. 

Lee built the joint “blue and red” institute because he had seen first-hand that the best of the state coming from both blue and red could not only compete, but also lead in the broader world.  He saw physical manifestations of this in the DNA of two companies founded by two former BYU professors educated at the University of Utah, specifically Alan Ashton and Stephen Covey.  Just as Ashton cultivated his technology at BYU, so did Covey, who eventually left BYU to form the Covey Institute after the breakout success of his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Like Lee, I likewise believe that our future in this state and beyond lies in bring in the best of the Utah Red and BYU Blue together—an interesting idea in the wake of a historical divide whereby people seemed to be defining themselves again by red or blue.

My hope is that in the future, we can bring our Utah versions of blue and red together and, to quote one of Covey’s seven habits,  think “Win-Win” in such a manner that it serves as a model for the rest of the country and world, providing an example of how we can compete aggressively on game day, but come together afterward to build gardens of golden technology that can become treasures of the world.