Monday, March 7, 2016

Meet the Baltimorean Alec Ross who traveled 25 times around the world in four years

Not everybody knows Alec Ross, even though he has 129, 201 followers on Facebook (Stephanie Rawlings Blake 23,679) and 367,000 on Twitter. Real life is sometimes harder. Maybe on account of snow in the forecast, only a slow trickle of locals were seeking out the small lecture room down the aisle of the Library for the Blind last week. They were passing a table optimistically loaded with tall stacks of the bright red copies of Ross's new book "The Industries of the Future", ranked as # 18 on the New York Times bestseller list.

With a smallish stature, boyish look, half blond hair, his light-grey rumpled suit and a tie that matches the book-cover, he hangs out in the back of the room. On first glance one could mistake him for a college student dressed up for a speech when he steps up to the podium.  



In spite of his incredible ascent from history major to entrepreneur, Clinton Advisor, ivy league university fellow, and now bestseller book author his manner of speaking is quiet, unassuming and unexcited. His low volume speech is not sleepily drowsy like that of former Baltimore resident and Hopkins colleague Ben Carson, instead, a low key urgency requires and gets attention.  He peels himself out from behind the podium as far as the microphone cord lets him, but one doesn't get the sense that he would go much further or pace through the aisles if the cord were any longer. He doesn't brow-beat his audience into adopting his insights.

There is a calm wisdom in his demeanor that didn't just come to him as the result of having traveled to 41 different countries around the world on behalf of the State Department. He had this manner already before he became Hillary Clinton's Senior Advisor for Innovation in 2009 when he was busy with The One Economy Corporation, a start-up developing programmatic and corporate strategies that he had co-founded in 2000, just six years after coming out of college. We sat together on the board of the 1000 Friends of Maryland where he usually waited until the fast talkers had spoken and the excitement had settled. Then he connected the dots with deliberate well reasoned suggestions which were already back then peppered with name-dropping and a wide range of of best practice examples. 

He begins his talk at the Pratt like a politician with an account of his modest upbringing in West Virginia and his later teaching at the Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore. But for him those two reference points remain coordinates throughout his talk and book.

Ross still lives in Baltimore, his wife teaches here and he is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. His education is in history and most of what he knows about technology and economics he has learned after school which makes his casually written book accessible and his interest in the fate of human existence different from the usual books about the future which in his words are "either Utopian or Dystopian". He says about himself that he is trying to see what will come optimistically but also illuminate the potential pitfalls. "I have a chip on both shoulders" he says about this balance. When he explains the possible ethical dilemma of genomics and "designer babies" and imagines a mother deliberating with a doctor how she could make her very early fetus "taller than 5'-6" and blonder" than it would be according to the genetic test, one can chuckle and see where he is coming from in this self deprecating example.
Author Alec Ross at the Pratt

For his Baltimore audience he allows a few optimistic references to his hometown which are not in his book. Since "the last trillion dollars were made from computer code" and he thinks that the next fortune "will be made from the genetic code", he considers the home of Johns Hopkins and its proximity to the federal government and the National Institute of Health a place well positioned to become one of the "mini Silicon Valleys" associated with the genetic code revolution.

He sees potential for Baltimore leapfrogging into this new age after not participating much in the digital code revolution. Similarly he thinks Baltimore with its manufacturing past could be well positioned for the next age of manufacturing in which robots will make things or 3-D printers accelerate the shift from "manual to cognitive fabrication". He ruminates about "interesting stuff going on here" and that "Baltimore has tremendous knowledge", though he won't get very specific on either point.

For that it will take an extra interview, I think. I will provide a more extensive discussion about his book, the future-industries and their possible impact on cities in my weekly blog on Community Architect.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA