Michelle Obama was one of the celebrities who attended the Elevate Technology Festival in Toronto last week.
Last week Michelle Obama attended the Elevate technology conference in Toronto, touted as the world’s fastest growing tech festival and claiming to have attracted some 30,000 attendees. Among the other celebrities attending the conference were: Martha Stewart, Akon, Sophia Amoruso and Guy Kawasaki. Toronto was a natural place for the conference since it is the fastest growing tech market in North America. It created 28,900 tech jobs in 2017, totaling more than the San Francisco Bay, Seattle and Washington, D.C. markets combined.
Obama was warmly received and made the conference special for many of the attendees with her challenge to be leaders for the future. But it was Chris Hadfield, Canada’s most famous astronaut, and Co-chair of the event, who also made a big impression on delegates by providing a historical review of human migration and a context for technological innovation. He outlined how exploration is in our human DNA and how our predecessors, first Homo Erectus, then Neanderthals, and then finally Homo Sapiens, migrated to the farthest reaches of earth’s surface commencing some 300,000 years ago and ending only a few thousand years ago. The key point Hadfield made in an interview during the conference was that it was technological innovation that drove humanity’s capacity to reach out further in the course of this historic immigration to new frontiers, and indeed to human advancement in general.
Hadfield mentioned the example of the wheel, which he told me was invented some 6000 years ago. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate how important the wheel was in terms of human mobility. In his presentation to the conference, Hadfield also cited man’s capacity to use fire as another technological breakthrough, particularly when it came to dealing with the harsh climates of the far north. He also talked about innovations related to ship building, such as the large ships Chinese explorers commanded to visit lands far away from their home. Early discoveries of far away continents enabled by new technologies in sailing, however, did not always lead to immediate exploitation of the discoveries. For example, Hadfield mentioned the experience of Giovanni Caboto, or John Cabot as he is known in Canadian history. Cabot’s discovery of the New World for England, when he landed in Newfoundland in 1497, was not followed up by more exploration until some 100 years later. So the point Hadfield was making was that advances in technology were not always smooth transitions in history. On the other hand, there are moments in the history of human progress involving technological breakthroughs that are “step changes,” that is to say, significant momentary advances in the human experience.
One such significant momentary advance in human history was the moonshot inspired by President Kennedy. Indeed, this year marks the 50th anniversary of man’s flight to the moon and Neil Armstrong’s “one step for man, a giant leap for mankind.” Hadfield reminded the conference about President Kennedy’s speech, made just eight years before that landing, challenging America to travel to the moon and adding that we do these things, “not because they are easy, but precisely because they are hard.” This idea of the hardship related to a technological innovation became the theme of the Elevate festival. Delegates were invited to share their “moonshot” ideas and to maintain their faith in their efforts.
In my interview with him, I asked Hadfield what message he wanted to get out to Forbes readers. The astronaut returned to this “step change” idea – saying that this moment is one such step change that we need to understand in relation to space flight. The technological change we need to note is the diversification of customers in space flight. The new rockets built by entrepreneurs and investors like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Basos are introducing space flights for human tourists. What is significant about the moment is that unlike governments who need to be risk averse since they serve millions of “shareholders,” private entrepreneurs can take much bigger risks since they are not so beholden. The result is that progress can take giant steps when such entrepreneurs enter the race into space. And that is what is happening.
I asked Hadfield about climate change and whether, as is maintained in some circles, we may need to evacuate the earth any time soon. The Commander dismissed this canard, saying that the earth is far bigger and more resilient than we humans think, and that we tend to overestimate what kind of footprint we can make on the planet in the course of our usual 80-or-so years here. Maybe so, but returning to his theme of historic migration, an area that merits further investigation is the impact of climate change on future human migration. The most widely cited figure appears to be 200 million climate migrants by 2050. According to one research article citing this number, while most people who may be displaced by climate change will remain in their country of nationality, a minority will need to relocate abroad.
It is hard to estimate just how big the minority of that 200 million climate refugees that will be forced to flee to other countries will be. But even if it is a very small percentage of such migrants, even say one percent, that will put an enormous burden on the absorptive capacity of most, if not all, host countries. That could become a huge challenge for the future leaders Michelle Obama was talking about and an ultimate future moonshot.