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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Can we redesign the world?

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Sam Pitroda

What led you to start thinking about redesigning the world?

About five years ago, I decided to write a book about my life lessons and the vast changes the world has seen since I was a child. I was born in 1942 in British India, and around that time, the U.S. led a group in designing the world and giving it direction after World War II. This led to the birth of familiar institutions like the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, World Trade Organization and World Health Organization. Later, NATO was formed and new kinds of national measurements like GDP and GNP were adopted.

Since then, several tipping points have profoundly changed the world: decolonization, the rise of China, the fall of the Soviet Union, the terror of 9/11, the rise of technology, increasing inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, our world order has not changed. Faced with wicked problems like poverty, inequality and environmental degradation, we have not created even one new global institution in the last 75 years. The time has come for us to agree on some basic human values and create new global institutions.

Describe how the move from a bipolar to a unipolar world has affected people.

After World War II, the world became bipolar: The U.S. and the Soviet Union shared power, but they held the exact opposite ideals. On one side was democracy, freedom and capitalism; and on the other, communist dictatorship and a state-controlled economy. The world was clearly divided between these camps, and this design worked pretty well for a long time, lifting millions out of poverty and providing growth and prosperity.

As a young boy, I watched as Mahatma Ghandi led independence in India and basically decolonized the entire world. All of a sudden, millions of people were free, and their aspirations completely changed. Eventually, the Soviet Union fell apart and disintegrated into various new countries with varying levels of aspiration — and what is happening in Ukraine at the moment is linked to that. The previously bipolar world became unipolar, and everyone wanted to believe that a U.S.-led capitalist world would drive prosperity forever. Until September 11, 2001. I believe 9/11 was a response to the unipolar world. If you think about it, all of our global conflicts have their roots in one thing: exclusion. People feel excluded for a variety of reasons, and that brings about anger and conflict. And we continue to see this today, with movements like Black Lives Matter.

You believe the old-world design is now obsolete because of one thing: hyperconnectivity. Please explain.

The old model cannot work today because hyperconnectivity has turned our planet into a global village. For the first time in history, we are all connected, and there are significant implications for humanity going forward. This isn’t just about communication; connectivity is basically democratizing information and knowledge, decentralizing execution and decision-making and demonetizing many traditional services — as we continue to see with new-to-the-world models like Uber and Airbnb. But unfortunately, most of us are still using our amazing new tools to do the same things we’ve always done.

Three characteristics of hyperconnectivity offer endless opportunities to develop new products, services and systems. The first dimension is connectivity — the ability to enable person-to-person, machine-to-person and machine-to-machine exchange of voice, text, data, files, images and videos. The second dimension is content — the ability to create documents, books, music, movies, art, entertainment, etc. Content — in multiple languages customized to meet local needs — is the key to a networked economy for education, health, business, finance, governance, trade and so much more. The third C is context — the ability to offer personalization with preferences suited to individual needs and tastes. Not only do these three dimensions offer a lifetime of opportunity for entrepreneurs and innovators, they are also empowering people from the bottom up, enabling social, political and economic transformation.

You believe COVID-19 has offered us a unique opportunity to redesign the world for the next 75 years. How so?

For the past 75 years the world has been obsessed with power and profits. But then COVID-19 and a slew of natural disasters occurred, proving that some things are far more important: people and our planet. In the process of focusing on power and profit, we have nearly destroyed our planet. We see proof that global warming is a reality every day. We’ve been discussing and debating it for the last 30 years, but we haven’t done much. At the same time, we are not focusing enough on basic human needs. We need to think about things like water, clean air, food, shelter, education and healthcare — for all. We have the capabilities to address these things, provided we make the right investments. Sadly, we currently invest $2 trillion globally each year on military hardware, even though it would only take $200 billion to eliminate hunger completely.

The time has come to ask some fundamental questions: Who are we, and what is our purpose on the planet? Is it about personal gain or public good? Is wealth more important than values and wisdom? And what kind of world do we want to leave behind for future generations?

Describe your framework for redesigning the world.

I have distilled my observations and values into a framework with five pillars: inclusion, human needs, a new economy, sustainability and non-violence. This is not about looking at the world from the point of view of liberal or conservative; capitalist or socialist; democracy or dictatorship. What I am advocating for is a radically new form of humanism that puts people and the planet at the core of all ideologies and actions while embracing science and technology.

I believe we need to create, at the UN level, new global institutions to deliver on the five pillars. This is the only way to create a new world order that works for everyone.

Tell us a bit about each of the five pillars.

The first pillar is inclusion. Every country must provide its people with dignity, respect and equality and ensure access for minorities and the poor. Inclusion is a complex issue that is closely connected to personal identity. It is related to gender, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and much more, and it entails access and opportunities related to education, health, housing, employment, safety and security. All of these concerns are interwoven with political power and a country’s prosperity.

The second pillar is human needs. Human rights are still essential, but the challenge is to expand the focus: For millions of poor, hungry, sick and homeless people, human needs matter much more than human rights. We must strive to provide basic requirements to every individual on the planet, including food, shelter, education and health. The good news is that we have the technology and capabilities required to accomplish this.

The third pillar is a new economy. We need to evolve the current model of capitalism to a regenerative, circular economy based on decentralization, localization and equitable distribution of wealth. This requires rethinking everything from manufacturing abroad to save labour costs to reformulating global supply chains. Just because your company can save five or ten per cent by having your products manufactured abroad, that doesn’t mean you should take all of your production to China or another country. When companies do this, local people lose their value and communities suffer. I am not saying globalization isn’t important, but localization is equally important, and we need a much better balance.

My fourth pillar is sustainability. Over the years, capitalism has morphed into endless demand for a continuous growth-atall-costs machine — which, no surprise, is largely responsible for the destruction of our environment. We now have to create new opportunities around conservation and sustainability. This will require a complete shift in our mindset from disposable to durable products and services.

The fifth pillar is non-violence. We need to move from the current military-industrial complex designed to wage wars that kill people to a structure that maintains peace and provides safety. Whether it’s in Ukraine, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Vietnam or Afghanistan, we cannot continue to enable violence and war. Why are we killing innocent people and destroying all that they have built? What point are we trying to make? Why can’t we make the same point without destruction? Focusing on non-violence will require us to slowly defund militaries the world over and divert investments towards security, health and human development. Think of Ukraine. What has been the ‘answer’ from the U.S. and others? Provide the Ukranians with more weapons. Nobody is even talking about non-violent solutions to resolve the conflict, because that would demand changing their mindset to a new paradigm.

Hasn’t capitalism done a lot of good in the last 75 years?

It has, but few would argue that it has also created rampant inequality. The wealthiest one per cent now earn more than 50 per cent of the people on this planet, combined. We need a new economy that is bottom-up instead of top-down and decentralized rather than centralized. One where local talent and capabilities are given more opportunities.

GDP is not the best measure of a modern economy. We need to start measuring things like GEP (gross environmental product) and GHP (gross human development product.) We should stop judging countries based on how much money they owe. So many other types of wealth reside in every country: art, culture, mining, forests, water. But today these things aren’t measured and have little value.

Can you touch on the role of innovation and technology in all of this?

Innovation is the most important principle for the future, but it is not one of my pillars because in my mind, it is not a vertical, it is horizontal. We need innovation across the board, in products, services, government, institutions, procedures, policies, programs, education, health and markets. We need it everywhere, because hyperconnectivity has changed everything from healthcare to work.

Believe it or not, there was a time when I would fly to Florida for a lunch meeting. I would take an early morning flight, fly for three and a half hours, have a one-hour lunch and head back to the airport. What a dumb thing to do. Today I say to my colleagues, ‘Go get your lunch, I’ll get mine, and we’ll do a Zoom call.’ And why do I have to go to my doctor in person for every little problem, drive half an hour just to sit in her office for another half hour waiting? What does the doctor do? She examines me; why can’t that be done on video?

Today, we produce 50 million cars each year, and they are parked 90 per cent of the time. When self-driving cars come to market in five or ten years, I won’t need to own a car anymore because I’ll be able to order whichever car I want and it will show up and take me where I want to go. I won’t need a parking space. I won’t need a driver’s license. I won’t need insurance. Can you imagine the impact of this? Tomorrow — when we only produce, say, five million cars — think about the savings in reduced materials, time and money required and the reduced impact on the environment.

Talk a bit about how hyperconnectivity will change jobs.

As big data, analytics and machine learning fine-tune processes to enhance productivity, people will be freed from routine and manual jobs to work on other things. Today, we work 40 hours per week to make a living. In the future, maybe we’ll only work for ten hours a week, and that will be sufficient to survive. Already, it is no longer about working in an office for eight hours a day, having a pension program and all that stuff. Work will soon be about assignments. You won’t have one vertical career as an electrical engineer, plumber or bank manager. We may all have to do multiple things.

How should innovation be handled in the new world order?

I recommend creating a Global Innovation Council to help innovate and implement the world’s redesign with autonomy and independence, with various working groups for each of the five pillars. I also recommend similar initiatives at the national level to empower local talent, meet local needs and design programs to suit local conditions.

As you said earlier, the people who have created our current system have no incentive to change it. What can be done about that?

We all need to think about this new paradigm at a personal level. As a manager, you can create an inclusive environment in your workplace — one that respects people of different race, religion, colour, cast and background, treating all with respect and dignity. We also need to think about a new economy in our own way. I can reduce my consumption and encourage others to do the same. And I need to be non-violent, because violence begins in our homes and spills onto our streets. So first and foremost, I have to change.

Next, I have to ask my family members and friends to change. If we believed in non-violence in Chicago, we wouldn’t lose so many bright young kids every year. But we don’t have a focus on non-violence. Instead, our response is to militarize the police, to give them body cameras and bigger guns. We have institutions to study violence, but we have no institutions that promote non-violence.

So, a lot of these things can start at a local level. But the pressure will have to come from our youth. It’s their life that is at stake. I’m pretty much done. At the age of 80, I can’t do much about any of this. All I can do is think about these things and combine my wisdom and experience to say things that might make sense to people or might not make sense. It is up to young people to take charge and demand change.

Looking ahead, are you hopeful?

I am. I may not see the outcomes we have discussed in my lifetime, but that won’t stop me from planting seeds wherever I can. We need our young people to challenge the present design, and I do see some hope in this regard. I believe COVID-19 was a wake-up call from nature to force us to rethink the path we have chosen and make course corrections that enable us to take proper care of our planet and its people. This proposed redesign has the planet and its people at the centre.

In the agricultural age, we worked hard in farms and fields to feed our families. In the Industrial Age, we worked for long hours in offices and factories to increase our comforts and improve our quality of life. In the Information Age, we have an opportunity to live life differently, with more time to enjoy with family and friends, to seek knowledge and experience human potential. We can discover ourselves, collaborate, cooperate and help take humanity to the next level. This is a call to action for each and every one of us.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Published in January, May and September, each issue features thought-provoking insights and problem-solving tools from leading global researchers and management practitioners. Subscribe Today

Satyan "Sam" Pitroda is the author of Redesign the World: A Global Call to Action (Penguin Books, 2021). A telecom engineer and entrepreneur, he holds over 100 patents and is credited with laying the foundation for India’s technology and telecom revolution in the 1980s. From 2005 to 2014, he was chairman of India’s National Knowledge Commission and Advisor to the Prime Minister.
Partha Mohanram is the John H. Watson Chair in Value Investing, Professor of Accounting and Director of the India Innovation Institute at the Rotman School of Management.