Readers are undoubtedly familiar with the debates raging over American competitiveness and whether China or India or both will overtake the United States and consign us all to the dismal service sector tasks of burger-flipping, hair-cutting, and retail cashiering.
I exaggerate. But this is a not-so-subtle subtext running underneath debates over the continued decline in manufacturing jobs, as well as the persistent exhortations from the scientific and policy establishments that we need to train more scientists and engineers.
There often appears to be a disconnect, however, between the public debate and what is going on in the American economy. Such a disconnect is nothing new, but I sometimes think we only dimly grasp the shift beneath our feet.
By sheer coincidence today, I came across this chart on The Big Picture, showing a growing gap between world GDP and oil production, and this Resilience Report from Strategy+Business about "digital oil fields." One way to jointly read these is with the expectation that digital oil fields will help boost oil production. Maybe.
The more interesting tale here is the transformation of the oil industry: facing a labor crunch and spike in demand, it's responding by developing a "new breed of engineer and technician." The oil industry is becoming, or already is, an example of a "service system." Our friend Jim Spohrer over at IBM has been a leader in developing the science of service systems, management, and engineering.
This type of evolutionary transformation is occurring across the economy, as old and new technologies, new knowledge, software platforms, and continuous learning keep coming together to create ever-greater levels of integration that require new approaches (entrepreneurship), new ways of thinking, and new forms of business.
In this sense, the steady drumbeat for 'more scientists and engineers' begins to appear a bit shallow. We need them, of course, but before simply recruiting more students into the existing disciplines, maybe we should think about restructuring those disciplines. In an odd way, the age-old story of specialization, increasing returns, and greater knowledge that continues to shape the economy, may push us toward an educational system that emphasizes integrative, consilient thinking.