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Adapting to Disruption: Fortune Magazine’s Geoff Colvin Assesses Michigan’s Leadership in the Technology Race

By Paul Vachon

Page 38-39

Geoff Colvin writes and speaks on matters related to the economy and American competitiveness with a laser-sharp focus rivaled by few.

The Fortune magazine senior editor leverages his well-developed relationships with top influencers in business and government, providing keen observations for companies seeking a foothold in today’s competitive market. Colvin’s business prowess is laid out in his best-selling books, including “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everyone Else” and “Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will.

In a recent interview with the Detroiter, Colvin said he maintains an optimistic view of Michigan’s economic future, especially its cornerstone industry. He sees the automotive industry crisis of 2008 and the industry’s subsequent restructuring as foundational to much of the progress that has been made. While he does believe other options beyond bankruptcy for both General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler (FCA US LLC) could have been pursued, he is quick to point out that “bankruptcy doesn’t mean death.”

“All of the three major U.S. airlines have been through bankruptcy — some of them more than once and today they’re thriving,” he said.

Still, Colvin said the automotive industry is so economically vital to America that some government intervention was inevitable.

Colvin also said he believes the northern Rust Belt states and their manufacturing bases can survive and even thrive, but must be willing to adapt to a fundamental new reality, one which most likely will not include added employment.

“Policymakers know this, but many others don’t, and the real challenge is accepting this reality and moving on,” Colvin said. “In June of 1979, the U.S. employed 19.5 million manufacturing workers, an all-time high. Last June, the number was 12.2 million. Yet that far smaller group of workers made 78 percent more stuff in constant dollars. The trend isn’t going to reverse: more stuff, fewer workers.”

“Manufacturing towns can revive spectacularly — just look at Pittsburgh. The revival must be based on information, services and technology. Much of those things can be sold to manufacturers,” Colvin added.

But the transition can be a rocky one. Will all this transformation be so jarring as to cause another major economic downturn? Colvin says no.

“There’s no reason to think technological disruption will cause any kind of economic downturn,” he said. “Just the opposite: The lesson of history is that disruption hurts some industries — makers of slide rules and photographic film, for example — but bene­fits the overall economy. In fact, it’s the greatest driver of economic growth. The lesson for disrupted industries — a very dif­ficult lesson — is to adapt before it’s too late.”

It is this coming synergy of manufacturing driven by technological innovation and ef­ficiencies that presents the automotive industry with perhaps its greatest opportunity. While self-driving vehicles are an inevitable reality, Colvin sees this as a culmination of earlier research and as a component of a greater technological revolution — one in which Michigan can play a leading role.

“Most of us use GPS guidance when driving an unfamiliar route and take it for granted, yet it relies on astounding achievements in computing power, algorithms, connectivity, speech recognition, synthetic speech and more,” he said. “In the same way, autonomous driving is happening in small steps. Elements of it are around us already, and we scarcely notice. The Internet of Things (IoT) is here now. Jet engines, for example, report data to far away computers every time they land. The only way to appreciate such technology trends is periodically to think back on what your life was like 10 years ago.”

But Colvin is acutely aware of big data’s limitations. In his 2015 book, “Humans are Underrated,” he argues that even the cutting-edge technology of the foreseeable future will be incapable of performing the most quintessential human tasks.

“As long as humans are in charge of the world and truly indistinguishable humanoid robots don’t exist — which means for quite a long time, I believe — then skills of deep human interaction will be increasingly valuable in the economy,” he said. “It’s happening already. Major employers say what they need most now are people who can communicate effectively, collaborate creatively and lead culturally diverse teams.”

Developing these skills will involve educational curricula that might seem counterintuitive in today’s technology driven world. Skills of thoughtful creativity, effective communication and cultural awareness are typical of those gained through a liberal arts program.

Paul Vachon is a metro Detroit freelance writer.